One of the things I want to understand better as we explore Orthodoxy are icons. Although I’ve read a little bit about icons, I know virtually nothing about them. And yet I sense that they will provide my family with a depth of spirituality that we’ve been lacking in our evangelical lives.I came across an article by Susan Cushman, via Father Stephen , that in my opinion, offers a wonderful introduction to icons and their spiritual beauty. The article is called, “Icons Will Save the World,” and not only contains some ideas worth exploring and thinking about, but also links to some books that seem promising.In her article, Susan Cushman quotes Henri Nouwen, who explains why he chose to meditate on icons rather than on the artistic masterpieces of Michelangelo or Rembrandt. He writes:
“I have chosen icons because they are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gates of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God.”
Personally, when I look at icons, I sense that they are doors, but doors that presently remain closed to me. But like doors that promise to open into rooms filled with light, warmth and unknown wonder, I look forward to the day when they will swing open and snatch my breath away with what lies behind them. And beyond that, to learn to see humans and the entire creation as icons of God.But some may ask, “Why are icons so important?” Simply put, icons are expressions of the Incarnation. The invisible and boundless God became visible and embodied. This is a powerful declaration. In Genesis, God spoke over his newly formed creation, “It is good.” Yet through Christ’s Incarnation, he declared even more loudly over a broken creation, “It is still good!” The Incarnation climaxed God’s mission that began in Genesis 1 and which Paul summarizes in Ephesians 1:9-10:
“With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
Heaven and earth are still meant to be fused and merged together. Human beings are this reality as we become the temple of God, his presence on earth. But it doesn’t stop with human beings. All things on heaven and earth are to be reconciled together and gathered up in Christ. And icons are one way in which this occurs. Icons of Christ, his Mother and the Saints somehow merge heaven and earth together. And as we enter into communion with God through them, we can be envisioned and energized for a life pleasing and worthy of Christ. As Susan Cushman states in her article:
“The icons are visions of what we can become if we allow God to penetrate every aspect of our lives. Those who attain this God-likeness to the fullest extent recognized by the Church are saints. Their lives, their stories, lift us up to be all that we can be — as we are transformed by God’s grace and love.”
I have much to learn in Orthodoxy. But I excitedly anticipate a liturgical life, a sacramental life, a iconographic life — and ultimately through them, an Incarnational life.And even though icons are presently a mystery to me, I resonate and long to experience the last sentence of Cushman’s article:
“No wonder the Church celebrates those wise bishops of the Seventh Ecumenical Council who proclaimed iconography to be an ordinance and tradition that is not something extra, something added to the life of the Church, but as Chryssavgis says, a necessary expression of the reality of both God and the world.”
One thought on “Intro to Icons”
What can I say? I don’t understand them either. They look like a door, you say? A very old door, indeed. While in Russia back when we picked up our boys, we had the chance to visit a Russian Orth. Ch. What we found there was so different for me that it set me back in my senses. I saw darkness in the doorway. Old women walking in with heads covered. Some going over to the candle area and some lite one or two. A very bearded priest walked in wearing heavy coverings. He did not look happy. Had someone not paid the heating bill? While we walked around the large dark room with many twists and dead ended hallways off to the sides, we realized that a service was starting. What luck! We came at the right time to see something. And something different is JUST what we saw.
The priest accepted kisses on his hand. People, now mostly older ladies, reached out their faces to kiss the cross one of the younger priest held out over them. There was some chanting. Very nice sounds to my ear. I saw the priest do some action but I do not remember what happened next. We felt we were intruding on some special service–not knowing what was happening anyway, we left the dark room. While looking up into the very high ceiling, we could see more candles, maybe years old, dripping from long ago positions giving off faint light. The singing continued. Then I remembered the icons. With deep set eyes, they dug into my heart and mind. I remember feeling out of place. A Baptist here in this church was out of his comfort zone. But one Baptist that felt that he wanted to preach to the older people in that ‘holy’ room. The light was almost out there.
Later, at Red Square, the government had built a very small church into the wall of the city. Gold and color every where plus the icons. Bright and new; they looked new but in an old sort of way. Young people were here as well. I don’t remember seeing a priest but I remember seeing the gold…was it real gold? The people, while dressed well, was in sharp contrast with the richness of the Chapel. But the icons were also on sale at the outside auction park. Lots of them. We were told not to buy one because it was unlawful to take out of Russia any historical painting like an icon.
If we did, were would we put it?
Under His Grace.