Among the strangest, yet most wonderful things I have encountered in Holy Orthodoxy are the holy icons. They are stunningly beautiful. And intellectually, I had no problem accepting their place in Orthodox worship and spirituality. However, learning to venerate the icons as an integral part of my own participation in Orthodox worship and spirituality was a significant and awkward hurdle as a former Protestant.
Interestingly, my children led the way for me. After several visits to St. Peter’s, my kids asked if they could join the parish members in venerating the icons. Since our family was exploring Orthodoxy together, how could I deny them this experience? While several of my evangelical red flags were flying high, my children seemed to have no qualms with crossing themselves, bowing before and kissing the icons. As our family journeyed through our first Lent, I made a decision. I didn’t want my evangelical reservations, which had no place in Orthodoxy anyways, to prevent me from experiencing the fullness of Lent and the approaching Holy Week. So after one of the services, and with a great amount of trepidation, I joined the other parish members in venerating the icon. It felt like everyone was watching me. In hindsight I know that was not true. Veneration of the icons is a very personal moment and each person is given their appropriate privacy.
Now, almost 18 months later, I cannot imagine worship and prayer, even life in general, without the icons. The icons are the thin veil between the dimensions of earth and heaven, points of communion with God. Each icon is an expression of the incarnation, the presence of God embedded within material and flesh. The icons depict the cloud of witnesses who have attained the fullness of Christ and are now interceding for my salvation. As I gaze upon the icons, I gaze upon reality of the risen life in Christ within those who are my fathers and mothers and my brothers and sisters in Christ, without whom my journey to salvation would be impossible.
So that’s my personal experience with the icons. The catalyst for this reflection was a wonderful explanation of icons by Fr Stephen Freeman. Again, Fr Stephen hits one out of the park. While his post is not an exhaustive explanation and may not alleviate the evangelical misgivings of idolatry, it is a great introduction if one is trying to understand the role of icons in the Orthodox life. Here’s a great quote from Fr Stephen’s post:
The veneration of the saints in the Holy Icons is a lesson to the heart of how to venerate Christ in every person (who is made “in His image” [icon]).
Frankly, knowing the hardness of my own heart, that lesson alone is worth everything.