Icons, a part of the Christian faith that have been very misunderstood by many people, are a sure way to cleanse the mind and heal the soul! Certainly, there have been a number of abuses with the use of icons but this does not make icons unorthodox. Let’s take a look at reason, Scripture and tradition (history) to see that icons are extremely useful for the Christian walk!
First, icons have been used as early as the first century. When the Christians worshipped in the catacombs, while hiding from the emperor’s men, they drew icons on the walls. Recent discovery of some first century documents carved in metal aslo show that the Church heavily embraced icons. Icons were a part of early Church worship!
St. John of Damascus wrote, “We are led by perceptible Icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual” (PG 94:1261a). This is an important quote of one the early fathers, in that it gives solid reason for icons. Icons shape the mind! Icons do what words take many pages to do. Icons can be a very powerful and concise way of communicating the faith: through image. See what the Psalmist says about images, in general:
I will set no evil thing before mine eyes – Psalm 101:3
Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word. – Psalm 119:37
Evil images construct an evil mind and so it stands to reason that godly images construct a godly mind. Purifying the mind is done through many different graces of the Church and icons are certainly one of these graces. When one gazes upon icons and crucifixes one seers these images into their mind, in turn helping one combat against the evil images they encounter within society.
Allow no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids. – Proverbs 6:4
He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, He who despises the gain of oppressions, Who gestures with his hands, refusing bribes, Who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed, And shuts his eyes from seeing evil… – Isaiah 33:15
The Scriptures urge us to give discipline to our eyes so that we may be holy. Again, it stands to reason that we should put holy things before our eyes.
Regarding those that say we pray to icons: Christians do not pray to icons. There is no worshiping of the icon. Christians pray in the presence of icons. Some call this veneration. Now, there are some Third World cultures that may seem like they are worshiping icons, and if indeed they are, then they are in sin. Christians no more worship icons, than Americans, for instance, who worship the American flag. Like the flag, it is what the icon represents that is important.
Another misconception about icons is that they are gods themselves or that they actually contain God within them. The fact of the matter is that when an icon is blessed it is blessed within this sphere of time and space. All the earth is God’s and when a priest prays over a certain part of God’s matter to be set apart for veneration, God takes dominion of that matter. God’s blessing sets apart His matter for His worship. Remember when people touched the Apostle Peter’s clothing to be blessed and healed? Matter matters! God desires that the kingdom be “ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN!” Sound familiar?
Doesn’t the second commandment forbid the worship and bowing down to images? The context of the second commandment was that of pagan images – images that represented foreign gods. If the second commandment was referring to any image, then Moses would be guilty for creating the symbol of healing and many of God’s people would be guilty of even creating the temple images, which God commanded them to make in the first place.
On the Ark—Ex. 25:18
On the Curtains of the Tabernacle—Ex. 26:1
On the Veil of the Holy of Holies—Ex. 26:31
Two huge Cherubim in the Sanctuary—1st Kings 6:23
On the Walls—1st Kings 6:29
On the Doors—1st Kings 6:32
On the Furnishings—1st Kings 7:29,36
St. John Damascus says:
“Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God’s body is God by union, it is immutable. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is quickened by, a logical and reasoning soul.”