Invite Logistics for Sunday of Orthodoxy/Icons

When there’s a special event going on, and you’re invited, it’s often helpful to know a few things, like who’s invited, where it is, when it is, what’s going on, and how do I get there. The who, what, where, when, why, how basics of any import event. And today’s special event is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Sunday on which we commemorate the restoration of the holy icons to the Church.

And if someone were to ask you, what are the icons, what would you say? One might say, well I’m not sure but we have them at church. You might point them out saying, “That’s an icon!” The inquirer might respond, “Oh, so an icon is a painting.” Well, yes, but icons are much more than paintings. Icons are images. The word ‘icon’ comes from the Greek word ‘eikona’ which means ‘image.’ But icons are not just images. They are sacred images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, one of the Saints, or even an event from salvation history. For example, today, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we have its icon on the stand in the narthex and it depicts a group of people and one of them is holding the icon of the Virgin Mary with the Christ-child. Thus, we have an icon depicted in an icon. So, what are the icons? Icons are sacred images. Who is in the icons? Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Saints and events in salvation history.

But why do we have icons? Why do we use them? Why do we adorn or churches with icons? Well, we use icons for the simple fact Jesus became a man. The Incarnation is the reason why. Jesus was not an apparition or a ghost. Jesus was a real human person, who could be seen, who could be touched, who could be handled, who spoke, who people listened to. And because Jesus, the eternal Word and Son of God, was a human person who could be seen and touched, we are not only allowed to depict Him in iconic form, the Church Fathers all the way back to the eighth century said, we must depict Jesus in icons, because they are a witness to the Incarnation. That is why we use icons.

So, we know what icons are, we know who is depicted in them and we know why we use icons. But as we look at the icons, we see them and they look like paintings but they don’t look like paintings that we see in museums or that we hang on the walls of our home. Icons are different. The question is how are they different? How are icons made? One of the first things to remember is that the making of icons is called ‘iconography’ and that word does not mean the painting of icons or images. Rather it means the ‘writing of icons/images.’ Thus, there is a story that is being told in the icon.

We may be more familiar, certainly most people in American society, with Renaissance style religious art, which is something that Michaelangelo would have done. And this style’s purpose was to make the person or persons depicted look as realistic as possible. We know that are Byzantine style icons are different from Renaissance paintings. That’s because Orthodox iconography is done in a way that limits the humanity of the person, such as Christ or one of the Saints. It does not want to go far in emphasizing their human nature. Rather, icons seek to balance humanity with divinity in the case of Christ, or with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the case of the Virgin Mary and the Saints. Christ, as we know, was both fully God and fully man. So, in iconography we depict the human person but we emphasize their spiritual nature in a stylized or abstract fashion. We don’t have time today to go into the details of this.

However, Fr. Anthony Coniaris, notes in his book “Sermons on the Major Holy Days in the Orthodox Church” that there are three ways to depict a person: 1) a photograph, 2) a portrait, and 3) the icon. First, the photograph records the features of a person exactly as they are with no changes. Second, the portrait reproduces a person’s features in a recognizable way but tries give expression his/her character. Thirdly, the icon goes even further than the portrait by showing what the person has become because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Iconography does this by eliminating or de-emphasizing everything that is irrelevant to the spiritual nature. Thus, the depiction is stylized and spiritualized, not in an unrealistic way but in supra-realistic manner.

Icons have been called many names over the centuries: prayers, hymns, sermons in form and color. There are two types of Gospels in the Orthodox Church: the verbal and the visual. Together, they appeal to the whole person, both mind and heart. St. Basil the Great said, “What the word transmits through the ear, that painting silently shows through the image, and by these two means, mutually accompanying one another…we receive knowledge of one and the same thing.” St. John of Damascus said, “If a pagan (non-believer) asks you to show him/her your faith, take that person into a church and place him/her before the icons.”

So we know where to find icons. We find them in the Church. But do we also find them in our home? It’s typical or traditional for Orthodox Christians to have an altar in their home, perhaps many altars, one for each person in the family. And on those altars we find candles, lamps, incense and other sacred items, and icons. But the icons are not there for aesthetic purposes. They are not art that you use to decorate your home. Icons are a witness to who you believe in, to who is number one in your life.

In Russia, icons were displayed prominently in the home and when guests would enter they would go first to venerate the icons before greeting their hosts. Christianity probably survived Communism because of the Faith in Christ was preserved in the home, the house Church. Do we have icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Saints prominently displayed in our homes? Or do we have posters of famous people, musicians and athletes instead?

Icons are not only placed in our homes to show who we believe in, but more importantly to remind us of God’s presence in our life. Icons also remind us to pray. This speaks to the when of iconography. Hopefully, icons remind us to pray each and every day.

Let me close today but asking a question. What is the very best icon ever written? Many of us have been to many different places and seen all sorts of icons. What is the best one you ever seen? What if we had a contest, which icon would win? Well it’s the one that God made Himself and that would be each and every human being. When God created Adam He said, “Let us make him in our image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26). During the Orthodox worship services the priest often censes the holy icons but he also censes the people because they are icons too. Each person is a living icon of Christ. Thus, each person is worthy of the same respect and veneration that we would give to Jesus. To disrespect and abuse another human is to become an iconoclast, an icon smasher, just like the iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries who destroyed the icons because they erroneously thought they were idolatrous.

And in today’s world, many are trying to change the image of God found in mankind. They are literally trying to redefine the human icon into something different than it is. But of course, there is no need to do this because God doesn’t create junk. If we are in His image and likeness, what reason is there to change or alter it? How could we possibly improve it? So, let us respect one another as icons of God and also let us respect ourselves. During this time of Lent, we try to train ourselves as best we can to resist sin. Because when we sin, we are smashing the icon of God within ourselves. To disrespect and abuse ourselves through sinful thoughts, words or actions is also to become an icon-smasher. Amen!