The Trouble with Icons

For many Protestants, the Orthodox use of icons is the second most controversial element of the Orthodox faith (coming right after our love for Jesus’ mother, Mary). This controversy is not about the images themselves, because Protestants have their own favorite painted and cinematic depictions of Christ. What they object to is the fact that we venerate icons, by bowing before them, kissing them, and lighting candles.

But we can start out by agreeing on one thing, at least: Christians have been painting pictures of Christ and the people of Scripture from very nearly the beginning.

Maybe you’ve seen some of the wall paintings from the Roman catacombs, like this “Good Shepherd” from the early 200s. [1]

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And here’s the earliest “Madonna and Child,” also early 200s, which shows Mary nursing the baby Jesus, both of them turning to look at us.  [2]

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The prophet Balaam stands beside her, pointing to the star: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel” (Numbers 24:17).

Today we can recognize a “Madonna and Child” immediately, but back then viewers wouldn’t necessarily know who these people are. The artist placed the prophet there to point out the star and remind us.

In 1963, an English farmer plowing his field discovered a room-sized mosaic of Christ. It was probably part of the floor of a Roman villa, and dates to about 270. We know this is a depiction of Christ because of the emblem behind his head, called a Chi Rho; that’s a Greek monogram for “Christ.” [3]

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It doesn’t look anything like our mental image of Jesus. These early British Christians didn’t know what Jesus looked like, but they loved him; so they depicted him as a magnificent hero, a Hercules.

We can hope that there are other paintings and mosaics that just haven’t been discovered yet. But  that were icons painted on perishable materials, like wood or canvas, would be unlikely to survive for a thousand years and more.

The most interesting site for early Christian images is the lost city of Dura-Europos. This was a garrison town in what is now Syria, on the far eastern edge of the Roman Empire. It was wildly diverse; inscriptions were found in Greek, Latin, Middle Persian, Parthian, Hebrew, Safaitic [Sah fay it ic], and Aramaic (both Palmyrene and Syriac). Dura-Europos had temples to over a dozen different gods.

It was situated at an ideal spot on the Euphrates River, so it changed hands many times. That came to an end, though, in AD 256, when Persians tunneled under the wall and captured the city. But then they walked away, leaving it abandoned.

Centuries passed. Many centuries passed. Sand covered the ruins, till the site was completely buried. But in 1920, soldiers digging a trench were surprised to come upon a wall painting. Archeologists were called in, and they uncovered a city preserved just as it was in 256. They called it the “Pompeii of the Desert.”

The most surprising of the city’s temples was a synagogue, because its walls were completely covered with paintings of Old Testament characters and scenes. [4]

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These paintings, still vividly colored, show Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Esther, the Sacrifice of Isaac, the parting of the Red Sea, and much more. One of my favorites is the portrait of Abraham, just to the upper left of the Torah shrine. The images ascend the wall in several registers, as on the walls of an Orthodox church today.

Here is Pharaoh’s daughter finding baby Moses in the river. [5]

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Notice that the story is told sequentially, like a graphic novel: we see her raising baby Moses from the river, and then see women on the riverbank taking him into their arms. Notice, too, that this story runs from right to left, like the Hebrew language.

But how can there be all these paintings, when the Ten Commandments clearly forbid the making of idols? When King Herod set the golden eagle of Rome over the Temple gate, the Jews were so outraged that they chopped it down with axes. But less than 200 years later, here we are in a synagogue completely covered with images.

Just a few doors down from the synagogue, archeologists found a Christian house-church. It had been a home and was converted into a church in 231.  This building wasn’t as well-preserved, and some of the paintings are poorly made—not nearly as good as the synagogue paintings. Yet they include the earliest depictions of Jesus yet found. [6]

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Here is the room set aside for baptisms. On the left is the font, and above it is an image of Christ, the Good Shepherd. [7]

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On the lower right, larger and more visible, are the myrrh-bearing women approaching the tomb. Or perhaps they are the five wise virgins, approaching the wedding banquet; behind them, on the adjoining wall, all that remains are five pairs of feet. [8]

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Above these charming ladies is a depiction of Christ healing the paralytic. Note that it also reads right-to-left. The image beside it shows Jesus walking on the water, and pulling Peter up as he begins to sink. [9]

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These paintings look quite primitive compared with the paintings on the synagogue walls. Maybe this small church didn’t have a good artist in the congregation, and someone sketched these in as a placeholder.

But why did Jews and Christians start using visual arts in their temples?

As they came into the wider Greco-Roman world, they encountered a culture that could enjoy the beauty of paintings without worshiping them. A painting could be an image (Greek, eikon; we are “made in the eikon of God” Genesis 1:27), without being an idol (Greek, eidolon).

The pagans had idols, of course—plenty of them. But not every image was an idol. A painting could be inspiring, instructive, entertaining, or simply beautiful, without being an object of worship.

And that’s where the trouble always starts—when people can’t differentiate between honor and worship.

We understand it when it comes to the flag. We want the flag to be handled respectfully, but we don’t think that’s worshiping the flag. It’s honor, not worship. A photo of someone you love might deserve a fancy frame and a prime place on the wall—but you’re honoring that someone, not worshiping him.

Honor and Worship—how can you tell the difference?

It’s easy. One word: Sacrifices.

If you make a sacrifice to a man-made object, you are worshiping an idol. If you bow to a Roman Senator, you’re just making the customary sign of respect; you aren’t offering him a sacrifice. If you curtsy to the queen of England, you are honoring her, not worshiping her. If the bailiff says “All rise” and you stand up, you are honoring the judge, not worshiping him.

An eikon is an icon. An eidolon is an idol. A painting of Christ could be an icon, not an idol.

Painted images gave the early Christians a wonderful new way to communicate the Scriptures. People usually encountered the Scriptures through hearing them read aloud during worship. (As St. Paul said, “Faith comes by hearing,” Romans 10:17.)

You may ask, why didn’t they read the Bible for themselves?

For one thing, illiteracy was widespread for many, many centuries.

But also, all bibles—all books—had to be lettered by hand; the first print bible didn’t appear till 1555. All that labor-intensive work made them prohibitively expensive. Think what it would cost you today, if you hired a calligrapher to make a copy of the Bible.

So these Christians encountered the Scriptures mostly through hearing it read aloud. And to help with comprehension and retention, these readings were surrounded by sermons, chants, and hymns that explained and supported the theme. (If today’s Orthodox worship is any guide, the general rule seemed to be: “Put it to music and sing it three times.”)

Well, if you’re trying to get a spoken text into the memories of your hearers, repetition and melody are good tools. But everything was still being delivered only to the ears. And sound is the most fleeting of sensory signals; as soon as a word is spoken, it is gone.

Wall paintings in the church offered a whole new way to present the people and events of the Bible. Unlike sound, images were stable and would always be there, available to believers at any time.

Now imagine that a woman goes into the church of Dura-Europos one afternoon. The service she attends on Sunday is a multi-sensory experience, supplying sound, sight, fragrance, touch, and taste. Today, when she steps inside the building, she smells the lingering incense, and all those memories resound. As her eyes adjust to the dim light, she starts to see the familiar icons.

 

The images of Jesus are scratchy and minimal, but they have become for her a visual anchor. When she hears the Gospel stories read aloud every Sunday, this is the Jesus she pictures doing those things.

She doesn’t have to come to the church to pray; she could pray anywhere, and probably does. But she has come to the church on purpose today, because looking at the picture of Jesus helps her concentrate.

As she walks toward her favorite icon, everything inside her, her whole attention, is gathering together, focusing on the Lord. She lights a nearby lamp and his face, so beloved, blooms out of the darkness—the face of her only hope, the Lord Jesus Christ.

As she looks at him, her eyes fill with tears. She begins speaking to Jesus in her heart, her thoughts overflowing spontaneously. She is worried about her little grandson, who is very sick; he may die.

As she prays, she sometimes leans forward and rests her forehead on the image. Sometimes she murmurs aloud, “Please, please, please.” Sometimes she looks Jesus right in the eye. Sometimes she looks away, overcome by sorrow. Sometimes, as she implores Jesus’ help, she kisses his hand.

At the end she humbly bows before the image, as she would to bow to a magistrate or governor. She kisses Jesus’ hand one more time before she goes.

If you want to understand what Orthodox Christians are doing in front of an icon, you really should just ask us. It’s the same thing the old woman is doing here, as she gazes at Christ’s face, imploring him aloud and silently. It’s shown in the way she bows before the image, the way she gives it a kiss. All this is a natural expression of what she is feeling, her worries and helplessness and yearning. It’s all pouring out of her spontaneously, in a natural way.

A picture of someone we love affects us like that. Spoken words can be powerful, but an image reaches us in a wholly different way.

God designed us to seek out human faces. In an experiment, scientists showed newborn babies, 18 hours old, pairs of geometric images. Then they watched to see which one the babies’ eyes turned toward. They found that if one of the options was an oval with two dots near the top—the most rudimentary form of a human face—babies would choose it. Even though they’d never seen a face before.

To change the scene, imagine a soldier in wartime, looking at a photo of his wife. He is swept with love and longing. He speaks to her in his heart. He kisses the photo. He handles it carefully and keep it safe. [10]

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You could say to him, “Why make such a big deal over a photo? It’s just a piece of paper with some ink on it.” But on this particular piece of paper, a miniscule amount of ink has been arranged to show the face he loves. For that reason, he cherishes it.

A picture of a person is not the same thing as the person. But it’s not nothing, either.

 

Over all these centuries, Orthodox Christians have been bowing and kissing not only icons, but the Cross and the Bible as well. We do this to express love, give honor, and demonstrate commitment. This is an ancient way of doing that, and Orthodox have simply never stopped doing it.

Everyone enters a pre-existing Orthodox community, and does what the community is already doing. Century follows century, and here we are, still doing the same thing.

It seems like Protestants understand this better when Orthodox are kissing bibles and crosses than when we’re kissing icons. Well, no one wants to see a cross spit on, or a bible torn up. If you have a favorite bible, you instinctively handle it with care. You don’t bow to it, because that’s no longer a customary sign of respect. If you kiss it sometimes, I’m not going to tell anybody. But even if you don’t, that particular well-worn bible surely has a very strong claim on your heart. That’s how we feel toward our favorite icons.

I should explain what “venerating” means. When Orthodox Christians come into a church, they first go up the center aisle to venerate the icons near the altar. They start with the icon of Christ, with is usually on the right. They go to Christ first, as you would go greet the host when you arrive at a party.

As they approach the icon they “make a metania” (meh-TAN-ia). A metania is a combination of making the sign of the cross and then bowing. They finish the sign of the cross by touching touch the floor (or kind of gesturing toward it, for people who are old and stiff like me).

So, approaching the icon they make a metania, then make a second metania. Then they kiss the icon. Then, beginning to turn away, they make one more metania.

That’s how you venerate an icon, though if you go to a church and watch, you’ll see some variety. Some people bow low, while others just bend their head and shoulders. People do what suits them best. Everyone likes seeing little kids learning the sign of the cross. That right hand goes flying everywhere; it’s like a liturgical version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”

After venerating the icon of Christ, most people will move over to the left and venerate the icon of his mother Mary. Some people then go all around the church, visiting other icons and venerating them too. Someone might pick one particular icon and stand praying before it for a long time.

Orthodox Christians traditionally worship standing, so in some Orthodox churches there won’t be any pews, just some seats near the walls for those who need them (including visitors who are surprised that there are no pews). The Divine Liturgy is about an hour and a half, and if you’re not used to standing up that long, sit down. It’s all right; nobody will be shocked.

With the congregation standing in the middle of the church, it’s always shifting around and changing shape like an amoeba. Toddlers sit at their parents’ feet, and display interest in other toddlers, and maybe toddle over for a visit. Someone with a fussy baby might walk around the circumference during worship, showing the baby the icons and candles.

There’s more personal freedom than you’d expect. This delighted C S Lewis, who wrote to a friend: “Some sit, some lie on their faces, some stand, some kneel, some walk about, . . . and no one takes the slightest notice of what anyone else is doing.

So we kiss icons, the Cross, the Bible—and each other.

Every year, on the first day of Lent, we have the Rite of Forgiveness; we ask and receive forgiveness one-on-one with every member of the church. We stand face-to-face in two lines, and if I’m looking at Amy, I make a metania and say, “Amy, please forgive me for any way I have sinned against you,” putting it in my own words. She would say, “I forgive you” or “I forgive and God forgives,” again, in her own words.

Then she would make a metania and ask me to forgive her, and of course I do. After that we embrace and kiss, and then each takes a step to the side and now we are facing someone new. We keep going down the line till we have asked and received forgiveness with every other member of the church.

Each time we make a metania to the other person, bowing and making the sign of the cross, and we finish by kissing them. We do the same thing we’d do with the Bible, the Cross, or an icon. And we do this because the person standing before us is an icon. She is made in the eikon, the image, of God.

When my children were small, we were evangelical Protestants and knew nothing about Orthodoxy. We would have scoffed at icons. Yet when my son was two, I bought him a picture of Jesus, a printed image laminated onto a wooden plaque—basically, an icon. Here it is. [11]

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Every night we talked about Jesus, prayed to him, and kissed the picture. Though we were evangelicals, we were kissing a picture of Jesus. And it never occurred to us that there might be anything wrong with that. We knew we weren’t worshiping the image, the paper and ink; it was Jesus we loved, and when we looked at this picture, our hearts went out to him.

We loved that picture. We took care of it, we treated it with love and honor. We put it up on the bookshelf as a reminder that Jesus himself was watching over us as we slept.

Icons are bible illustrations, like the pictures in a children’s bible. When most Christians were illiterate, icons made the Bible visible. Icons helped missionaries bring the faith to new lands, where verbal communication could be difficult. Images can communicate when a written text cannot. All you have to do is look. As is often said, icons are windows into heaven. That picture of Jesus certainly functioned as a window into heaven for my two-year-old and me.

If you find it hard to like icons because the style is too foreign and strange, there are contemporary pictures of Jesus by the score on the Internet. People buy these pictures because they love Jesus and they want to see his face. [12]

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These websites also sell plaques with bible verses written on them in flowing script, and those are popular too. But pictures address a different corner of our minds than words do, and have a different kind of communicative power.

So the early church used both, because they complement each other. As in the proverb, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Q. But the early church didn’t venerate icons. In the early centuries, Christians said “We don’t make images of the Most High God.” Then in the 7th century people started venerating icons, because there’s a big uproar about it. So it’s a direct contradiction of the beliefs of the early church.

A. Hmm. This is a bit of a bait-and-switch.

+ In the early centuries, Christians were up against people who literally worshiped man-made images.

+ In the 7th century, Christians were up against people who despised man-made images.

In the early centuries, Roman pagans killed believers because they refused to sacrifice to idols. Christians proclaimed that they did not make images of the Most High God.

In fact, the foremost defender of icons, St. John of Damascus (675-749), affirms this, saying “It is impossible to make an image of God, who is a pure spirit, invisible, boundless, having neither form nor circumscription. How can we make an image of that which is invisible?” (On the Divine Images, 2.62)

And Orthodox still don’t make images of the Most High God. We never have.

 

But in the mid to late 7th century, veneration of icons suddenly became very controversial.

Can you think of anything that happened in the early 7th century?

Right—Islam swept out of the desert, slaying Christians and conquering cities; Jerusalem itself fell in 638.

But this time it wasn’t pagans commanding believers to worship images; it was Muslims who hated images of any kind. And as Christian cities fell to Muslim invaders, some rulers of the Byzantine Empire wondered if they might be right. Maybe God was permitting these bloody defeats because icons truly were an offense to him.

In 730, Emperor Leo III ordered that all icons should be seized and destroyed. Iconoclasm (“icon-smashing”) became official public policy, and icons were crushed, burned, painted over, and covered with plaster.

During the years that icon-defenders were being rounded up and executed, a monk named Stephen was arrested. They placed an icon of Christ on the floor, and commanded Stephen to put his foot on Christ’s face; that way he could prove he thought an icon was just wood and paint, and not Christ himself.

(The iconoclasts were Christians too; they just had become convinced that any image of Jesus was an idol.)

Instead, Stephen put a coin on the floor, one that showed the face of the emperor. He laid his foot on the emperor’s face—and was immediately executed.

Even iconoclasts know there’s a connection between an image of a person and the person himself. Honor shown to the emperor’s image is honor shown to the emperor. Disrespect to the image is disrespect to the man. We know this instinctively.

Like we said: A picture of a person is not the same thing as the person. But it’s not nothing, either.

 

The restoration of icons came in 843, when Empress St. Theodora, with a host of clergy and people, carried icons through the streets of Constantinople and returned them to their proper places. Orthodox Christians still make an icon procession every year, on the first Sunday in Great Lent. You’re welcome to come and see.

The Byzantine Empire destroyed icons vigorously for over a century, so that’s why ones made before the 8th century are so rare. The ones that survived were in places far from the Empire’s reach, like Rome and Mt. Sinai.

You’ve probably seen this one, called “the Christ of Sinai,” which was painted around 550. It has been a companion in worship at the Orthodox monastery on Mt. Sinai for 1500 years. [13]

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But Byzantine iconoclasm only lasted a hundred years. The Muslim conquerors of those lands have continued to deface and destroy icons, even till today. [14]

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He’s already crucified, but that’s not enough. [15]

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Christians at this church can no longer bow and kiss this icon, but they leave roses. [16]

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Is it wrong to leave roses on an icon?

When Muslims finally conquered Constantinople in 1453, a particular prize was the magnificent 6th century Church of Hagia Sophia (which means “Holy Wisdom,” as in “Christ is the … wisdom of God,” 1 Corinthians 1:24). The church was turned into a mosque, and the icons were covered with plaster. This painting, by the Ukrainian artist Artur Orlionov, depicts Muslim workers covering a famous mosaic. The large mosaic icon was made in 1261, when Constantinople had been retaken from Roman Crusaders. [17]

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In 1935, the building became a museum, and the icons were uncovered. I was able to see this mosaic in 2004.  [18]

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But in 2020 the building was turned back into a mosque, and this icon is covered once more.

The Soviets had similar contempt for holy images. Who needs icons when you’ve got science? [19]

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In his defense of icons, St. John supplied many quotations from Christian writers of the early centuries. Many of them likened icon veneration to the signs of respect given to the image of a king. St. Basil the Great (329-379) said: “Honor given to an image passes on to the original.” (On the Holy Spirit, 18.45)

So we don’t make images of the Most High God—but we do make images of those things God has chosen to make visible. This is emphatically the case with our Lord Jesus Christ, because becoming visible was essential for our salvation. In becoming human, God broke into history in a way that was deliberately tangible and visible. As 1 John 1:1 insists: “That which …we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim.”. Paul says that Christ “is the eikon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). When we make an eikon of Jesus, we are declaring and defending the truth of the Incarnation.

St. John of Damascus wrote: “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.” (ibid., 1.16)

He emphasizes that it is not the matter itself that we are venerating. He says that if wood has been made into a cross he will honor and kiss it; but if it’s just two pieces of wood, “I throw them in the fire and burn them!” (ibid., 2.78.)

The challenge, a while back, was that venerating icons suddenly became a big controversy in the mid to late 7th century. But that doesn’t mean that, previously, people weren’t venerating icons. It means that venerating icons was not controversial. Venerating icons wasn’t a problem till the Islamic Conquest, earlier in the 7th century, made it so.

In fact, St. John of Damascus calls icon veneration a church tradition. He says we must “conform to church tradition [in the] veneration of icons, in the name of God and God’s friends.” (ibid., 2.73)

For who could claim that people weren’t greeting icons reverently and affectionately all along? If someone had a piercing prayer need, he would surely go into a church and stand before an icon, considering that an excellent place to cry out for help.

People must have been praying in front of icons, bowing to them, kissing them, wherever there were churches, wherever there were icons, from whenever icon-making began. People want to express affection and respect toward the pictures of people they love. How’re you going to stop them?

 

Q. Why do Orthodox say that icons are the equal of the Bible?

A. Icons are not the equal of the Bible. Icons are the mirror of the Bible. To the extent that they reflect it well, they are trustworthy, and accurately convey what the Bible says.

That’s why icons look so much the same over the years. If you drop into any century, an icon depicting Christ’s Transfiguration will still show the same people arranged in the same way. That icon can then take its place in the procession of icons over the centuries, all over the world, all faithfully depicting the same people and events.

Yet there are differences among icons, as there is with anything that is handmade. Those differences disclose each iconographer’s relationship with God. She begins her work with prayer and fasting, and much humility. She’s not trying to paint something that will express herself or be creative. We don’t want imagination and originality in an icon, not any more than we’d want it in a bible translation.

But icons have a limitation. Even though a good, faithful icon can depict what the Bible says, it can only do so up to a point. An image is necessarily much less detailed than a text. An icon can show Jesus meeting the Woman at the Well, but it can’t depict what they said. There can be an icon of St. Paul, but not an icon of the Epistle to the Galatians.

So here the opposite of the proverb proves true: a text is worth a thousand pictures. Compared with the written word of God, icons are far less rich. The early church, wisely, made use of both.

Q. But the bowing!

A. Well, it’s biblical, you know? When Scripture says “they fell on their faces” it means they made a prostration, with foreheads to the ground. (It’s what the disciples did at the Transfiguration, Matthew 17:6). Sometimes it’s just a bow, as when Joseph’s brothers “bowed and gave proskynesis to him” (Genesis 43:28).

There is a whole spectrum of ways to give honor, from a full prostration to simply bowing the head. We Orthodox just never stopped doing it. In the presence of great holiness, it’s the instinctive thing to do.

Q. And the kissing!

A. It’s just a kissy-er culture. Christianity isn’t native to Europe, you know; it began in the Middle East (technically, in Asia) and immediately started spreading in all directions, south and east as well as the north and west. Many Christians to the south and east of us expect to kiss and embrace when they meet.

Q. Why do you light candles in front of icons?

A. Why do you light candles on your dinner table?

Q. It just looks nice. A light on the table attracts the diners and draws them together. It shines on the plates and glasses. It lights up their faces.

A. A light bulb would be brighter. Why don’t you put a lamp on the table?

Q. It just looks nicer with candles. It’s, uh, [very small voice] traditional.

A. Not all traditions are “dead,” are they? Christmas traditions, for example. We keep those traditions willingly, because we enjoy them. They bond the family together. They bring things to life.

Till electricity was invented, people put candles on their tables so they could see the food. We continue to do it because we like that tradition. A good tradition brings beauty and life.

Good traditions also have effects on the simply-human plane. When we Orthodox fast together, receive communion together, venerate icons together, it bonds us to each other. And that, too, fosters new life.

Q. But what about “miracle-working” icons? Now you don’t think of them as honored paintings. You think they’ve got some kind of spiritual power.

A. Sometimes miracles erupt from icons. It’s not something we control, or even something we pray for. But once miracles are being manifested, what are you going to do with an icon like that?

We don’t do anything different, actually. We still venerate it the same way. But when something like that happens, the news hits the Internet, and then we all go around looking kind of stunned.

This brings us to something we haven’t talked about so far, which is that Orthodox believe God is filling and permeating his Creation: “The whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). So there is no wall of separation between “natural” and “supernatural;” we might encounter God at any point he chooses.

He may use the Scriptures as a meeting place, for example, drawing out attention to a verse that seems to address our specific situation. Well, icons can be like that. That’s another reason someone might want to stand in front of an icon to pray, because an icon, like a bible, can be one of those meeting places.

A friend of mine joined our Orthodox church over the objections of her adult daughter, who insisted that icons are nothing but idols. One day Jeannie was caring for her granddaughter and the mother phoned. After talking with her mother, the little girl kissed the phone. Jeannie then asked her daughter, “Do you think she was kissing the phone?”

There really is someone on the other end of the line, and sometimes that presence breaks through. To return to an earlier analogy, if an icon is a window into heaven, then we do well to remember that you can look through a window from both sides.

The most common miracle I’ve seen, concerning icons, is when a kind of light, fragrant oil (we call it myrrh) begins beading up on the painted surface. I have seen this myself. I have seen Fr. Mark Leasure (pastor of St. George Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA) take the icon that began streaming myrrh at his church and tip it, and pour the sweet-smelling oil into the hands of children. [20]

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I have seen the Hawaii-Iveron icon, which began streaming myrrh in a private home in Hawaii, while lying flat on top of a tall bookcase. The family couldn’t figure out where that fragrance of “a thousand roses” was coming from. Then their cat walked in and stood up on his hind legs in front of the bookcase, sniffing. That prompted them to get a stepladder and investigate.

The Hawaii-Iveron icon has been carried to churches all over the country. When it came to my church, it was in its shadow box, with a fresh bed of cotton balls to absorb the constant myrrh. You can see the shiny-oily patches on the surface of the icon. [21]

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My husband places it on an icon-stand. [22]

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There I am. [23]

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During worship the myrrh soaked through, and the icon had to be lifted out so the cotton balls could be replaced. [24]

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(Everyone got some myrrh-soaked cotton in a baggie to take home.) [25]

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Nobody asks for these things to happen; they just do.

The myrrh kept flowing. It soaked through the new layer of cotton balls.

I saw drops of myrrh beading up on the underside of the glass.

I have seen these things.

I would guess there are about a dozen myrrh-streaming icons in America. Miracles occur in their presence, and also when people are anointed with the myrrh. Conversions take place as well. Fr. Mark Leasure can tell about a Muslim who came to the Wednesday night service and loudly denounced the icon, but is now a Christian believer and member of the church.

So I don’t know if you’re objecting to the way we treat such an icon (because, actually, we treat it just the same), or if you’re objecting to our belief that a miracle happened, or that miracles continue to happen. Is it the miracles that are the problem?

Sometimes things like this just start happening, with an icon. Then what are you going to do with it?

 

Q. Well, it still looks like worship to me.

A. Picture this. Say a group of scientists from Mars visits a cemetery on earth. They see people coming up and laying flowers on the graves of their relatives.

One Martian says, “These people think their ancestors can still smell these flowers.”

The next one says, “No, they are trying to elevate the rank of their ancestors. The ones who have flowers are more important than the ones who don’t.”

And the third one says, “They are trying to bribe their ancestors to stay in their graves and not come and haunt them.”

If you were there you might say, “Look, you’ve got this completely wrong. This is not a ritual or a magic formula, or anything like that. It’s simpler than that. It’s just something people do to express their love for these relatives.

“You should come here for a while and just watch. Come and see. With time, you’ll be able to understand why we do this, and what it means to us.”

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

7 comments:

  1. What a wonderful essay! I’ve been an Orthodox Christian since 1993, and you shared some information that I had never encountered before. Thank you so much!

  2. Hello Frederica,

    I’ve been a regular visitor to this site for a while, but you’re the first of its contributors to whom I’ve reached out. I’m Anabaptist, but I’ve very much enjoyed your book Welcome to the Orthodox Church as well as your articles for Ancient Faith. I’m finding more and more things in Orthodoxy that resonate with me deeply. It’s too early to tell at this point where it will all lead (I’m very much connected to my current church and will probably be staying there for the foreseeable future barring any unexpected changes), but I’ve already found a great wealth of insights that have produced real benefits in my own spiritual life.

    I’ve really enjoyed this article in particular, and I find the Orthodox theology of icons both beautiful and compelling. I will confess, however, that they’re something I’m still wrestling with (I’m currently taking a slow walk through the Church Fathers to expand my perspective—I’ve read John of Damascus and Athanasius and am still working through John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nazianzus). The answers you provide here cover a lot of the questions I still have, and I think your statement regarding sacrifice was very insightful. I do have one follow-up question though: what would you say to those who would consider the burning of incense in front of an icon to be itself a form of sacrifice? I’ve read through the decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (as compiled and translated by Henry R Pervical) and it gave me a little bit of a pause when I saw the phrase “incense and lights may be offered.” It made me even more uncomfortable when the decrees also mentioned the burning of incense before the image of the Byzantine Emperors (I know that after Constantine’s conversion the meaning of the practice had changed but it still felt uncomfortably close to the old pagan imperial cult). I’d be interested to hear whatever thoughts you’d have.

    1. I appreciate that good question. We use incense during worship, of course, because God commanded it in Exodus 25, and the Jews always used it in the Temple. It was another way to honor God, by making worship beautiful to every sense. In practice, the priest goes through the congregation with a censer, and swings it toward the bishop’s chair, the icons, the people, basically everything in the church. It’s never a sacrifice; It’s just more beauty, like chanting the hymns.

      1. Thanks for your answer 🙂 The passage I read actually goes “but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom.” It was the word “offered” that made me think of sacrifice, which may just be an English translator’s choice. Technically flowers are “offered” to a gravestone when visiting a cemetery (which you kind of pointed out in your last example). The more I think about it, these kind of “offerings” redound to the benefit of the one doing the offering rather than to the person in the image or the loved one in the grave—neither of them “need” the honor we thus provide to them. But rather the act of doing so re-orients our soul to cherish things that truly have value. Would this be an accurate statement of the Orthodox position?

  3. Thank you for this article. A complete conversation to help me, a protestant, understand the beauty of the icons. Thank you for this welcoming and helpful article.

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