Orthodox Christians mark August 16 as the Feast of the Icon “Not Made With Hands,” the miraculous face of Christ first left on a cloth sent to King Abgar of Edessa. The stories of the icon are swathed in the mists of history – but the image (or representations of it on icons) remain among the most popular of Orthodox images. It is frequently the icon that graces the entrance of a Church.
On a deeper level, it is an icon that points to Christ as the image of God and the true image of man. When looking upon His face we see both what we are as creatures (created in the image of God) and what we shall be as the children of the kingdom (conformed to His image). His face is more than face – it is countenance – the very presence of God directed toward us.
The opening chapter of Genesis has the rich statement that we are created in the image of God, though the Old Testament makes no explanation or development of the statement. It does, however, refrain from extreme forms of iconoclasm (image-smashing). Although the 10 commandments inveigh that “thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image,” the same law-giving God instructs that images of cherubim are to be carved above the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant, and that images of angels should be interwoven in the cloths that make up the Tent of Meeting.
Islam, on the other hand, tends towards an extreme iconoclasm, refraining from all images, and in some instances destroying images. Some interpretations of Islam would deny that man is the image of God altogether.
In Christianity the theology of the image moves to the forefront. Christ, St. Paul says, is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The God who could not be imaged in the Old Testament now gives His very image, Christ (Who is indeed fully God and fully man). Not only is Christ the image of God – and thus the one by Whom God can be known – but He is also the true image of man – that image to which we are conformed in the life of salvation: “But we all, with open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:17).
The Orthodox devotion to icons is not to be found in some supposed likeness to pagan idolatry. It is rather to be found in the profound teaching of the New Testament and the fathers of the Church in which Christ, the image of God, encounters us “face to face,” and so conforms us to Himself. The Orthodox experience of icons is not an experience of wood and of paint, but rather of the “one who is represented.” Standing before an icon of Christ, the Orthodox Christian is aware of Christ – not as captured in the image – but as present to him in the image. Thus icons are called, “Windows to heaven.”
This same devotional habit – forged in the theology of the incarnation – reaches out towards all of creation. Thus St. Paul can say of the created world, “…for since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead…” (Romans 1:20). Thus the creation becomes a window to heaven, a reflection that “clearly” reveal God’s eternal power and Godhead. This does not confuse God’s eternal power and Godhead with the creation itself, anymore than an icon should be confused with what it represents.
But there is a proper theology of icons, of the image, within Christian theology. Iconoclasm, in the teaching of the fathers, is heresy, a denial of the truth of God’s incarnation.
The face of Christ is rightly the heart’s desire of every Christian. Albeit, those who oppose Christ, we are told, call out to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb…” (Rev. 6:15). And “this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
Grant us, God, to see Thy face.