I’m trying to be more disciplined in my prayer life. However, growing up in low-church Evangelicalism I always thought I had to make prayer up. Needless to say, that’s a lot of pressure. Don’t get me wrong, I think we can learn much from spontaneous prayer, but in my journey into Anglicanism I’ve been drinking deeply from the well of ordered prayer. Some may find it strange to pray prayers that are already written down, to read the words off of a page. Yet, I have learned that there is a deepness here that often surpasses my fumbling prayers (genuine and meaningful as they are). When we pray through the liturgy on Sunday mornings at St. Matthew’s we are praying along with the saints. We are praying prayers along with folks centuries before us. These are prayers that have been passed on, traditioned from one Christian generation to the next. There’s something to that. Anyways, to the point of this mini-series, I was in a Christian bookstore recently and purchased my first icon, something I’d been meaning to do for sometime. It’s a beautiful image of Christ enthroned, surrounded by the four creatures, scriptures open, in a posture of authority and blessing (see photo). So, I’m learning to pray with icons. I’ve picked up a small booklet on the subject by Linette Martin and I plan to share some of this journey with whoever might read it. I’ve already had a number of Protestant brothers and sisters ask surprisingly, “Why?!” These few posts will be some sort of attempt to share an answer to that question. FYI, I’ll be sharing some insight from the booklet as well as my own experiences.
Part 1 – What are icons?
An icon is graphic art: information concentrated in visual iconography. An Orthodox Christian will insist that a holy icon is far more than this; as a Western Christian I would say it is not less. The icon points beyond itself, we recognize the imagery and are beckoned to respond. Our response may be one of belief or disbelief, of praise, or wonder, or prayer, or encouragement, or terror, or questions. The icon insists that we respond as much with the mind as with the emotions – they are the thinking persons art (1).
This is what makes icons different from other religious art. The Orthodox teach that an icon is a two-way door of communication that not only shows us a person or event but makes this person/event present. When we stand before an icon we are in touch with that person and we take part in that event (2). When we look at an icon of Christ enthroned, the victorious and reigning Christ is present to us and us to him – what we call “our world” and what we call the “spiritual world” are opened to each other. According to the ancient teaching of the early church and the Orthodox Church today, an icon is a door. If that’s too much for you to accept now, don’t worry about it. At the very least icons are beautiful and rich pictures that show God and his work in a visual language that can be understood (3).
In the ancient world icons did not only portray religious subjects. Broadly understood, icon=image. In the ancient world statues of emperors or the imprint of Caesar on a coin was an icon. Where this image was, the authority of the emperor was present. In the New Testament scriptures the Greek word translated icon means “image”, “likeness”, “portrait”. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the NT describe human creatures as created in the “image” of God (Gen. 1:26; Mt. 22:20; Col. 1:15).
A religious icon can be of Christ, the Virgin Mary, an angel, a saint, or an event in the Old or New Testament. It is usually painted on a wooden panel small enough to be portable and placed in ones home. Icons were also made in mosaic, textile, ceramic, fresco and many other materials. They could be large and built into a wall spanning the inside of a church or they could be small enough to hang around someones neck.
The visual language of icons has developed over the centuries. Just as spoken language develops but remains itself, so does the language of icons. The word for this visual language is iconography and to an Orthodox Christian a holy icon is a picture that is made according to the iconography of the Orthodox Church and that has been blessed by an Orthodox priest with fitting prayers. A holy icon is a picture made by a believing craftsman.
OK, I think that’s good enough for now. In the next post I plan to touch on a bit of the history behind icons and iconography.
Grace and peace.
(1) Linette Martin, Praying with Icons, p.6.
(2) While many Protestants might object to this it is not far from the view of the Eucharist that many Protestants hold. When we say that the Eucharist is a “remembrance” the Greek word used here is anamnesis. This is more than a basic remembering. Rather, it is the making present of a past event. Using this word in reference to the Eucharist we mean to say that Christ’s sacrifice is not a moment locked in time in the early first century. Rather, this is an event which happened in time but which transcends time, and thus is re-presented in the Eucharist.
(3) Martin, p.6.