By Fr. Peter Farrington – St. George Ministry – Coptic Mission Communities in the UK.
It would be impossible for someone to visit an Orthodox church building, or even the home of an Orthodox Christian, and not be aware of the presence of icons hanging on walls, set up in the middle of the church, and especially on the screen that separates the altar area from the main body of the church. These pictures can be a matter of concern for those from an evangelical background. Orthodox Christians will be seen standing in front of these pictures, bowing down before them, making the sign of the cross and even kissing them. This can be disconcerting, and some evangelicals will consider that such practices are contrary to the commandment of God.
In Exodus we find it written..
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make thyself any graven image, or any form of what is in the heavens above, or what is in the earth beneath, or what is in the waters under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.
What does this commandment mean? It’s important that we understand it in the right way and not out of context. If we consider some of the other commandments of God recorded in the Old Testament then we see that this commandment does not forbid the making of any images whatsoever, which is the teaching of Islam. We find in Exodus that God provides detailed instructions for making the Tabernacle, or portable temple, which the Israelites were to create for their worship. God commands that cherubim, or angelic figures be made, to be fitted to the Ark of the Covenant, and that there should be flowers of gold, and pictures of cherubim woven onto the curtains. And later in the Old Testament we find that when the Temple was built by King Solomon there were carved flowers, and cherubim, palm trees, pomegranates and oxen.
If we were to reject any representation of anything at all then we would have to abandon photography, art of all kinds, even the television. So it is clear that we do not interpret this passage as meaning that the creation of images is forbidden. Indeed we can see from the archaeology of the early Church, especially in the catacombs and the earliest church buildings of the first centuries, that art was always used by Christians to represent things in the world, and angels, and the stories of the Gospel, and even those who had died as faithful believers.
This commandment of God is to be understood from the first phrase, have no other Gods. This is what the commandment is all about. What is forbidden is the production of any sort of image or idol that is set up as a god and worshiped as if it had some power to assist those who served the false god.
If we must honestly respond to the concerns of those from evangelical backgrounds, it is also necessary to listen to the views of Orthodox Christians. Orthodox Christians do not worship these pictures or icons. Nor do they worship the Christian figures who are often represented on them. It is well understood that these are wooden panels on which images have been painted in various colours, and they remain what they are. They are not magical things, and are certainly not representations of gods or divine beings when they are pictures of anyone other than Jesus Christ himself who is God incarnate and is represented as the man he has become without changing his divinity.
What are they then? They are reminders to us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, as St Paul describes these heroes of faith. When we worship and pray as Orthodox Christians we have a great sense that we are part of the community of all those who belong to Christ in every age. Therefore we have pictures or icons of those who have gone before us, and who are part of the Body of Christ, the household of faith, with us.
I imagine that all of us have photographs in our homes. These are representations of those close to us. We do not believe they are forbidden by the Old Testament commandments because we do not worship them, or those depicted in them. If we have large families then we may well have many photographs and portraits on the walls of our houses. If a family member falls ill, or is away from home, it is entirely normal for a person to take a photo of that person in their hands, and pour out before it all their earnest and heartfelt feelings of love and concern. A young man might even take the photograph of his fiancee and kiss it, as if the love of his heart could somehow receive those sentiments.
This is essentially the same attitude which Orthodox Christians have towards the icons which we value so much. In a spiritual manner we embrace those pictured in these images as members of our spiritual family, as they truly are. We want to be reminded of the Apostles, and of the great teachers of the Church, of those heroic Christians especially remembered in each place. More than this, we remind ourselves of the events of the Gospel by describing them in visual form, and especially of the presence of Christ with us, who calls himself Emmanuel – God with us, and who can be represented because he has become man for our salvation.
We show honour and respect to those members of our spiritual family represented in this way, because their lives, as committed and devout Christians are worthy of such honour and respect. We do not believe that having gone to be with Christ they are somehow worthy of less respect by those of us who remain. In the Orthodox Church there is preserved the last traces of those social conventions that were once practiced everywhere. Not so long ago it was normal for people to show respect by bowing to those who were superior to them. This was not to worship them, but to show respect and to honour their position. Perhaps such respect is now shown only to the Queen. But it remains present in the Orthodox Church where such respect is shown to those represented in the icons that surround us. Respect, never worship.
Yet of course we worship Jesus Christ as God. God who became man while remaining God. And so when we bow before his icon we are indeed worshipping him. We are not worshipping an image of wood and paint, but the one represented in this image. The commandment of God forbids us worshipping any other god. Orthodox Christians do not believe that any of those called the saints, who are heroes of faith, are god. Not even the Virgin Mary. Nor are any of these human beings worshipped. Nor are any images made by men worshipped. But Jesus Christ, who is truly God, is certainly worshipped, and the representation of his humanity is a means of remembrance and leads us to worship him.
It seems to me that if icons were intended to be worshipped, and they are certainly not worshipped by Orthodox Christians, then they would be made as realistic as possible. In fact it is Western art which became increasingly realistic and started to use ordinary men and women as models for art produced by those who were not particularly Christian. If we look at traditional Orthodox icons we see that they are not realistic at all. This is because we are being invited to consider these Christian figures, and even Christ himself, from a spiritual point of view. Everything is intended for us to learn a spiritual lesson and gain a spiritual insight. This is one other aspect of Orthodox icons. They remind us of our spiritual family, and they teach us a spiritual lesson.
This can all be understood by those who, just like me, come from an evangelical background. We can learn what the icon is saying to us about those being represented, if we make a little effort to study Orthodox iconography. We can appreciate that they represent the spiritual family of the Church. We must certainly listen to Orthodox Christians when they insist that icons are not worshipped, and that those pictured in them, apart from Jesus Christ, the Son of God himself, are not divine beings, but men and women as we are. The practices we see being observed are marks of love, respect and honour, not worship.
Icons and spiritual images are not part of the experience of those of us from evangelical backgrounds, but in fact they appear from the earliest times in the history of the Church, long before the Emperor Constantine and the legalisation of Christianity. All of the churches in the British Isles would have been covered with spiritual images and icons until a few centuries ago, and when St Augustine brought the Christian Faith to the pagan Anglo-Saxon peoples in Kent, he processed into Canterbury with an image of Christ on a wooden board.
We might not feel comfortable with such images if we are evangelicals, not least because of our own religious cultural backgrounds, but it is necessary that we do not associate Orthodox Christians with beliefs and practices which in fact are rejected. Orthodox Christians, of which I am one, do not worship icons. We honour and respect those represented on them. We learn spiritual truths from them, and are reminded of the lives of these most heroic Christians who have set us such examples of godly living. We are able to call to mind the events of the Gospel, and we are reminded in a visual manner that Christ, God the Word incarnate, is with us when we see an iconic representation of this central doctrine. But we have not created idols and we do not worship idols and it would be a slander to say that we did.