October 13 - Icons: Images of Glory 

Icons play an important role in the spiritual life of Byzantine Christians,

both Catholic and Orthodox. An icon is not merely a picture of Christ

or of a saint, much less a religious decoration, but an expression of the

most fundamental realities of our faith and a making present of the

heavenly reality they depict GOD TRULY WITH US. The first reality of

faith expressed in icons is that the Word of God truly

and completely became one of us in Jesus Christ. He was not simply

manlike: He was truly human, like us in all things except sin as the

Scripture says. Our icons of Him proclaim the truth of His humanity

while stressing His divinity as well. As St John of Damascus noted,

“Of old God, the incorporeal and uncircumscribed, was not depicted

at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh, I make an image of

the God who can be seen.” This is why icons are not symbolic designs

(depicting Christ in symbol, as a lamb, for instance, is forbidden in

Byzantine tradition) but realistic images of the One who is truly one of

us.

WE SHALL BE CHANGED In the Scripture we are promised

that the Lord “will give a new form to this lowly body of ours and remake it according to the pat-
tern of His glorified body·”(Philippians 3:21). And so the second reality to which icons point is

that of the glorified body of the new creation. Icons are realistic images, but they do not seek to
depict the flesh of our fallen human nature, but the glorified bodies of those who are filled with
the Holy Spirit. Sanctity is possible, the icon proclaims, and will fill even our bodies with the light
of the Spirit of God. This is why the iconographer does not strive for the natural realism of a
photograph. This would only reproduce the physical reality of this world. Rather his intention is
to suggest spiritual beauty, transfiguration, deification. It also explains why the figures in icons
are usually heavily draped with clothing. Naturalistic art exposes the flesh, glorying in physical
beauty. In icons it is generally only the face and the eyes and – through them the soul – which
are shown. In Byzantine icons the physical presentation is meant to be colored by the spiritual
reality just as the body of Christ reflects divine glory in a physical way.

 

WINDOW TO HEAVEN The icon has nothing in common with the decorative art we have
in our homes, offices, or subway stations meant to adorn our living space. Icons are meant to
call us to prayer, to an encounter with the Lord whom they reveal. This is why we pray before
icons and fill our churches with them. We carry them in procession, bow before them and kiss
them. A Byzantine church, in which all the walls are covered with holy icons, pulls us out of the
mundane world of this age and into the life of the world to come. We see the effect of the grace
of the Holy Spirit which we receive in the holy mysteries when the believer lives in this light of
that grace. The most customary manner of reverencing an icon in church is as follows: make
one or two metanies then kiss the icon and then make a final metany, place your candle in the
stand and move away. It is the custom in many places to kiss the feet on an icon of Christ, the
hands on an icon of the Theotokos, and the forehead on the icon of a saint.

 

ICONS IN THE HOME Our use of icons is not restricted to the church building. God is
with us wherever we are, and so it has become customary for Eastern Christians to proclaim
His presence in their homes and workplaces by setting up icons. In particular the family prayer
or icon corner is the focus of a household's Christian identity and the place in the home where

family prayer is conducted. Customarily a corner is chosen which faces east and there the fami-
ly's sacred objects are gathered. Most common are the icons of Christ and the Theotokos, the

holy cross, and the icons of the patron saints of each member of the family. The icon corner

usually includes a lectern, shelf or small table upon which are placed a cross, the holy Scrip-
tures, and a small incense burner. Many people also keep containers of holy oil, holy water, and

antidoron as well as other blessed objects (palm, flowers, etc) on the table in the icon corner. In
addition to the icon corner many people place a special icon of the Theotokos near the door of
the house. People venerate this icon, known as the 'Doorkeeper', on leaving or entering the
house to ask for blessing on their comings and goings. It is also common to place in the dining
room the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham, which represents the Trinity in the form of the three
angels who dined with Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18).Icons of the family members' patron
saints are often put in their bedrooms as well. Since icons are considered to be sacramental,
revealing the special presence of the holy ones depicted in them, candles or oil lamps are kept
burning before them. The faces of true icons are painted in such a way as to reflect the light of
the lamps, just as the person depicted in the icon reflects the grace of the Holy Spirit within
them. A hanging lamp suspended from the ceiling or from a bracket over the principal icon in
the icon corner in the most traditional way to adorn the icons. Some people leave a candle
burning in their icon corner all the time. Others light the lamp and burn incense on occasion,
such as on Sundays or the Great Feasts. Still others burn the lamp when they are praying, or
when in need of a special blessing or protection.