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the veneration of icons in Orthodox worship - Paul Harrison - 27-09-2006 04:05 PM

Perhaps one of the strangest things for a Westerner to get used to in Eastern Christian worship is the relationship between the worshipper and icons. When I attended the Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral at Regents Park a few years ago I walked in and sat down. Afterwards I noticed that the people coming in were all stopping to kiss the icons placed near the entrance. I don't take seriously the Protestant arguement that venerating icons is a form of idolatry, because I realise that they are not being worshipped, yet I would be interested to know what they add to worship. As a High Church person, I know how Holy Water, candles, incense and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament can help me to experience the awe of Christ's presence among us, but I haven't yet understood the true significance of icons.

I am also interested in the history and origins of the use of icons in worship. The Protestant idea that, after the Reformation they ditched all the acquired pagan additions to Christianity and returned to the "pure" worship of the Apostles has long been disproved. Jewish Temple worship was very ritualistic and I believe that much of the sacrificial tradition accompanied by bells, incense, chanting etc and the invocation of the divine presence, passed in an unbroken line into early Christianity. According to Hegesippus, James the Righteous "entered the Holy of Holies to make atonement for his people." Is it known whether the use of icons in any form is that ancient? They were certainly in widespread use in the East by the Third or Fourth centuries but don't seem to have spread Westwards. Any info on this subject would be mosat welcome.


Icons - Michael Kennedy - 27-09-2006 09:21 PM

Dear Paul,
I feel that icons are necessary because in Orthodoxy we pray and worship with all our senses. If we leave icons out we leave out the sense of sight. Moreover, icons are 'a window into heaven' and remind us that this earthly life, should we need reminding, is not all there is. This is not a full justification for icons but it is to me sufficient to demonstrate that they are necessary if our worship, our prayer, is to be as full as we can make it.
As for kissing icons there is a natural British reluctance often enough to show any kind of feelings physically. But again, full and complete Orthodox worship I think requires us to pray with the body as well as with the mind. Hence, bows, the sign of the cross and so on. Coptic Orthodox Christians touch the icon with their hand then kiss their hand, which may be an easier gesture for some.
I am not sure whether icons were used in the Jewish Temple but statuary goes back to the Ark of the Covenant and although not encountered frequently in Orthodoxy is not, so far as I am aware, actually proscribed.
You might find Ouspenky's 'Theology of the Icon', SVP, 2 vols, or bits of it, helpful.

in Christ,
Michael.


icons in Orthodox worship - Simon - 16-10-2006 06:08 PM

I remembered the following from a paper I once wrote and offer it in case it is of help at all:

?the Orthodox appreciation of an image or icon is not the modern understanding of something that is there instead of the absent real thing which it only represents or symbolises. Rather, according to Orthodoxy, the image presents an otherwise absent reality which would not have been so present were the image not present.

?In the early tradition, the relationship between the sign in the symbol (A) and that which it signifies (B) is neither a merely semantic one (A means B), nor causal, (A is the cause of B), nor representative (A represents B). We called this relationship an epiphany. A IS B means that the whole of A expresses, communicates, reveals, manifests the ?reality? of B, (although not necessarily the whole of it) without, however, losing its own ontological reality, without being dissolved into another ?res? (thing).? [Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (SVS Press, 1973) p. 141]

Thus an icon of a saint or an angel or of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ is an epiphany or manifestation of the saint or the angel or our Lord. The whole of the icon expresses, communicates, reveals and manifests the reality (though not the whole of that reality) of the saint, of the angel, of our Lord.

Further I would want to add that icons are integral to Orthodox Christianity as an aspect of the incarnation. Since our Lord became incarnate, became physical and material, the use of physical and material icons is an essential aspect of Orthodoxy. (I rather think Saint John of Damascus expressed it somewhat better!)

Simon


icons in Orthodox worship - Simon - 18-10-2006 12:49 PM

Dear Paul,

In further response to your interest in what icons add to worship I would offer some thoughts on Hebrews 12:22-24, ?But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling??

Commenting on this passage Paul McPartlan ('Sacrament of Salvation') writes: ?If we read this passage sitting a room by ourselves, we may well puzzle at its meaning? Here is an outstanding example of a passage that doesn?t make sense until we recall that it was first directed to a community gathered for the Eucharist, a hard-pressed community, moreover, perhaps few in number? Though it appears to be only a modest gathering to which they have come, the writer urges the local Christians to see with eyes of faith what they have really come to?? McPartlan goes on to refer to example ?the great Renaissance churches of Italy? with ceilings ?frescoed to show the proximity of heaven when the central act for which those churches were built, namely the Eucharist, is celebrated. Looking up, it is as if the roof has been torn away and heaven is thrown open?Christ in the glory of the Father, with the Holy Spirit hovering and angels and saints crowding the scene.?

When I enter an Orthodox Church with icons on the walls all around me, I look around and I am ?compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses? (Hebrews 12:1), then I look up and see our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ in the dome of the Church above me? then I know ?that this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven? (Genesis 28:17). And then it is the time of the Divine Liturgy and the altar veil or curtain is open and I see an icon beyond the altar on the east wall of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ with the four and twenty elders in heaven? and I am ?come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus?? Alleluia!

Simon