Today I went to the bookstore at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral here in Denver and picked up my first icons. Some of you may ask, “Why?”
I’ve become convinced that they are a beautiful and wonderful part of our Christian heritage, worthy of veneration. St. John of Damascus, in his famous work Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, makes several points clear:
He reminds us that “no created thing can be adored in place of the Creator.” He says making idols is forbidden because “it is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable…invisible God.” then he points out that, “under the Old Covenant God commanded images to be made: first the tabernacle, and then everything in it”– these include images of angels surmounting the Ark. These images were not idols because they were not worshipped. I recently read these bits of scripture myself in Leviticus.
Then, because He took flesh upon himself and became incarnate, he explains that “If we attempted to make an image of the invisible God, this would be sinful indeed, … if we made images of men and believed them to be gods…we would be truly impious. We do neither of these things. But we are not mistaken if we make the image of God incarnate, Who was seen on earth in the flesh, associated with men, and in His unspeakable goodness assumed the nature, feeling, form, and color of our flesh.” Note that the implication here is that the incarnate Christ is, himself, an icon (image) of God, being wholly God and wholly man. This explanation is also why you will never see an icon of the Holy Spirit or God the Father, the other two persons of the Trinity, since there is no “incarnation” of these persons that is given from God. Sure, the Holy Spirit is “pictured in action” in the Gospels, in the form of a dove, wind, fire, and so on, but none of these event are fully capable of revealing the Spirit in wholeness.
He also points out that we do not worship icons, but God alone. But we do show honor, or venerate them. He notes that in scripture, the rod of Aaron is venerated, as is the jar of manna, Mt. Sinai, Golgotha, and so on.
Icons other than Christ are of the Saints, who deserve veneration only for their denial of themselves and the resulting theosis of their persons. (theosis is the Orthodox term for becoming Christlike, although it literally means to become deified. This does not mean becoming a god, but it means becoming the type of person the Almighty God works through.) This means that God has been made known through them because they have become in many ways like Christ, as the Gospels and Epistles tell us is our primary goal. These saints serve as inspiration to us, and through their example can better show us how to follow Christ. Tradition dictates that the champion of all the saints is Mary, the Theotokos(God-bearer), who came into perfect submission to God in bearing His Son Jesus.
I am sure my understanding is still very incomplete, in my sinfulness and imperfection, and pray that you find other sources of more reliable information if this has been interesting to you.
More from the article The Tradition of Iconography from Kallistos Ware’s book The Orthodox Church
Also here is the text of Against Those Who Decry Holy Images by St. John of Damascus.