Iconography and Worship

The Eastern Orthodox understanding of worship begins with the scriptural understanding that there are other heavenly or spiritual beings: angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim. The Scriptures teach that in worship believers are surrounded by and worship within this communion of heavenly hosts. As the Prayer of Entrance says, "O Sovereign Lord, our God, Who appointed in heaven the orders and armies of angels and archangels for the service of Your glory, grant that the holy angels may enter with us to serve and glorify Your goodness with us." Or, as the prayer during the Thanksgiving acknowledges of God, "for this liturgy which You are pleased to accept from our hands, though there stand before You thousands of archangels, and myriads of angels, cherubim and seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring high on their wings; singing, proclaiming, shouting the Hymn of Victory."

Worship in the Kingdom

Consistent with the earliest Christian beliefs, worship involves this heavenly host because Christian worship takes place in the Kingdom of God before the heavenly throne (see, for example, Isaiah 6: 1-8). Also gathered around the throne are all the Saints who Christians remember and who join in the worship. Christians pray for those who partake of the gifts of the Eucharist, and say "Furthermore, we offer to You this spiritual worship for those who in faith have gone on before us to their rest: forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith, especially for our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-virgin Mary". Christians throughout the ages have affirmed the "great cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12: 1), those Saints who have gone before. Christians pray for them even as they believe and expect the Saints pray for them.

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Worshiping and Praying with the Saints

When Christians gather to worship, especially to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, they recognize that it is not just those on earth who are present, but those gathered as "the general assembly and church of the first born, enrolled in heaven" (Heb. 12:23). These Saints are simply those among all Christians who have led particularly spiritual or exemplary lives in Christ. The Church has recognized this and held up those who it knows are especially worthy of honor by all who are striving to be conformed to the image of Christ.

Since Christians do not think it unusual to pray for and ask for prayers of fellow believers, why would it be unusual to ask the Saints for their prayers as well, especially during times of trouble or extreme need? After all, the Saints really know how to pray and do not stop praying when they leave this life to be with the Lord. The Saints share the same spiritual communion as Orthodox Christians; they constitute the communion of the Saints. Thus it is no different to ask intercession or prayer of them than it is to ask intercession or prayer of believers on earth.

For the Christian, death is not the end, nor is it an eternal "holding pattern." Rather, life continues in the Kingdom of God. As St. Paul declares: "to be absent from the body [is] to be at home with the Lord" (II Cor. 5:8). Christians who believe that life continues after physical death should have little trouble affirming this understanding of the Saints.

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The Mother of God

The Virgin Mary is, according to the Greek term "Theotokos," the God bearer, or Mother of God. And this is what Mary was, for she bore Jesus Christ Who is God Incarnate. In 431 A.D. during the Nestorian controversy, the Council of Ephesus decided upon the term Theotokos as that which most correctly described Mary and protected the proper Christological understanding of Jesus as the Messiah of God. Two great doctrines came out of this Council: the first, the Incarnation, is still affirmed by most who profess to be Christians; the second, understanding Mary as Theotokos, is only fully retained by Orthodox Christians.

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Affirming the Incarnation

The doctrinal decision of the Council about the Incarnation is dear to the hearts of Christians: that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. The term Theotokos was introduced to affirm the understanding. The word means God-bearer and clearly states that the One Mary bore was God. As the Council determined, the two understandings go hand-in-hand; one cannot take one without the other and still be true to early Christianity. As Fr. Thomas Hopko points out, "Jesus Christ, the Son, Word, and image of God, is physically and spiritually formed in the body of Mary so that He might be formed in us as well (see Gal. 4:19)". [1]

This role of honor is most clearly seen in the final petition in the litanies in Orthodox services: "Remembering our most holy, most pure, most blessed, most glorious Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, with all the Saints, let us commit ourselves and each other and all our lives unto Christ our God." The emphasis is upon, "remembering Mary... we commit ourselves to Christ." In remembering Mary's life, in calling her "blessed" as the New Testament teaches, believers recommit each day to live in conformity to Christ in the image and will of God.

Because of the lives they lived, Saints become models, images, or icons of what humble, loving and spiritual Christian life should be. Most of the early Saints were martyrs, those who willingly died for their belief in Jesus Christ. This was a testimony not only of the faith of the individual who was martyred, but it was also a testimony to the triumph of Christ over death. That is why so many early churches were built with their altars over the grave of a martyr; the martyr's death was a testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the Eucharist offered on that altar was spiritual food providing eternal life. The Saints may have died physically, but believers know that they have not died in any final sense; they live on with Christ in His Kingdom. If "life after death" is part of Christian belief, then what is affirmed is the reality of the communion of the Saints.

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The Communion of the Saints

This belief in the communion of the Saints goes back to the early church. St. Athanasius in his second pastoral letter regarding the Easter Feast speaks of it in 330 A.D., undoubtedly reflecting a much earlier tradition within the Church. He says, "So then, let us celebrate this heavenly joy, together with the Saints of old who kept the same Feast. Yes, they keep the feast with us, and they are examples to us of life in Christ." [2] Notice the change in tenses: the Saints of old kept the feast, and now they "keep it with us." The Saints are able to keep the feast because upon their death they entered into the communion of the Lord, which transcends death and is eternal.

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Iconography and the Incarnation

This understanding of the Saints as models or images of the Christian life and thus of Christ, can help provide an understanding of the Orthodox use of icons. The icons are images, or models by which believers can visualize these persons who are loved, honored, and remembered. Human beings are strongly influenced by the senses. Further, Orthodox Christian faith is a concrete one rooted in history and experience, and centered in a historical, flesh and blood Savior Who is God; it is not an abstract thing. In Hebrews 12, Christians are seen as "looking unto Jesus..." Thus, the use of icons becomes not only practically important but a profession of belief in the Incarnation.

The Ecumenical Councils were held to determine once and for all the nature of Jesus Christ. Because He is not only fully God but also fully man, He can be portrayed in icons. Iconography and the Incarnation go hand-in-hand.

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The Physical Dimension of Worship

The Scriptures teach that God created human beings as physical as well as spiritual beings. To deny this physical aspect of being human is to deny the nature of the creation. The challenge is to affirm this physical aspect of being human in a manner which is edifying and which builds up and conforms the believer to the image of Christ.

Furthermore, the Incarnation of Jesus, the taking on of human flesh and possession of both human and divine natures, is the ultimate affirmation of the inherent goodness of creation. To deny the physical side of being human, or to affirm the spiritual at the expense of the physical, is simply not Christian. In Orthodox worship all senses are involved, through the smell of incense, the sight of candles and icons, the hearing of prayers and music, and the taste of the Eucharist.

Ernst Benz is a Protestant Theologian who writes to explain Orthodox Christianity. He contends the Orthodox Church cannot be fully understood until and unless one understands its icons. This begins by seeing the relationship between God and mankind, for human beings were created in the image of God and carry the "icon" of God within themselves. Benz believes "this image-concept also dominates the Christology and doctrine of the Trinity in the Eastern Church." [3] Christ, the divine Word, is the image of the Father. The redemptive work of Jesus Christ, Who is the Icon of the Father, consists in renewing the image of God which was distorted by sin. Redemption is linked to this concept of image; the redemption of mankind "consists in mankind's being renewed in the image of Jesus Christ, incorporated into the new image of Christ, and thus through Jesus Christ experiencing the renewal of his status as image of God." [4]

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Iconography and Jesus Christ

At the heart of all iconography is Jesus Christ, and thus God the Father. The Saint portrayed in an icon is in the image of Jesus Christ. In venerating the Saints, Orthodox Christians are venerating Jesus Christ ("if they receive you they will receive me" Matt. 10:40); that is, God, in Whose image and likeness they were made. Icons serve to challenge and motivate, to encourage and bless because in them one can see and experience Jesus Christ, the hope of glory.

Older Jewish synagogues frequently contained illustrations of Biblical scenes, symbols or stories. Archaeological excavations have shown great similarity between the frescoes and mosaics used in some synagogues and those used in early Christian iconography. The excavations of both a synagogue and a Christian church in Dura-Europos in Syria testify to this fact. The older Jewish selection of facts and stories are now interpreted in the light of Christ. It was the martyrdom of believers that initiated the painting of icons of particular Saints. Those icons bear witness to the eternal life which was theirs in Christ and which their death proclaimed.

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The Gospel in Color

In the first millennium of the Church when the majority of the people were illiterate, the icons were "the books of the people." More recently they have been called "the Gospel in color." They provided images, with the associated facts and history, of those who had gone before in the faith. In many old world Orthodox countries, especially in Slavic countries, ancient churches can be found with icons painted on the outside of the building for the purpose of edifying and instructing the faithful.

Icons, by definition, are very stylized and are not naturalistic. They are not supposed to represent the scene or person as if in a portrait or photograph. They are for spiritual and prayerful purposes, and the veneration given them is referred to the person represented, and thus ultimately to Christ, and not to the image. Icons of the Incarnation or the Resurrection, for instance, are filled with images that not only illustrate the occurrence, but also convey the full meaning of what took place. Icons urge the believer to continually accept and worship and believe in Jesus Christ, and to do so as the Church has taught from the beginning so that the theological truth is conveyed to the observer, rather than a particular visual experience. Icons are "the most successful attempt, maybe, in the whole history of the Christian Church, to make the invisible visible in Christian worship." [5]

The beloved Russian priest of the nineteenth century, St. John of Kronstadt, summarizes the importance of icons for the Orthodox Christian in this way:

"Images or symbols are a necessity of human nature in our present spiritually sensual condition; they explain visually many things of the spiritual world which we could not apprehend without images and symbols. It was for this reason that the divine teacher, the personal Wisdom through Whom all things were created, the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, often taught men by means of images or parables. It is for this reason also that in our Orthodox churches it is the custom to represent many things to the sight of the Christian by imagery; for instance, to represent the Lord Himself, the immaculate Mother of God, the angels and Saints, on images, in order that we may conform our lives, all our thoughts, words and deeds, to the image of the thoughts, words, and deeds of the Lord and His Saints." [6]

Credits

Parts of this page were excerpted from Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Temple, the Synagogue and the Early Church, by Williams, B. and Anstall, H., Light and Life Publishing Co., Minneapolis, 1988.

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[1] Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1984, p. 22.

[2] Jack Sparks, The Resurrection Letters, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 19xx, p. 60.

[3] Ernst Benz, The Eastern Orthodox Church; Its Thought and Life, Anchor Books, New York, 1963, p. 19.

[4] Ibid, p. 19.

[5] Louis Bouyer, Eucharist, Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1968, p. 70.

[6] Father John of Kronstadt, Spiritual Counsels, edited by W. Jardine Grisbrooke, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1989, p. 82.


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