Why do we venerate icons when the Ten Commandments read: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image… you shall not bow down to them nor serve them”(Exodus 20:4,5)?

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Because the purpose of this commandment was to keep Israel from falling into idolatry, not to forbid the use of all images.

The Orthodox use of icons is important for several reasons:

  1. Icons help safeguard the right belief about Jesus Christ;
  2. Icons are a visual aid for teaching the Christian Faith;
  3. Icons help us remember the Christians in ages past;
  4. Icons can help communicate to us the reality of the presence of God and the heavenly realm in our daily lives.

The use and veneration of icons is an ancient Christian tradition that was upheld by the Seventh Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea in A.D. 787. This Council explained that the veneration Christians show to icons is a sign of honor and reverence directed to the person or event depicted and not to the material of the icon itself. Furthermore, the Church has always maintained a strict distinction between this kind of honor or reverence and the worship due to God alone.

I The purpose of the second commandment was to keep Israel from falling into idolatry, not to forbid the use of all images.

  1. Israel was surrounded by many people who worshiped manmade idols as gods and had to be specifically warned about adopting their ways.
  2. The first commandment explains the purpose of the second: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3).
  3. The conclusion of the second commandment also explains its purpose: “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5).
  4. Moses told Israel that God could not be depicted in an image because He did not have material form: “Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure” (Deuteronomy 4:15).
  5. God elsewhere commanded Israel to make certain images and use them in their worship.
  1. Exodus 25:18 – “You shall make two cherubim of gold.”
  2. Exodus 26:1 – “You shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine woven linen, and blue, purple, and scarlet thread; with artistic designs of cherubim you shall weave them.”
  3. Numbers 21:8 – “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole.”
  4. 1 Kings 6:29 – “Then [Solomon] carved all the walls of the temple all around, both the inner and outer sanctuaries, with carved figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers.”
  5. Ezekiel 41:25 – “Cherubim and palm trees were carved on the doors of the temple just as they were carved on the walls” (from Ezekiel’s vision of the temple in heaven).

Conclusion – Icons are in no way like idols. They do not attempt to depict the divine nature of God and they do not detract from the worship that is due to God alone. Therefore the second commandment given by Moses to Israel is not relevant to the Church’s use of icons.

II.The Orthodox use of icons is important for several reasons:

  1. Icons help safeguard the right belief about Jesus Christ.
  1. An icon of Jesus Christ declares that He really was and still is a human being with a form like ours.
  1. At various times different people have taught that the material world is evil and that therefore the divine Son of God did not become a real man, or else He was somehow not the same person as the human Jesus. Such people opposed any icons of Christ.
  2. By declaring that Jesus Christ still bears real, material human form, icons help maintain the attitude Christians should have toward the material world, namely that it is not intrinsically evil.

2. When we see an icon of Jesus Christ and confess that this man is also truly and fully God, the mystery and wonder of His coming in the flesh is made plain.

3. The icons of Mary, the Mother of God, are also primarily intended to declare this same mystery of the Incarnation.

B. Icons are visual aids for teaching the Christian Faith.

  1. John of Damascus wrote: “Icons are the books of the illiterate, the never silent heralds of the honor due the saints, teaching without use of words those who gaze upon them, and sanctifying the sense of sight. Suppose I have few books, or little leisure for reading, but walk into the spiritual hospital-that is to say, a church-with my soul choking from the prickles of thorny thoughts, and thus afflicted I see before me the brilliance of the icon. I am refreshed as if in a lush meadow, and thus my soul is led to glorify God” (On the Devine Images, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p.39).

C. Icons help us remember the Christians in ages past.

  1. Icons of the saints are also like the “family photos” of the Church, pictures of our loved ones whose victories in the Christian life encourage us and provide an example for us.
  2. No one should object to icons used in this way who finds no fault in displaying the pictures of relatives, or the presidents of the United States, or the past heads of colleges, or any heroes whom they admire and wish to emulate.

D. Icons can help communicate to us the reality of the presence of God and the heavenly realm in our daily lives.

  1. Images do have the power to communicate.
  1. Advertising agencies know and exploit this power through their use of famous personalities, social symbols, and product logos.
  2. The Soviet Union used this power in hanging portraits of Lenin everywhere in public so that he could continue to influence society even though he had been dead since 1924. (Communist China does the same thing with portraits of Mao.)
  3. Nearly everyone can testify to the strong emotions different symbols can arouse, such as a swastika, an American flag, a peace sign, or a Coca-Cola logo.
  4. A soldier who carries a portrait of his wife and children in his pocket and perhaps sometimes even kisses it feels that this image communicates to him something of the reality of his family.

2. Likewise, there can be a similar power in icons, namely the power to communicate something of the essence of the person depicted.

  1. John of Damascus wrote: “By itself matter [e.g. wood, paint, etc.] deserves no worship, but if someone portrayed in an image is full of grace, we become partakers of the grace according to the measure of our faith” (On the Devine Images, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p.37).
  2. For this reason, icons are sometimes referred to as “windows to heaven” or “thin-places,” that is, places where our present earthly realm and the realm of heaven are brought close together.
  3. Also in this regard one should consider the various miracles that are reported to have been accomplished through some icons.

Conclusion-Icons, therefore, can communicate some sense of the presence of the person depicted, even if only to a small degree. As St. John of Damascus wrote, this is dependent upon the faith of the person. (For this reason Orthodox Christians are often said to pray not “to” icons but “before” icons. The only One we can pray to, of course is God.)

III. The use and veneration of icons is an ancient Christian tradition that was upheld by the Seventh Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea in A.D. 787.

  1. The word “icon” comes from the Greek word eikon, meaning “image.”
  2. Christians in the first century used the symbols of a dove, a fish, and a shepherd as simple religious art.
  3. Pictorial representations of events in the life of Christ can be found in the catacombs of Rome and Alexandria dating from the early 100s.
  4. By the fourth century, there are many Christian writers bearing witness to the powerful role icons held in the Church. These include St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Athanasius.
  5. The seventh and last Ecumenical Council met in the year A.D. 787 specifically to answer the question of whether or not it was proper for Christians to venerate icons. This ancient custom was being opposed at that time by a movement started by the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Isaurian. The decree of the Council, which was signed unanimously by the 350 bishops present, reads:

“To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of preaching the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantom-like…The venerable and holy images (icons) in painting and mosaic as well as other fitting materials should be set forth in the holy churches of God…in houses and by the wayside…For by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to long after them” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. XIV, p.550).

IV. The veneration Christians show to icons is a sign of honor and reverence directed to the person or event depicted and not to the material of the icon itself. Furthermore, the Church has always maintained a strict distinction between this kind of honor or reverence and the worship due to God alone.

A. The decree of the Seventh Ecumenical Council continues, saying: “To these [icons] should be given due salutation and honourable reverence [Greek aspasmon kai timeteken proskunesin], not indeed the true worship of faith [Greek latreian] which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospel and to other holy objects, incense and candles may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in the subject represented” (op. cit., p.550).

  1. Note that the Greek Church Fathers reserved the word latreia for the worship that is due to God alone. This is the word that forms the root of the suffix “-latry” in words such as “idolatry” (see Matthew 4:10).
  2. The Greek word proskunesin is a more general term for honor and is used in various ways even in the Bible (see Hebrews 11:21).
  3. When we venerate the icon of St. John the Evangelist, for example, we are not honouring or reverencing the material of the icon, but St. John himself. This is the meaning of the last statement quoted above.

B. Those who might protest the veneration of icons, which is commonly expressed by kissing them, show veneration for other things by similar physical gestures.

  1. For example, all Americans are used to saluting the flag or taking off their hats during the national anthem. This is a form of veneration.
  2. Most Protestant Christians venerate the Bible highly and many will not set another book on top of it or treat it disrespectfully by tossing it around. This also is a form of veneration.

Conclusion: If it is acceptable to honor a flag, which is made of fabric and dye, or a book, which is made of paper and ink, then it also should be acceptable to honor the images of Christians and His saints, which are made of wood and paint. For it should be clear to everyone that we are not really honoring fabric or paper or wood, but the things which these have been made to symbolize.

Fr. Marc Dunaway 

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