Here’s a nice understanding of the place of icons in Orthodox worship. It’s by Fr Michael Gillis is B.C. Take note Andrea, he’s from your neck of the woods :)
Question: While I am an evangelical Christian, I am close to people who have converted to Orthodoxy. I’m trying to understand the place of icons in the Orthodox Christian faith, as they make me very uncomfortable. They seem like a distraction from what’s truly important, a vain tradition of men. Isn’t it more important to have a relationship with God than to focus on pictures? And shouldn’t prayer and reading the Bible be central to that relationship?
Answer: It is more important to have a relationship with someone than to look at his or her picture. However, isn’t your house filled with pictures of people with whom you have relationships, and even with pictures of people you have never met but who are important to you (like great-grandparents)? Having pictures of someone does not mean that the pictures are more important than the relationship; it means that the relationship is so important that you keep pictures of the people around (even if you never met them). I think you have created a false dichotomy—“either relationship or picture.” For the Orthodox, it is rather “because of relationship, picture.”
I agree with you that prayer and reading the Bible are central to our relationship with God. But they cannot be everything, as we know in part because most Christians for most of history couldn’t read at all. It was the icons—paintings of the events and people of the past—along with the interpretation of the symbols in these icons that taught the people the content of the Bible and the theology of the Church.
Christians have never made just any image they wanted and called it an icon. There are very strict rules and traditions that must be followed before what someone paints can be called a genuine icon. The Church believes that the icons preserve in picture form the divine teaching that the Bible preserves in written form. Even the Jewish synagogues that have been unearthed from the early Christian and pre-Christian eras had paintings of biblical scenes on their walls. This is not a new thing or a corruption of some early purity. We don’t have to choose between icons and the Bible. Just as I might look at a picture of my girlfriend before, during, and after reading a letter from her, so I might read my Bible while standing before an icon of Christ.
But the real question at the heart of your discomfort with icons may have to do with the role of tradition. Colossians 2:8, 1 Peter 1:18, and all of Jesus’ sayings that mention tradition make it clear that human tradition should never keep us from following Christ. But Paul praises both the Corinthians and the Thessalonians for keeping the traditions that they had learned from him (1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). The problem with traditions is not that they are traditions; the important thing is whom you receive them from. People have all sorts of traditions. Do the traditions help or hinder one’s relationship with God? That’s the real question.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, the persecutions had stopped and the Church was trying to figure out what it really believed, while fringe groups were making all sorts of weird claims (just as they are today). A man named Vincent in what is now France came up with a formula that was very useful. He said that to claim that Christians believe something, that thing would have to meet three criteria: universality, antiquity, and consent. Or in other words, it would have to be believed everywhere in the world, not just in one geographic area; it would have to have been believed from the beginning, not just in the past two hundred years; and it would have to be believed by everyone, not just one group. The icons, like the rest of our Orthodox faith, have passed that test.
Fr. Michael Gillis is pastor of Holy Nativity of Christ Orthodox Mission in Langley, British Columbia.
This article originally appeared in AGAIN Vol 27 No 1, Spring 2005.