Do Icons Really Matter?
by the late Archpriest Peter E. Gillquist
Originally from The WORD magazine, February 1990, reprinted in DIAKONIA Spring 2013
Shortly after we moved to Santa Barbara, California, we re-decorated the house, painting the living room and papering the dining room. As we moved the table and chairs back into the dining area, along with the antique hutch that lined up against the west wall, I began to ponder what should go on the wall opposite the hutch. The space was somewhat limited.
Wait a minute, I thought to myself That’s the east wall. Let me find an icon of Christ and another of Mary for either side of the window.
From early times Christians would establish an “icon corner” in their homes, preferably using a corner on the east wall — east being the traditionally biblical direction from which the Son of Righteousness would appear at His second advent. Though this would technically not be an icon corner, I did want to establish the Lord’s presence in our dining room.
As I mounted those two images of Christ and His Mother the following day, I also hung a small presence light, a votive candle in a holder, over the icon of Christ — for He is the light of the world. From that time on, we would light the candle during mealtimes when the family gathered around the table for dinner.
GUESTS CAME TO CALL
A few months later, a good friend who heads a Christian writer’s guild, called to say that he and his wife, would be in Santa Barbara in a few weeks to conduct an evening seminar for local writers. Would Marilyn and I care to join them for the meeting? “Yes,” I told Norm. “And why don’t you come early and have dinner with us here at the house beforehand?”
Norm and Ginny are the refreshing kind of evangelical Christians who have a knack of majoring in commitment to Jesus Christ and minoring in just about everything else. Thus when daughter Tern lit the presence light under the icon of Christ just before they arrived my worry factor rose only a percentage point or two.
It wasn’t till a half hour later when I was praying the prayer of thanksgiving for our food that I realized I had another potential disturbance ahead. There was a split second to decide what to do.
For quite some time, we as a family had adopted the ancient Orthodox practice of making the sign of the cross at the close of our prayers — including prayers at the table. My six children would think me strange to chicken out now, especially since I taught them the New Testament urges us to glory in the cross. Thus, we all eight made the sign of the cross together as I closed my prayer in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I hoped my Protestant guests would not be offended.
As dinner was winding down and some of the children were helping Mom clear the table for dessert, Norm said, “Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?”
“Not at all,” I replied, knowing exactly what they would be — and also believing that he would be far more gracious in asking them than I would have been before our odyssey to Orthodoxy began.
“First, tell us about the picture of Christ here above my chair, the one with the candle before it.”
“It’s called an icon,” I said. “Icon is the Greek word for image. An icon is like a window to heaven — you look at His icon and you catch a glimpse of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. It’s painted in a not-quite-realistic style because it serves to open the heavenly realm to earthly people like us. Also that heavenly appearance helps guard us against any sort of worship of the image itself, instead of worshipping the Lord.”
“But what about the biblical warning against images — is that not a problem?” Norm asked.
“The warnings, of course, are against false images. The Second Commandment instructs us that golden calves and the like are out. But you’ll recall that in Exodus 26 just six chapters after God gave us the Ten Commandments — including the one against graven images — He gave specific orders that images of the angelic cherubim be sewn into the curtains of the tabernacle. ‘Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains woven of fine linen thread, and blue and purple and scarlet yarn; with artistic designs of cherubim you shall weave them’ (Exodus 26:1 NKJV).
“Orthodox Christians over the centuries have maintained an incredible awareness that Christ is always present with us,” I continued. “And that’s one way that icons are a help. Icons do not make Christ present; they rather show us that He is. They are an aid to help us set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. I for one need all that sort of help I can get!”
“Then I noticed as you prayed you all made the sign of the Cross,” Norm said.
“You weren’t supposed to be looking!” I kidded. I went on to explain how the early Christians, and those who have followed the Lord to this day, used the symbol of the Cross of Christ on church buildings interior and exterior, on the altar, later on their Bibles and actually on themselves. I mentioned how St. Paul wrote, “But God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14 NKJV).
“Is there a danger of this kind of thing ever becoming a rabbit’s foot, a good luck charm?” Norm asked.
“Absolutely. I recall as a kid when the Lakers played basketball in Minneapolis. A couple of the players who had a penchant for collecting fouls would invariably step up to the free throw line, catch the ball from the official, cross themselves and then take the shot. Why they crossed themselves then, I cannot say. But the gesture bothered me. Was it just for good luck?
“Years later, now that I have become comfortable with using the sign of the cross, I’ve given serious thought to why signing oneself before a free throw was troublesome. I think it’s clear. Jesus Christ did not die for free-throw percentages. Or for batting averages or total yardage. He died for our sins. And what a privilege is ours as His disciples to apply to ourselves the reality of His cross by signing ourselves with that weapon of peace, asking Him to guard us from sin and the works of the deceiver.”
THINKING IN PICTURES
I sometimes feel, now that I’m Orthodox, that for the first time in my life I have consciously begun to surrender my eyegate to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In fact, I wonder if I hadn’t tried without realizing it to keep all my senses from being impacted by the Holy Spirit, save the sense of hearing. For indeed I knew that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. But it was a hearing that often took place in a room consisting of four bare walls and a pulpit.
“But,” the skeptic may ask, “how can pictures change anything? All they are, after all, is paint and canvas.” My reply? If images do not matter, why is it the Lord told Israel to ditch the golden calf? Why are we instructed to set nothing evil before our eyes? Why do millions of Christian people vocally oppose the spread of pornographic material? Why did the Communists fight to get crosses out of Poland’s schools? And is it my imagination, or does the ACLU seem to throw a temper tantrum every time a manger scene goes up on a courthouse lawn? Of course images matter!
Now, as an Orthodox Christian with the icons front and center in the Church, it is the most natural thing in the world to look at Christ while I’m praying to Him. Eye contact with Jesus Christ keys my mind on Him as I pray, realizing that one day we will see Him face to face.
Perhaps the greatest reality that the icons of Christ and His saints bring to me is to say boldly and clearly in graphic form, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). The icons tell us that the heavenly stadium is filled, and that those witnesses have us surrounded!
For worship is a procession to the throne of God. It is we on earth who join the saints and angels in paying homage to the Triune God. They do not join our procession so much as we enter into theirs. For it is we who come “to the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly (or festal gathering) and Church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the Spirits of righteous men made perfect to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant . . .“ (Heb. 12:22-24).
The icons enliven our imaginations with a holy replica of this host, bringing this celestial company visibly into our churches and our homes, reminding us that all of this is really taking place around us. It is as though we’re “walking onto the set” of God’s eternal promise, participating with heaven in the majesty of His divine drama.
For that, icons really matter.