Our family has enjoyed a wonderful Christmas, spent with extended family and friends, celebrating the birth of Christ and enjoying each other’s warm company while the cold winds blew outside.
Those of us who are converts or who married converts, will have spent some of the time during the holidays with family members who are not Orthodox. These beloved people will have come into our homes and eyed our icons nervously, looking vaguely uncomfortable when we crossed ourselves and blessed the food.
Many of us come from Protestant traditions where icons and crossing oneself and talking about Mary are very much taboo. We were raised with a suspicion that holy images and gilded grandeur have distracted well-meaning Christians from Christ Himself, replacing faith in Him with empty idol worship.
This year, my mom (who remains Protestant), stayed with us for a wonderful week and we had a great time running around with the kids and relaxing in the living room and catching up on a million great stories. We also had a long conversation about icons, which in all these years of having an Orthodox daughter still trouble my mom.
Why do we kiss them? Why do we love them so much? Aren’t we afraid that somehow the icons and the Saints and (yes, of course) Mary herself will take up so much of our attention that we will forget Christ altogether?
When I first saw an Orthodox church, I admit that I too thought, “wow — look how interested they are in all of the Saints and all of these creepy faces on the wall. They are not lucky like me to sit in an empty white room where I can contemplate Christ and Christ alone.”
It should be pretty obvious that by now I’ve not only come around to accepting icons, but in fact I love them. My home has an icon in every room, and features a gorgeous prayer corner full of beloved icons. My mom still isn’t quite sure what to make of it all.
As we sat on my couch one night after Christmas talking, our foreign exchange student from Montenegro (an Orthodox girl from an Orthodox nation) asked us about Protestantism and what that’s like, trying to understand what her classmates in her Texas public school would be thinking and doing and believing, and in the conversation I noted that they didn’t have any icons. She literally had never heard of Christians who didn’t love icons.
She was utterly confused. Why no icons? I told her that they’re concerned that you might love the icons more than God — to which she gave an incredulous gasp, totally unable to imagine how anyone could even come to such a suggestion. Not having grown up around a multitude of Christian denominations, she was trying to work it out in her head but the idea was really totally inconceivable.
My mom and I were talking the next day, and she thought it was odd that this girl couldn’t even imagine such an argument. I tried to explain it about 100 different ways. Those of you who are converts have been there, and have probably also tried many ways to phrase the same thing, always looking for a door in.
We all probably have fantasies that our families will recognize the One True Church and be joyfully baptized or chrismated into the faith, but it’s not just about conversion. It’s hard when your family is Christian and they raised you to be Christian and they just don’t understand or approve of the way that you’re doing it. It is very painful to have found the pearl of great price, only to find that your family cannot see it at all. Many of us spend a lot of energy trying to express the holy ancient faith to our parents and siblings.
In the course of the conversation, I hit upon a metaphor that I really love and which I think can be useful, both for defending the faith against critics and for teaching our kids about icons.
Old Glory, the American Flag (or any nation’s flag, surely)
My mom is an immigrant to this country, and like many people who braved hardships to obtain citizenship in this great nation, she is an avid patriot. You should see my mom on the Fourth of July. She waves the flag like nobody’s business, and she tears up at every sentimental patriotic tune, from God Bless America to The Star-Spangled Banner. My mom loves the USA.
So I asked her,
“Mom, whenever you see an American flag do you salute it? Do you cringe when it’s treated disrespectfully? Do you take offense when it’s burned in the square or desecrated? You adore it so much that you sing songs about that flag: Old Glory and The Star-Spangled Banner and Stars and Stripes Forever. You adorn yourself in the red white and blue. What would you say if I asked you, aren’t you afraid that you are so in love with that flag that you have forgotten America? Could that question ever make sense to you?
When you pledge your allegiance to the flag are you pledging your allegiance to cotton and grommets, or are you pledging your allegiance to a nation? Are you honoring the brave men and women who gave their life for your freedom, or have you forgotten them and come to love merely a pretty piece of fabric as it flies gracefully in the wind? Is it even possible to salute the flag without saluting the nation?”
Have you ever worried that you loved the flag so much that you stopped loving America? That question doesn’t make any sense, because we are loving the nation through its flag. When we hear the patriotic songs and watch the Fourth of July fireworks, our love for the nation is rekindled; these patriotic icons are a part of reinforcing our love for country.
That’s how Orthodox icons are, and then some.
My mom’s not making an appointment for catechism classes, but I think she feels a little bit better about icons today.
Likewise, when we see the American flag burning in a protest across the globe, we understand immediately that this is an aggressively anti-American statement. Abusing our flag is a means of protest and of attack. Do we think that a person who burns the flag has burned our nation? Of course not, but we are injured and offended nonetheless. In the same way, we understand that the icon is not actually Jesus Christ or the Saint in the image — but those who attack icons are attacking the Church and Christ and His Saints. Though they haven’t harmed a hair on any person’s head, the aggression and the insult is registered. Saying that an icon is simply wood and paint is like saying that the flag is merely cotton and grommet — it is and it isn’t.
When I was in Holland a couple of years ago, I went to a church in Utrecht that was originally a Catholic Church until the Reformation, when Luther’s followers burst in and violently desecrated it. There were statues of Jesus and Mary and the Saints and Apostles and a beloved local bishop, and they came in and hacked the heads off the statues. They smashed them up with chains and with hatchets and hammers and anything they could find. There is a statue of Mary holding Jesus and both of their faces have been demolished and hacked, but the bodies remain, literally a defaced Jesus in the arms of his defaced mother. In most churches, I imagine that the damaged statues have been taken away, thrown into the dustbin of history, but in this church the statues remain as a testament to the glory of the Reformation. The people are proud of them and proud of the way that they slaughtered the statues. It’s really troubling. Of course, we don’t have statues in Orthodox Churches, but we know how to look at an image and understand that it is somehow tied to the person it represents. When I see an icon of Christ I see Christ, and if someone desecrates the icon I know that they’ve attacked Christ. When these people beheaded statues, it felt like they were attacking Christ and His Saints and His Mother. The place looked like a gory battlefield with dead Christians all over it, like the scene of a massacre (and indeed, many living Christians were hacked up on that day to be sure.) I suddenly understood: the Reformation was violent.
While it’s not the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the feast of our Lord’s Nativity, His Incarnation, is a good time to consider icons — for it is His incarnation that made Him visible in human form, made Him an appropriate subject for iconography. Indeed, His very presence as human flesh sanctifies human bodies and all of the material stuff of creation — which means for us that paint and wood can be sanctified, that the stuff of this world can be made holy.
On the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan website (goarch.org) you’ll find the following text from the Vespers for the Sunday of Orthodoxy:
“Inspired by your Spirit, Lord, the prophets foretold your birth as a child incarnate of the Virgin. Nothing can contain or hold you; before the morning star you shone forth eternally from the spiritual womb of the Father. Yet you were to become like us and be seen by those on earth. At the prayers of those your prophets in your mercy reckon us fit to see your light, “for we praise your resurrection, holy and beyond speech. Infinite, Lord, as divine, in the last times you willed to become incarnate and so finite; for when you took on flesh you made all its properties your own. So we depict the form of your outward appearance and pay it relative respect, and so are moved to love you; and through it we receive the grace of healing, following the divine traditions of the apostles.”
“The grace of truth has shone out, the things once foreshadowed now are revealed in perfection. See, the Church is decked with the embodied image of Christ, as with beauty not of this world, fulfilling the tent of witness, holding fast the Orthodox faith. For if we cling to the icon of him whom we worship, we shall not go astray. May those who do not so believe be covered with shame. For the image of him who became human is our glory: we venerate it, but do not worship it as God. Kissing it, we who believe cry out: O God, save your people, and bless your heritage.”
“We have moved forward from unbelief to true faith, and have been enlightened by the light of knowledge. Let us then clap our hands like the psalmist, and offer praise and thanksgiving to God. And let us honor and venerate the holy icons of Christ, of his most pure Mother, and of all the saints, depicted on walls, panels and sacred vessels, setting aside the unbelievers’ ungodly teaching. For the veneration given to the icon passes over, as Basil says, to its prototype. At the intercession of your spotless Mother, O Christ, and of all the saints, we pray you to grant us your great mercy. We venerate your icon, good Lord, asking forgiveness of our sins, O Christ our God. For you freely willed in the flesh to ascend the cross, to rescue from slavery to the enemy those whom you had formed. So we cry to you with thanksgiving: You have filled all things with joy, our Savior, by coming to save the world.”