I kissed my first icon today. Most Orthodox Christians would not wait half a year after their chrismation to kiss a venerated icon, but this hasn’t been an ordinary year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, our lips have been covered during the Divine Liturgy, and I had previously only removed my mask in church to receive the Eucharist. I was recently vaccinated, however, and although I still wear a mask in church, I occasionally lift my mask and allow myself a gulp of fresh air and smell of the incense. Today, after receiving the Eucharist, I prostrated myself before an icon of Christ and kissed the bottom right corner.
Today is the first Sunday of the Great Lent, known among Orthodox Christians as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. On this day we commemorate the final triumph of Orthodoxy over Iconoclasm. According to the iconoclasts and in accordance with the second commandment of the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments), no images of Christ or the saints should be venerated. Iconoclasm was declared heretical at the Seventh Ecumenical Council of A.D. 787, but experienced a resurgence in the ninth century under Emperor Leo V the Armenian. The first iconoclastic period, which lasted fifty-seven years (730 – 787), had deepened the divide between eastern and western Christendom. The second period lasted only thirty years and ended on March 11, 843, when Patriarch Methodios led a procession to the Hagia Sophia in order to restore the icons, restore orthodox teaching on iconography, and bring peace to the church. Ever since then, Orthodox Christians have venerated icons.
Orthodox Christians worship only God, not icons, but we do venerate icons, which portray images of Christ, the Theotokos (Mary, mother of God), and the saints. We believe that the second commandment, which prohibits graven images, does not prohibit the creation or veneration of images: in this, we follow the traditional interpretation of the second commandment of the early Church and of many strains of Judaism, such as third-century Babylonian Judaism. Indeed, as early as the Decalogue itself, God commanded the Israelites to construct the Ark of the Covenant with images of winged cherubim atop the kaporet (or “mercy seat”). According to Orthodox Tradition, Saint Luke the Evangelist drew (or “wrote”) the first icon of Christ and the Theotokos. There is also the acheiropoieta, the miraculous icon of Christ made without any human hand, which was sent to King Abgar of Edessa by Jesus Himself. I have written elsewhere about how Orthodox iconography exists in relationship to visual art much as Scripture exists in relationship to literature. Because the tradition of Christian iconography dates back to those who knew and saw Christ in the flesh, we can, in a sense, see Christ through such icons.
In my church, like many Orthodox churches, we commemorate the March 11, 843, procession to the Hagia Sophia with a “children’s procession.” All the children in the congregation follow the priests in a large circle around the church, each child carrying an icon from their home. It’s really cute.
Orthodox iconography was a major factor in my conversion to Orthodox Christianity. I was gradually drawn to Orthodoxy in part because of this ancient and beautiful tradition. Throughout most of Christian history, the majority of Christians did not read or have easy access to Scripture. Icons played a major role in most people’s relationship with God. Most of the Orthodox Christians I have met believe that religious art and architecture can be missional. Icons offer us a glimpse into the relationship between God and humans, as we were created like icons, in the image of God. In Colossians, Saint Paul describes Christ as the “image of the invisible God.” Far from being a decadent distraction from true, if austere, faith (this is how many Protestants view Orthodox and Catholic sacred art), the iconography and architecture associated with the Orthodox faith enrich our spiritual lives and connect us to our Savior.