Liturgy and Icon

Liturgy and Icon

There is an important connection between our liturgical services and holy icons.

In many ways, it’s difficult to imagine how our Liturgy could subsist without icons. They are an irrevocable part of the life of the Church. Ouspensky notes (Theology of the Icon, vol. 1, p. 8):

It is absolutely impossible to imagine the smallest liturgical rite in the Orthodox Church without icons. The liturgical and sacramental life of the Church is inseparable from the image.

The liturgical and mystical life of the Church is inseparable from icons because they together proclaim the same faith and truth—and that Truth is Jesus Christ. All icons are icons of Christ, the express image of God the Father. The Truth conveyed by icons is one and the same with the words of our fathers, the scriptures, and our prayers and hymns. St. Basil explains (On the 40 Martyrs):

That which the word communicates by sound, the painting shows silently by representation.

Orthodox iconography is the Gospel in shapes and colors, just as our psalms and odes are the Gospel in song and each one of us in the Body of Christ are the Gospel in flesh and blood.

Ouspensky also says that the icon and Liturgy complete one another:

The icon completes the Liturgy and explains it, adding its influence on the souls of the faithful. The contents and the meaning of the icon and of the Liturgy are the same, and this is why their form, their language, is also the same. It is the same symbolism, the same sobriety, the same depth in content. This is why, as everything in the Church, sacred art has a double dimension: Its very essence is unchangeable and eternal since it expresses the revealed truth, but at the same time it is infinitely diverse in its forms and expressions, corresponding to different times and places.

In other words, icons are not such simply because they follow a particular artistic style or mode of expression. They are icons because they rightly divide the Word of Truth.

In contemporary discourse, iconography is categorized alongside other forms of art, explained as little more than a derivation of African funerary paintings or other Greco-Roman idols. As regards their rudimentary form, this is true enough (to a certain extent), but the real truth of icons for an Orthodox Christian goes deeper than these comparative studies.

By the same token, one might assert that the Hebrews were merely borrowing worship from paganism, such as burning incense, singing songs (poetry and song were often how the stories of a people were passed down to each generation in antiquity), and animal sacrifice. But again, there is more to these acts for both the ancient Hebrews and for us today as faithful Christians. In the end, comparing surface similarities between religions (or forms of art) does very little to help explain or understand.

Iconography is a vessel for true theology, not only in the sense of relaying the truths of our faith to each generation, but also in the sense of connecting each one of us to the Truth himself. They exist as a means by which the finite can be reconciled to and experience the infinite.

In the overall context of Divine revelation, a connection between icons and the Liturgy is most readily apparent. The Divine Liturgy is an apocalypse—a “removal of the veil” between heaven and earth—and holy icons point to this same reality.

Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for another good teaching. We gave a Resurrection Icon, the one where Christ is pulling up Adam and Eve by the wrists from their graves, to our brother-in-law who is looking into Orthodoxy, and he got tears in his eyes.

  2. Clayton says

    Could you expound sometime on what is meant by “all icons are icons of Christ”?

    • says

      Sure.

      What I mean by this is that Jesus Christ is the express image (Greek: eikon) of the Father, and we are created “according to the image” (κατʼ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν, Gen. 1:26 LXX) of God, who is Christ. Christ is the image of God, and we are created according to his image.

      Therefore, all icons—all people and all Saints especially—are images of Christ.

  3. Matthew says

    Thanks Gabi,
    I have begun attending a Melkite Byzantine Catholic church in Melbourne, Australia, and this article gives me a good grounding as to how Holy icons and the Divine liturgy are connected and point to the same truth.

    Thanks
    Matthew

  4. says

    I love icons!

    But I see no special power in them.

    I do believe that they can be an aid in one’s faith.

    But “faith comes by hearing…”