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This introduction is written as a first draft for my parish website: St Ignatius Orthodox Church Belfast. The picture was also taken at St Igantius’.
You may never have set foot in an Orthodox Church, but it is very likely that you’ve come across an icon. Or have seen a picture of one on the internet and TV. It is only appropriate the icons are almost seen as the defining mark of the Orthodox. This is because they are not simply decorative, but actually touch upon the central truth of our faith: The Incarnation, where God became man. Icons demonstrate for us the two things that the human condition needs the most, and how the need has been met. That is we need the person of God and the power of God. That we need to know and have a personal relationship with God, and we need his presence actively at work in our lives to heal us.
In the Old Testament era it was forbidden to make depiction of God. In fact, it would be impossible to do so. God’s nature is infinite and invisible. Any image or depiction would be a distortion. Nothing could sufficiently represent Him. God himself said “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape (Deutoromy 4:15-16).” But at the incarnation, when God became man, he now had a depictable form.
The One who by nature is infinite and eternal took on a created and limited form, forever bridging the relational gap between us. It does not mean the divine nature now became finite. But a divine person now has taken on a finite nature. All the while keeping a divine nature as well. In Orthodoxy, person and nature are not the same. I have a soul and a body. But my soul and body are not me. You could clone my body and still not have me. Nor would you have me by replicating a soul with all my memories and functions. Because a person is the unique and unrepeatable *I*. So while a nature tells what someone is. A person tells who someone is. That is why Orthodox Christians say that there is only one God, because there is only one divine nature. But there three persons who share it. And as such each can properly be called divine. Each can be called God. That is why even though it was the Son of God who incarnated, a divine person now has human nature. So we say God became man.
It is only because person and nature are distinguishable that icons of Jesus are possible. Because they don’t depict the divine nature, but a divine person. So Icons not only tell us that it is possible for God to unite and relate to us as we are. But that He actually has done this, by becoming one of us. In real time, at point in history.
Icons also remind us that God works through material world and plans to rescue it. They don’t just represent God or Saints. But since God has united Himself to the material world, His divine power comes through them to bring healing to our souls. Because I am physical and have a physical body, God doesn’t want me to engage with him by only thinking and hearing about Him. But he wants to by my senses too. By my body. He wants to unite with my entire being. That’s why there’s plenty of movement in an Orthodoxy service which we call the Liturgy. That’s why we kiss icons and bow before them. God’s presence and the presence of those united to Him come to those who kiss, bow and look at icons. This is because at the incarnation Christ united the material world to God. And those who love God are united to Him in special personal way. So that God who is present in matter can be with us in these icons. And the Saints in Heaven, by being united to God, are also united to us and present with Him in icons. It does not matter that a particular icon may not look like the image depicted. Though it does not mirror their physical nature, it depicts their person. We all understand this in our everyday lives. It would be wrong tell a child that the picture they drew isn’t their dad because their proportions aren’t even and he isn’t blue. Nor could the bully who draws their classmate like a monster get out of trouble because “it doesn’t look like them.” Just as paintings of historical figures and ancient people may not be exactly accurate, we still know *who* are being drawn. The images still relate to the ones imaged. The soldier who kisses a picture of his wife is honouring loving the person it depicts. The man who spits on the image of his father at a funeral has insulted his father. This is the same way Orthodox Christians relate to the person shown in the icon.
So in conclusion, icons show us that a close relationship between infinite God and finite man is possible. Both being forever united at the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And icons show us that God not only cares about the material world but wants to work through it and save it. Because matter matters. That is why Jesus Christ rose from the dead, to show us that God can grant immortality to our decaying bodies. And that one day when Christ returns, everyone will have their bodies resurrected too. So that being fully human, being fully alive we can have a perfect relationship with the Trinity. God and Mankind, in an eternal union of never ending life and joy. This is why we have icons. They tell us what God has done for us in the past by the incarnation, what He is doing for us now by His healing presence, and what He will do for us in the future by the resurrection of our bodies.
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