Father Stephen on Truth & The Icon


This is good…

“The great classical expression concerning the truth was made first by St. Ambrose of Milan and again later by St. Maximus the Confessor. Their handy description was to say: “the Old Testament is shadow; the New Testament is icon; the End of all things [eschaton in Greek] is the Truth. If you think much about this some things begin to become clear.

First, if the Old Testament is Shadow, then we must ask, “Which direction is the light coming from in order to cast such a shadow?” The obvious answer in the Ambrosian or Maximian scheme is to say,“From the Eschaton.” It is not the light of the past that casts such a shadow, but a light that has not yet finally come.

Wow, growing up Reformed I had a revulsion for things that smacked of Catholicism or idolatry, the two being very similar in my mind because of the part that statues and icons played in the worship life of the parish.

Father Stephen’s writing on the subject has illuminated a dark place for me. It has helped me to understand the Orthodox mind with respect to icons, and their place in worship. This does not mean that I will kiss an icon, or utilize one in my own worship. It does, however, mean that I can now look at it and see it for what it is without being fixated on my faulty perception of what was taking place.

In my simple mind, the icon is a representation of the truth that a biblical event portrayed while Christ was on earth. As an example, several weeks ago I was home, and going through photo albums looking for pictures of my Dad. I saw many pictures from my childhood, some I had never seen before, some nearly forgotten. In that box were several pictures of my Grandfather, a man I admired and loved so much. I saw several pictures of he and I sitting on the beach, or fishing, and was instantly transported back to that time. I remembered details of those times that should have been long lost from memory. I could even hear the seagulls, smell the water, hear the sound of the waves. All evoked by a picture. It was amazing.

“These are Byzantine methods of revealing the gospel truth. Icons are not only “windows into heaven,” they are portals into a time that has not yet completely come. They are not that time, but icons of that time.

I may be short changing the Orthodox understanding of icon greatly by my analogy, but it seems to call forth a similar, reflexive memory. It is a representation of a divine truth that evokes a response within us, causes a spiritual resonance with the truth. Like the picture brought out things about my Grandfather I had forgotten, the icon brings about a remembrance of divine truth that may have been forgotten. The picture was a portal back into time for me, as the icon is to the Orthodox.

In that sense, I can understand the veneration of icons as a thanksgiving for the remembrance of a divine truth. I nearly kissed the picture of my Grandfather, so in that way can understand a faithful soul wanting to do the same toward an icon. I will still feel a little uncomfortable though. Somewhere in my heart I will be wondering if they are confusing veneration with worship, or if they think the icon actually embodies God, or a Saint. But it is not really my place to make that judgement, is it? God knows, and I am comfortable leaving that with Him.

So, the next time I enter an Orthodox place of worship I will have come one step closer to closing the gap between us. What seems veiled, mysterious, and fetish-like now, makes more sense. I can appreciate the truth and beauty I see in the art work, and can worship there with confidence that we are in fact worshipping the same God.

Thank you, Fr. Stephen for helping me understand this ancient, Eastern expression of worship a little better.

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