A few years back I participated in a weekend retreat organized by Ministry Quest where we were encouraged to think about our future in ministry work. One such exercise that we participated in was to look at several different “call stories” in scripture. In a small group of about 3-4, we looked at the call of Samuel, of Isaiah, and the list goes on. We were encouraged to write our reflections of these call stories on a large piece of presentation paper. After we were finished, the pieces of paper were posted on the four walls surrounding us so that everyone could see what others had discerned in each call story they were assigned. At one point, one of the leaders very astutely noted that these sheets of paper represented “Protestant Icons”. For those who are unfamiliar with icons, they are at base an artistic depiction of important scriptural events meant to bring one into contemplation regarding the nature of God and our relationship to God. While historically icons are more a Eastern Christian phenomenon, this has not always been the case, and the use of icons in worship services is becoming more and more common today across denominational and ecclesial borders.
What I think was significant about the leader’s comment, was that it revealed the protestant hypocrisy articulated in some superficial perceptions of icons , namely, that icons are being used as a form of idol worship. In a lot of protestant circles you might hear it said something to the effect of: “they worship images while claiming to worship God, while we worship God through reading and discussing scripture.” The hypocrisy in this way of stating the matter is that while claiming to read scripture to facilitate worship, us Protestants do not realize that we also create our own “images”, albeit in a more strictly cerebral form. Said differently, Protestants generally take the words of scripture and listen to a leader who has crafted from the scriptures a sermon and we call it a legitimate form of worship. But take a beautifully painted and symbolic picture and spend long periods of time looking at it, contemplating the truth of God in Christ, and you are worshiping an idol?
To be sure, icons are not replacements for access to the words of scripture, for indeed, in order to “craft” an icon to begin with, the scriptures need to be engaged. Through that engagement and through the affirmation of the worshiping community that what has been discerned in that engagement with scripture is truly a faithful reaching towards the truth, an icon is just as legitimate, I would argue, as a sermon. If either the icon or the sermon are crafted with other motives in mind however, or if the worshiper comes to either the icon or the sermon with the wrong intentions, then either become idols, and this is not hard to see in some Protestant and Non-Denominational church obsessions with the “successful” sermon. One might say that a more faithful icon or sermon is the one that is suggestive enough to point us beyond the surface of the icon or the sermon (or the Preacher!) to the God who is working there. In this case, some have argued, one should fail to be a “good” preacher in order to be a truly faithful one.
All of this reflection aside, if you are new to icons then here is an icon for you which I feel is appropriate as we approach Advent. This icon is called the Vladimir Theotokos, “theotokos” meaning “god-bearer”, who we all know as Mary:
And a brief interpretation from Windows to Heaven: Introducing Icons to Protestants and Catholics by Elizabeth Zelensky & Lela Gilbert:
“Look into the eyes of the Vladimir Theotokos. They are infinitely sad. Mary knows what will happen to this infant who strains to embrace her, cheek to cheek. She knows what the future holds; the prophetic word of old Simeon has surely said, “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).
On Holy Thursday and Good Friday, three poignant lines are read in the Orthodox liturgy as part of the Mother of God’s lament, which she utters at the foot of the cross.
Where are you going, my child,
To where do you rush so swiftly?
Is there another wedding feast at Cana?
How profoundly deep is the human tragedy underlying Christ’s passion! All love entails suffering, but most of all maternal love, which is fraught with potentially heartbreaking situations. How can a mother guard her beloved child from the wounds that life will inevitably inflict on him? How can a mother love her child enough to let her go? A mother’s boundless empathy leaves her vulnerable and open to pain and loss. Surely it is the archetypal situation that makes the mother and child imagery of the Theotokos (Mother of God) icons so compelling.” pg. 58