Dear Friends and Family,
One of my favourite Christmas presents from this last Christmas was a reproduction of an icon given to me by my Mother-in-law. Icons are another one of those things that tend to confuse Western Christians, particularly we lower-Protestants. They can seem like idols. They can be treated like idols. There are even passages in Scripture that tell us not to make graven images of our God. So why on earth do I have a reproduction of an icon of the Trinity?
The answer is less than simple and I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. At root, however, the logic behind icons is that Jesus, who is the Image of the invisible God did precisely what graven images in Exodus were intended to do, he gave us a picture, a physical object in himself, to show us what God is like. This became the main argumentation in the early Church for creating (or writing as it is now called) icons. Since Christ gave us an image of God to guide us to God, it is not inappropriate for us to create images of God to help guide us to God.
The purpose of an icon is a guide. When you pray using an icon, you are not praying to the icon, instead you allowing the image depicted in the icon lead you to deeper truths about God. This can help you focus your prayer when you don’t know what to pray. While many icons depict Jesus (or God as the icon of the Trinity above, which is actually a depiction of the three visitors who come to Abraham before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah), there are also some that depict holy people. I don’t want to get in to this, since this leads us to the veneration of saints, but the idea behind these icons is still one of guidance and seeking for personal transformation. We pray to God (not the icon) that we may be made more like the person depicted (These icons are also used to invoke the saints themselves and ask them to pray for us, just as we would ask our friends. I realise that many may still have issues with this, but I wish only to focus on these icons as guides).
Below I’ve embedded a video from one of my supervisors, Dr Mary Cunningham, on why theologians ought to study icons. Give it a watch.
At the end of the day we are called to pray without ceasing. Sometimes, however, we need help, we need guides because we do not know how to pray. While the Holy Spirit will groan within us and for us when we don’t know what to pray, we can still use other guides. This is the usefulness of icons in prayer.