The Second Commandment expressly forbids images of anything, not only of God but of anything at all. We need to ask ourselves the question why this is the case. In the Old Testament nobody had ever seen God. We have the story in Genesis of Adam and Eve walking together in the Garden with God, and this is a story, which belongs outside the framework of the historical time, a story explaining the mystical significance of the relationship that humankind had originally with God. This walking together with God in the Paradise is important. God’s original intention in creating human beings was to create out of an act of love and to create beings who would be in a state of continual communion with Him. And human beings, in response to this, could not cope with this relationship; they placed themselves in the centre of creation.
In the story of Genesis they eat of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. Their sin is not only one of disobedience, but it is a sin of idolatry, of placing themselves in the position of the Creator. This is what idolatry is: a worship of creation, of created matter, rather then the Creator, and worship can only rightfully belong to the Creator. So, consequentially, for the people of Israel, in the Old Testament, the prohibition of any images was due to this fact. If one makes an image of anything, one is making an image of something that was created, and then comes the temptation to worship that which was created rather than the Creator. And in the Old Testament the Creator was a God, who was transcendent, removed from the world, who was unapproachable, unknowable, ‘unseeable’.
There is no account of anybody in the Old Testament seeing God. When God delivers the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, He passes by, the divine Glory passes by, but Moses is hid in the cleft of a rock, because the direct vision of God would be too great for him and would have killed him instantly. So, it is impossible to see God face to face in the Old Testament. (save perhaps the three Strangers, whom the Church perceives as the Trinity, visiting Abraham – Ed. Note)
For Christians, the whole picture changes with the coming of Christ. As St John says in the prologue to his Gospel, the Word, the лпгпт, became flesh and dwelled among us. In other words, the second Person of the Trinity, the Word, the Son of God, at a certain point of human history became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the person of Jesus Christ God and Man were both present simultaneously. And Christ was a historical person, who lived in time, whom people saw, spoke to Him, touched Him. The Incarnation, God becoming a human being, was described by St Athanasius, one of the great teachers of the Church, in the following words: God became a human being so that human beings might become God. This, for him, is part of the whole purpose of the reconciliation by God of His fallen creation, that in Christ lies the possibility of matter, of the human life, of the whole creation, to be sanctified and returned to God.
Now, if God became a human being, existed and dwelled among men, and human beings saw and talked to and touched Him, then they can also depict Him. And if they can depict Christ – and an icon of course depicts physical appearance, but through an icon one can learn something of the spiritual quality – then, in fact, having icons in churches we are affirming our Christian belief in the Incarnation of God.
For us, as Orthodox Christians, physical existence is as important as spiritual existence. Human beings are a synthesis of body, and mind, and soul. Our bodies are as important to us as our souls. Christianity isn’t simply a spiritual faith; it is an incarnate faith as well. This relates to the use of incense and ritual in churches: these things are important because we don’t just approach God through our minds; if we are incarnate beings we approach Him through our bodies as well.
So, when we worship God, it is not just an intellectual exercise, it is an exercise which uses the whole person and all of our senses. So, in church our worship is not just based on our intellect, it uses our sense as well, it uses our sense of hearing though music, bells, chanting, the words of the prayer, the words of the Scriptures. It uses our sense of sight through all the things that we see in the church, the icons, the candles, and it uses our sense of smell even, with the incense, of our touch and our taste. Sacraments are ways through which God uses physical matter in order to make Himself available to human beings.
A classic definition would be that a sacrament is the outward and visible form of an inward and spiritual grace. In the sacrament ordinary material things: bread, wine, water, oil, hands being placed on somebody’s head (in other words, physical contact, touch) are used as means to show God’s presence among the people. So the physical is very important again. In an icon, too, physical matter, in this case wood, paint, this sort of things, are used as means of God’s grace being bestowed on human beings. So, in one sense, you could describe icons as being like a sacrament.
Certainly, for Orthodox, it would be very difficult to understand Orthodox Christianity without icons. Now, apart from the Scriptures and the Creed, one source of authority for Orthodox Christians are the Ecumenical Councils, i.e. councils where the whole of the Church met together in order to decide points of doctrine. For Orthodox Christians there were seven of these, the first in the year 325, the last in the year 787. The seventh Ecumenical Council came together to defend the veneration of icons after a long period of about hundred years or so, during which the Church was split into the iconoclasts, who rejected the veneration of icons and saw it as being idolatrous, and those who defended the icons. In the end, the icons were defended, not as being objects of worship, because only God could be worshipped, but they were defended as being objects, which could be venerated, the veneration passing by the icon to the prototype that it represented. This idea was initially expressed by St Basil the Great earlier on in the history of the Church.
In fact, there is a much more down-to-earth and less theological significance of the icons, and that could be brought home just in the ordinary human experience of having photographs around in one’s home. When we are away from home, or separated from the people that we love, we very often have their photographs around us. We have them there to remind us of them and in some way they can make us feel more in touch, more in communion with them. And for Orthodox Christians icons of Christ, His Mother Mary, the saints are like family photographs, the icons around the walls of the church are there not only to be venerated, not only in order to embellish or beautify the church, not only to act as visual aids, or teaching aids, but they are there to remind us that the Church isn’t something that is just in the here and now, but the Church is that whole company of people, departed this life and alive at the present moment, whose lives are directed towards God. So, the icons are at one a symbol of our Orthodox faith, a proclamation of our belief in the Incarnation and also they are our family photographs of those members of our family of the Church, who – as the author of the epistle to the Hebrews would say -have already passed ‘within the veil’.