It has been said that the whole of Orthodox theology and teaching can be found in a single, well-executed icon. I believe it to be true. Over the years, I have found that certain icons have been invaluable in efforts to teach a class of inquirers or catechumens about certain aspects of the faith. Those “certain aspects” could easily be expanded until, time permitting, the whole of the faith would be expounded. I daresay that some evenings in such classes, the students probably thought that time was permitting.
My thoughts turn to this understanding each year as we approach the “Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy,” the first Sunday of Great Lent. Ostensibly, it commemorates the return of icons to the Churches in the year 843, after the final condemnation of the iconoclast heresy. It is worth noting, however, that it is called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” and not the “Return of the Icons.” The Christian world outside of Orthodoxy remains clueless to this understanding, assuming that it is a lot of fuss about some pictures, about which they themselves remain dubious.
Like so much else in our world, we see icons only fleetingly. The culture glances at them and says, “Oh. A religious picture.” We see much of the world in the same manner. Our lives are marketed to us, primarily under the guise of emotional experiences. We are sold things for the sake of “enjoyment.” One enjoyment passes into another as we seek to construct a “good day.” In our enjoyment, we are diminished.
Consider this passage:
Attention, from this point of view, means to accept what is given just as it offers itself to us, whether in our basic engagement with the plain sense of a word or phrase, or in our perceptual awareness of the physical appearance of an image. It means a readiness for, and an openness to, another form which is different from me, which actively approaches me from outside of myself, offers itself to me as a gift, welling up to the surface from some mysterious depth. (from The Art of Seeing, by Fr. Maximos Constas)
Throughout an Orthodox service, the Deacon bids the faithful: “Attend!” (translated variously). It calls our wandering minds back to the thing at hand and tells us that our attention is required. In the placing of icons in the Churches and in our homes, the Church also says to us, “Attend!” It means for us to stop and look at the world, and, when well executed, an icon is able to say, “Look at the world in this way!”
The world we live in cannot be described as “iconoclastic,” for it is filled with images. But the images it gives to us, and the veneration it invites for them, are distorted. Even for the Orthodox, there is a great temptation for our own icons to become distorted. This is especially so when they are reduced to “branding.” “We are the Church that has icons!” God has not given them to us in order provide us with tokens of our tribe – that is nothing more than allowing ourselves to live on the level of marketing.
The icons are holy. They reveal to us the truth of God-with-us, and the truth of His relationship with the created world. The world we inhabit has lost its mooring. It wanders among the ruins of the world that went before, as often as not, defining that lost world as an enemy in order to hide from its own aimlessness. Fundamental words are losing their meaning, pressed into political meanings to serve the powers of this age. The Church proclaims that no words have meaning except as they find it in the Word Himself, no images are revealed as truth except as they reflect the Son, who is the express image of the Father.
We need to pay attention – holy things are for the holy. And we must pay attention to what God has given to us. Pay attention to the Word, so that we may understand all words. Pay attention to the icons, that we may understand all images. Pay attention to yourself, so that you may remember whose gift you are and why He has given you.