The Great Artist


The Orthodox are such a peculiar bunch and nothing demonstrates this peculiarity like this icon business. When some people begin to approach the Faith, they often stumble over icons. A little voice in their head whispers that this might be idolatry. Even if they can appreciate them as religious works of art, bowing down and kissing them is a whole different matter. What justification is there for all of this? Is there any biblical justification?

Is the word “icon” a biblical word? Yes, it is.  St. Paul wrote in Colossians: “Christ is the image of the invisible God.” The word “image” is “icon” in Greek.  In Christ, God wrote the first icon. The Great Artist became visible as he painted a portrait of Himself. He told us that when we look into His face, we see the Father. That’s a very sharp image and likeness.

What about the biblical prohibition against idolatry? Certainly there could be no image made of God when that image was unknown. He, who had no form before could not be represented in any work of art. However,  in Christ, He has taken shape, we have seen and heard Him, and now this shape can be represented.

God painted the first Icon.  Since God made himself visible, we can also make him visible. Icons are made of paint and wood. Christ was made of flesh and Spirit and dwelt among us. Without icons we run the risk of forgetting that He was fully human as well as fully divine. His death and resurrection are crucial to us and history revolves around that great event. Being human, His life also matters and so many of our icons represent the events of his life to us.

Represent is an important word. Just take it apart: re-present; that is to make present something that was present before. We humans tend to forget many things if they are not re-presented to us. In an Icon, we are not only reminded of an historical event, Christ is re-presented to us.

The history of Icons has not been a smooth and easy history. There were some who claimed that such representation is wrong. They were called iconoclasts. They influenced the Church for almost 125 years. Orthodoxy remembers the end of iconoclasm in the celebration of “The Sunday of Orthodoxy.”  Many people were martyred imprisoned and exiled for their understanding of the importance of Icons to faith. They would not leave God in the invisible realm but held on to their icons to proclaim that Christ as dwelt among us “fully human and fully divine.”

In the modern world today, God is referred to as “the old man upstairs.” Atheists make fun of what they call our “invisible friend.” They see many false images of God and Christ which they rightfully reject. What alternatives do they have? Then, we move in a worldly habitat  where we are bombarded with all kinds of worldly icons-media images- that if repeated often enough become our way of thinking and speaking.  Against this tide, the Spirit struggles to write the image of Christ in us.

The Great Artist is continually at work. Christ is the first and best icon but He is working on others. He works on you and me so that we will be formed into the image (icon) of His Son. He uses the pigments that seem right to him. Some represent the dark experiences of life and some are light and joyful. By themselves, they have little meaning, but when mixed and painted by the Great Artist, the contrast begins to create the image He wants. One problem is that  we don’t step back and look at the whole picture, or we judge a work that is at the moment an unfinished one.  Rest assured. What the Great Artist begins, He will finish

He works not only for our sake, but for the sake of others. In the Protestant Church, we use to say “you are the only Bible that some people will read.” In the Orthodox Church we say that “you are the only icon that some people will ever see.” The Great Artist is eager to finish his work in you so that you will know the joy of it, and others will finally see what they have longed to see – Christ incarnate on the earth, Christ incarnate in us.

Years ago, I read a book by an Episcopalian on the Rule of St. Benedict. It had many interesting insights, but one has always stayed with me. The theologian said that all animals create habitats. A habitat carves out from the environment a place of safety and nurture, and a protection (as much as is possible) from dangers and predators. Humans do the same for their physical life but sadly for their spiritual life,  do little or nothing to create a spiritual habitat. I hate to say it but I’ve even gone into Orthodox homes and been saddened by the lack of icons in the house.

I challenge you to look at your spiritual habitat. Is it a habitat of learning and nurture, or is a house of straw?  Is it a place where you and your family will grow up with faith in part because Christ has be constantly represented to you or is the world most represented? The Master Artist needs the right material to do His work. He also needs a willing subject.  We can hinder the Great Artist. We can let evil and sin mar the image He is trying to paint. It is our choice. Of course, He never gives up for it is His desire that we all come to “the fullness of the stature of Christ.”  Christ is the Icon of God and we are to be the icons of Christ.

Let me address the objection mentioned above about the reverence we show our icons. We believe that beauty will save the world. In the presence of true beauty, we bow down and kiss. I mean, what else can we do? If you can honestly tell me of anything that is more beautiful that Christ, give me a call. Its funny. When they brought in the Vince Lombardi Trophy to give to the Philadelphia Eagles for winning the Super Bowl, all the players lined up to kiss the trophy. Yet, kissing an icon is just crazy. Right?


P.S.  If you want more sublime thought on the topic, read “On Divine Images” by St. John of Damascus.

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