Throughout the month of October, join OCF in learning more about our Orthodox faith, sharing it with others, and growing together as a community. This year, we ask that you join us in again in the #ShareAThon by sharing quotes, photos, articles, podcasts, and videos on social media with the hashtags #ShareAThon and #OAM15 to share the beauty of our Orthodox faith with others.
Chapters are also encouraged to “Take the Challenge” by submitting media throughout the month of their chapter participating in fellowship, education, worship, and service. Chapters will be awarded points based on their submissions, and the chapters with the most points at the end of the month will win OCF prize packages.
To learn more about how you can participate in Orthodox Awareness Month, click here.
This week’s campus question:
What’s up with all the pictures? Isn’t that like idol worship? Doesn’t the Bible forbid that?
Explaining iconography to someone who doesn’t pray with icons can be a little daunting. For us Orthodox, it’s as natural and normal as reading the Gospel, and we all sort of instinctively know that we’re not worshiping the icons. So what does the Bible say about images, and why do we have icons?
First off, typically when people try to say that the Bible forbids icons or images they are referring to the Ten Commandments:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Some Christians throughout history have interpreted this passage to mean that no religious images or visual art are allowed by God. In fact, the Church struggled with this issue throughout the eighth and ninth centuries finally defeating iconoclasm and upholding the use of icons in worship, a day we celebrate every year on the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church made clear the position of images in the worship of the Church and their relationship to the second commandment:
The Triumph of Orthodoxy. We even have an icon about icons. Image from Wikimedia
- The Incarnation is a game-changer. Christ made visible the invisible God, and thus it is allowed that images of Him be depicted.
- Icons depict real people. The second commandment protects us from creating fantastical creatures that replace the true God. Icons depict real people and events that draw us to the true God.
- Worship and veneration are not the same. Worshiping an idol is the equivalent of replacing God with a created thing (or ideology or passion). Venerating an icon is an act of respect and love that glorifies the Creator (sort of like saluting to a soldier is an act of respect and honor that shows your loyalty to your country).
- God instructed Moses to create images. Just in case anyone thought God’s commandment to Moses excluded all visual images of anything as idols, check out Exodus 36:35-37:9 where, per the instructions of God, Moses has images of cherubim embroidered into the curtains of the tabernacle and statues of the same cast for the Ark of the Covenant.
Obviously, then, it is not images that are an issue, but our relationship to images. So what do icons do for us and why do we love them?
- Icons teach us our history. In the early Church, never mind the fact that there was no official New Testament canon for almost 400 years, there were very few copies of the Scriptures (no printing press), and not all Christians were literate. Even today, we have a huge contingency of Christians who do not read–you know, everyone under the age of five. Icons teach us the stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints–the whole story of salvation–and invite us to be a part of that history.
- Icons teach us our theology. Icons are no ordinary paintings. They are full of symbolic meaning to convey the theological truths of the True Faith. From the colors to the stances of the people, to the scenery and lighting, icons teach us who God is, and who we are in relation to Him. For example, in most of the festal icons of Christ (Nativity, Theophany, Crucifixion, Resurrection), you’ll notice that Christ is the Light emerging from the darkness (of the cave, the water, Golgotha, Hades). Or you’ll typically see Christ wearing a red tunic with a blue cloak, showing us that he was divine (red) but took on humanity (blue), and his mother is typically dressed opposite as she–and we–are human (blue) who take on Christ’s divinity (red).
- Icons draw us near to the saints. We believe in a Church that is united across both space and time. In other words, the saints that have preceded us are just as much a part of the Living Body of Christ as our own friends and family. Just as we might cherish an image of a loved one who is no longer physically with us (and we might carry that image with us or even kiss it when we miss them), we cherish the images of Christ, His mother, and the saints as images of those we love and who guide us in our own lives.
- Icons call us to be still and worship. Unlike other forms of visual art, Orthodox iconography is specifically created with worship in mind. There is a stillness and a peace about the figures, even when they are shown “in action.” What seems to be a reverse in perspective is a message to us that it is we who vanish in the distance when we move away from God. Icons help us focus our prayers to God and help us dispel the distracting images that flit through our minds at the prompting of the demons.
- Icons call us to the heavenly realm. Everything about icons that we’ve already mentioned–their themes, their symbols, their characters, their artistic style–seek to draw us toward Christ and His holy ones. This is another reason that icons are not painted realistically; they are meant to draw us not to themselves, but beyond the images to the heavenly reality they depict. Unlike other art and certainly unlike idols, icons do not allow us to get stuck in the beauty of this world but call us to be a part of a world transfigured by God’s grace and love.
Having icons is not about having beautiful churches, though icons are certainly beautiful. They are not about worshiping wood and paint, though they are integral to how we worship. Icons are meant to give us glimpses of the world to come and who we can become in Christ. I am reminded that Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Archdiocese once said to us at a College Conference
The walls of this church are lined with icons. The empty spaces are yours.
What do we say to non-Orthodox people about Orthodoxy?
This is probably the number one question I hear floating around OCF chapters and conversations with young adults. As Orthodox Christians in North America, we are certainly a religious minority, and as college students on diverse campuses, you have been–willingly or not–selected as ambassadors and representatives of the Orthodox faith. Even just setting up a table on campus at your student activities fair can elicit questions about who we are, what we believe, how we worship.
I’d like to make a few suggestions over the next few weeks about how we can address some of the most common questions you get asked on campus (so you’ll have to tell me what they are), but today, I’d like to talk about how we do our sharing more than what we share.
We’ve touched on this theme before–that it’s important above all to recognize the image of God in the other person, to look for common ground, and to express ourselves with love, humility, and prayer. To those principles I’d like to add these:
- We are not looking for an argument and we aren’t out to win anything. I’d like to think that sharing our faith should be an act of hospitality, like offering a person a cool glass of water as they journey across a desert, not like dumping a whole bucket of water on the ground in front of them and telling them to lap it up from the sand or taunting them with the glass of water until they say what we want. We are inviting someone into our home and should seek not to be offensive or rude to our guests. Sometimes, the other person wants the argument, and then we must use our discernment to decide if we should continue the conversation or graciously excuse ourselves.
- We shouldn’t be afraid to speak the truth in love. Seeking not to be offensive or rude is not the same as adjusting or hiding our beliefs to avoid making someone uncomfortable. It’s true that for some people the Christian faith will always be offensive (even St. Paul knew this). I once got a fortune cookie that read “Love truth, but pardon error.” I think this is the foundation of real tolerance, that we know and love the Truth and pursue it unabashedly, but that we constantly excuse the errors of those around us. In fact, this principle applies to more than just dialogue with non-Orthodox, but to the entire spiritual life. Now, this isn’t an excuse to be self-righteous or condescending but should encourage us to share Truth even when it may seem difficult or when others seem to resist it violently. That’s ok. God has allowed them to reject Him, we don’t have to worry about them rejecting us.
- History is important. You may think I mean Church History, but I mean the other person’s history. Everyone has a story, and people ask their questions based on their own experiences and beliefs. It’s a lot easier to answer questions in a helpful and loving way if you know why they’re being asked and where the person is coming from. Not to mention it’s just downright respectful to bother to ask the other person about themselves. You’ll open doors to understanding, dialogue, and friendship just by bothering to say, “Tell me about yourself.”
- The person is more important than the point. Don’t forget that love above all else is our goal. It can be easy to forget this when we are excited about sharing the faith that we love so dearly, but remember that the strongest expression of our faith is showing love to others as icons of Christ.
Let’s keep these in mind as we try to address some common questions you get on campus. Tell us in the comments what questions you’d like us to tackle!