Icons And Idols

Saint Job of Pochaiv Orthodox Church
Los Alamos

Whenever a person unaquainted with Eastern Orthodoxy visits Saint Job of Pochaiv Orthodox Church, whether to pick up cookies or to have blini or play bluegrass for the first time, almost immediately they notice how colorful our church is. Front to back, almost floor to ceiling, our temple is festooned with icons. Icons are depictions of Jesus Christ, events of his life, and his saints and angels. They are usually painted on wooden panels (most of ours are reproductions) but can be made of metal, carved wood, tapestry, precious stones, etc. 

We treasure our icons, we venerate the saints that are pictured, and we use them to remind us of the reality of the “great cloud of witnesses” that constantly surround us, and they help us to pray.

One of the most persistent criticisms I hear about Orthodox Christians is an ancient one, the accusation of idolatry. In its most basic form, idolatry is the worship of something, anything, other than God. On the face of it, no pun intended, we do bow before icons, we do sign ourselves with the sign of the cross, and we do kiss icons. To the uninitiated, to those who only know worship through modern, western Christian practices, that could seem like worship. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The difference is the difference between the essence and purpose of an idol and an icon.

Take the modern parlance of “idol”. The first thing to spring to mind is the long running TV show, “American Idol.” Musical contestants vie to become the next singing superstar, and some of them actually do. They become wealthy and popular, at least as far as their talents and work can take them. They become the thing younger people can aspire to, to idolize. 

The idol points to themselves. The idol is an idol because it absorbs adoration. When the popularity wanes, the idol is again forgotten. The golden calf loses its luster and draw.

“Icon” isn’t used as much as it used to be. Marylin Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Hope were icons. To those of a certain age, the mention of these names points to something greater than that individual. Marylin Monroe to fashion, glamor, sex appeal, etc. Frank Sinatra to crooning, romance, and excess. Bob Hope to comedy and timeless, family entertainment. The person, the icon, becomes a stand-in for a whole genre, something bigger than themselves. 

For those readers younger than Gen X, the world of icons is probably even more closer at hand. Our personal electronic devices (smart phones, tablets, laptops, etc.) are populated by apps, programs, that are represeted by a little picture on our home screen or  desktop. I’ll admit, I used to call the little pictures “programs.” But the pictures are not the programs or apps. The pictures are just the doorway, the start button, for the app.

An Icon points to something else, something beyond the image. An eastern Orthodox icon is not the object of worship but it points to something inestimably greater than itself. The veneration and respect, and dare I say, love, that we show to an icon passes to the prototype, the subject, of the icon. 

When a soldier in the field, far from home and under the threat of battle, settles down for the night to try to sleep, pulls out the photo of his wife or sweetheart and kisses it, is he showing his love for the paper? The photo may be precious to him, but the love he shows is to his beloved and nothing else. This is an icon. Somehow, mystically almost, for a moment,  his sweetheart is not so far away, he is not so alone. 

We know that our icons are paint and wood and gold and clay. We know that they are not gods and have no power in and of themselves. We do not worship anything in the created world, but only the Creator of the world, who became man for humanity’s sake. 

The really mind-blowing thing is that Eastern Orthodox Christians consider each person, no matter their character, situation, or standing to be icons of Jesus Christ, and thus worthy of our love and respect. How wonderful a place this world would be if we all treated each other like that.