Why Do Orthodox Christians Use Icons?

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Why Do Orthodox Christians Use IconsIn the Orthodox Christian Church, icons are visual representations of God, the saints, or various scenes from the Bible. The word “icon” is derived from the Greek word “Eikona.” In fact, they can be traced to the early days of the church. Today, we use it to refer to the various painted images that are present in Orthodox Churches and in Orthodox Christian homes. Why do we have icons in the churches anyway?

Icons Versus Idols

Some Christian denominations, such as Protestants, don’t use icons. In fact, their churches are rather bare. When they see the images in the Greek churches, they wonder why we use them. After all, doesn’t God warn us in the Bible in Exodus against graven images, or idols?

Well, yes He does, but icons in this context aren’t considered idols. In pagan religions, people believed that idols had magical properties. Orthodox Christians, however, view icons as visual representations of God rather than an object that literally has a spiritual quality.

Two Dimensional Images

Notice how the pictures depicted in the icons are two dimensional and not very lifelike? Iconographers paint them like this on purpose. They’re only designed as reminders of God’s presence. By making them slightly abstract, it’s easier to remember that they aren’t literal. Otherwise, it would be too easy for these images to become idols rather than icons.

Venerating Icons

In the Orthodox Church, it’s customary to venerate the icons. Upon walking in, individuals first light a candle and then pause to pay their respects to any icons that are displayed before entering the church. However, there’s a right and a wrong way to venerate them. Be sure to do your cross and then kiss the icon away from the face. It’s taboo to kiss an icon on the head. Note that “venerating” is not the same thing as “worshiping”. To venerate something is to pay our respects, and we pay respects not to the image itself, but to what it represents.

Focuses Our Minds

Another important function of icons is to keep our minds focused on God during church services. While sitting quietly in church, it’s all too easy for our minds to wander on other things, such as what we’ll cook for dinner and the chores and errands we need to do in the upcoming week. Instead of daydreaming, gazing at the icons during church reminds us of where we are. The next time you’re in church and find that you’re having trouble focusing, look at some of the icons. This will help keep your mind on the church service and not on your life outside of church.

Praying With Icons

As Orthodox Christians, we don’t pray to the icons. Rather, we pray in their presence. This is an important distinction because if we prayed to the icons, this would indicate that they are idols, which they aren’t. Instead, say your prayers near the icons as a reminder of God’s presence.

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This post was written by GreekBoston.com