The word Icon comes from the Greek word ‘eikon’ meaning an image. In the Orthodox tradition Icons have a great spiritual significance and role in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church.
The practice of writing Icons in the Christian tradition was founded with Saint Luke, who is believed to have written images of the Virgin Mary. Some of these Icons still exist, such as the Theotokos of Tikvin. From then, this tradition has been passed down in the Orthodox Church, as it was in the Western Church until around the 1600’s. Icons are still used today in Orthodox liturgical life and venerated as they represent the saints and Martyrs in their heavenly bodies.
Icons serve many uses in the Church and have done since the first centuries. One clearly important role of Icons is education. Met Ware said that “He who lacks learning or leisure to study works of theology has only to enter a church to see unfolded before him on the walls all the mysteries of the Christian religion.” This was a key part of Early Christianity since when few could read the Homilies of a speaker and Icons of a Church were the greatest source of Education.
Their second function is in the Liturgical Worship of the Church. Icons play prominent roles such as in procession and the sacraments. This is not in a worship based role but in representation. When a liturgy happens it is not just a liturgy on Earth but one in Heaven, making the representation of the saints important since they are in attendance n the Divine Liturgy to receive the portion of Christ as we do on Earth. We also see this with the use of the icon of Christ in the sacrament of Confession, with our confessions addressed to Christ through his Icon, as he receives out confession alone through the priest as an Icon of Christ in himself.
Many call this Idolatry but this definition and viewpoint simply show a lack of understanding of icons and their theological importance rather than any wrongdoing on the part of Orthodoxy.
There is in fact no condemnation of iconography in its Orthodox form in the bible. They is indeed condemnation of imagery of a human interpretation of the nature of God, which is the reason I abhor some of those abominable works in Catholic Cathedrals which Show the trinity or God with a big beard, but no condemnation of Showing Christ in his earthly form as his apostles saw him. I will explain the difference in the representation of God the Father and God in the incarnation now.
The 10 commandments say that “You shall not make unto the any Graven image…” explaining that God is a “Jealous God” and therefore to make something and worship it is to take away from the worship of one God. This is completely understandable in context since there is no way in which people could understand what God looked like, making an image of God an image of a human interpretation of God. Yet Iconography after the Incarnation is acceptable for this very reason.
Before the incarnation of God in Christ, there was no image of God and no knowledge of his form and the idea of looking upon God struck fear into the people. We know of this through the Old Testament when those who glimpsed on God knew of this radiance, as with Aaron fearing Moses due to this. They even veiled his face so that they could not witness it, showing the humility and fear of the people.
When Christ arrived, he gave God a form, so God became matter in order to appear to us, becoming God in an earthly form. He also told us not to fear his presence and welcomed people to him, a stark distinction from the veiling and fear of the face of God. Christ became matter so that we could see him and talk to him without having to fear and with this we received an image of God which is not man made but from God himself. Paul himself referred to the veil of separation between humanity and the witness of God when he said “We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away.” (2 Corinthians 13:3) So Moses was told not to make Idols since they will always be of a God we cannot see, and thus false but with the Incarnation we witnessed God in his very form and thus have knowledge of this, to make an image of what we have seen is not an Idol but a witness.
John of Damascus, in verbally annihilating the arguments of the iconoclasts in the 7th Council, explains this perfectly. He says that “In times past, God, without body and form, could in no way be represented. But now, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can depict that which is visible of God.” In portraying what God has revealed of himself to us we are not sculpting Idols but showing the people what God has shown us. If God did not want us to see this he would not have become something we can see through his revelation in Christ and would not have.
With the incarnation we have God in matter and no longer have to rely on a human interpretation of God. This in itself means that Iconography can show a true image of God without it becoming a human version and thus Idolatry. God even made an image of himself In Christ, as Saint Paul explains when he calls Christ "the image of the invisible God.” for Christ is "the image of the invisible God. To hate God being represented through a physical form is, in a way, to hate Christ. As Met. Kallistos says of Iconoclasm, to refer to icons as Idolatry “is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ’s humanity, to His body; it is to forget that our body as well as our soul must be saved and transfigured.”
There is also a large difference between apparent worship and veneration. John of Damascus reminds us that "under the Old Covenant God commanded images to be made: first the tabernacle, and then everything in it." Indeed God orders Moses to build the Ark and detail it with “two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover.” Even detailing greatly as to the direction in which these should face. We know that the Ark was venerated for its contents but God had ordered Moses to have craftsmen design icons of heavenly beings.
The reason given in tradition that Moses was accepted in this task, apart from it being directly from God, is simply since it was not worshipped in the place of God. This is the same with Icons. John of Damascus also explains this, he says “I do not venerate the matter but I venerate the Creator of matter, Who became matter for me, Who condescended to live in matter, and Who, through matter accomplished my salvation; I do not cease to respect the matter through which my salvation is accomplished.”
To venerate an icon for what it represents is not Idolatry, unlike worshipping an item for what it is. Through icons we see the heavenly forms of Christ as well as our saints and Martyrs. Through asking the saints to pray to God for us we are not worshipping them but praising the holiness which God has bestowed upon them in the same way in which one might show respect to a priest or even kiss the Cross or Gospel book.
Through this veneration we are also inspired to holiness and to emulate those that came before us and to wish to live up to the example of another or ask them for assistance is not Idolatry. As Saint Polycarp said to the centurion before his Martyrdom “For Him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord we cherish as they deserve for their matchless affection towards their own King and Teacher.” There is a great difference between worship and veneration.