The spiritual meaning of the Orthodox Icons
Humanity simultaneously moves towards self-destruction while yearning for restoration or more specifically salvation. While evil still remains a reality infecting man's way of living, the icon points to a new mode of existence. The person depicted in the icon is a new person who regardless of sex is a reflection of the New Man Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation the invisible became visible and the undepictable became perceptible and therefore depictable. By taking on human nature the Son of God opens the way for all mankind to be renewed. By taking on human nature the Son of God reveals the true identity of every man as being created in the image and likeness of God. The icon, therefore, depicts each person as a new being who has been restored to God's image and likeness. For this the icon is able to become an object evoking contemplation and prayer from the one who views it. Because of this, Orthodox iconography can only be properly appreciated in the context of communal prayer which provides the basis for its content and form. Iconography is an art that springs from the liturgical celebration of the new covenant, The Eucharist established between God and man through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ who says: "Behold I make all things new" (2Cor. 5:17).
The material used for the icons: wood, paint, stone, fabric, glass, metal, elements of the created world, are brought into the reality of the church and like every person of the community undergo a transformation. The transformation of the matter takes place at the same time with the transfiguration and divinization of man. Why is the mystery of the incarnation so great and so important for us to understand: Through His incarnation God has taken all the elements of this earth in his body as we have them in ours; by His suffering, death and Resurrection He has purified them and made them anew. By His ascension He has taken them into heaven. In the icon we see what will be in the future by what is already here present. History and eschatology are brought together. Everything is depicted as existing beyond time and space. Everything in the icon is on one single plane, figures are long and thin, the center of gravity is upwards and not downwards. The icon is able to witness to the liberation of what is evil and oppressing in this world and reveals human beings as created in the image and likeness of God. This tells us that man has the capacity to know and change creation, because man, like God is able to love. Through love man establishes relationships with other persons and things. In fact man has been entrusted with caring for the life of creation. The idea can be further enhanced by what St. Maximos the confessor says about the cosmological Liturgy, how everything and everyone is sanctified by the act of the Eucharist. When the liturgy is served by the priest and the people in the temple, there is an angelic Liturgy taking place as the priest asks that the angels simultaneously be present and enter the Holy of Holies together. Then there is the Liturgy taking place on the altar of each of the faithful's hearts. According to St.. Maximos the whole nature, birds, trees and animals celebrate together and rejoice in this celebration. By this the paradisiac harmony is accomplished, so that all things may remain and grow in God.
The beauty, harmony, unity and joy of life -- as God has intended it for us -- is disrupted by ugliness, division, alienation, misery and death. Through sin we embark on a course of self-destruction therefore communication with God is interrupted. In such a state man begins a process of self -preservation, misusing everyone and everything including God as St. Paul says in the epistle to the Romans: "For I have already charged that all man both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin as it is written: None is righteous, no, no one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together thy have gone wrong, no one does good not even me. Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they do not know, there is no fear of God before their eyes"(3:918).
If the icon is to be a means of contemplation and prayer the one standing in front of it must be willing to enter a process of repentance which can be painful. Standing before the icon and seeing it for what it is, makes us realize the state of brokenness we are in and our alienation from God. Contemplating the icon requires repentance which is a conversion from that self-destruction to life. If we can contemplate the icon in silence we will enter a state of sorrow and joy. Sorrow for we realize the poor state of our spiritual life and the need for change. As we establish a relationship with the icon then we perceive with our minds and senses how the inner light of the icon exposes the inner darkness of our souls and encourages us to enter that light. Once we come to this understanding we enter the joy of the Resurrection that comes to us when we no longer live for ourselves but are willing and ready to give up our lives for our neighbor, we are ready to say with St. Paul: "...It is no longer I who live but, Christ lives in me"(Gal. 2:20).
In the presence of a good icon we move from contemplation to prayer. In fact it is said that a good icon is one that inspires prayer. Prayer requires asceticism. Prayerful asceticism becomes a healing process in which whatever has estranged us from God is transformed into becoming a means of communion with God. The mind, soul, heart, body and will of the person who prays becomes still, attentive, attuned, and peaceful, constantly receptive to the presence of God.
As we pray before an icon we enter in communion with the icon's prototype. This becomes the fulfillment of Christ's prayer: "so that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in us..." (Jn 17:21). St. Isaac the Syrian describes the person who prays as one who possesses uncontainable love and intense compassion. Such a person's heart is aflame for all creation, for man, birds, animals, demons and all creatures. The icon and the one who enters the reality depicted in the icon witness to the eradication of evil which has infected man's achievements. To the ascetic who prays the icon communicates the meaning of life. Matter and Spirit, heaven and earth, are both united in the icon and in the one who has entered the reality it communicates. Already in the present they begin to manifest the future of creation when God will be all in all.