A long time ago on a continent far, far away, Christians had several councils to discern whether icons and sacred images could be used to aid worship and prayer. Iconoclasts wanted no images or icons, and Iconophiles wanted to retain them.
After a lot of debate and prayer over centuries, it was finally determined that if a person is looking to God through an icon, then that was a sacred and holy use of the icon. If the worshipper began to worship the thing itself, then that was an unholy and dangerous usage.
Of course, the Church being made up of human beings, abuses happened. In many places statues were seen as having special powers, and golden images were bowed down to, while in some places uneducated people were being sold images to fill the pockets of greedy clergy or monastics.
Babies Being Thrown Out
So it is understandable that the Protestants then came along and threw the baby Jesus icon out with the bathwater. Literally.
Yes, they overreacted as you probably suspected, and they started a new Iconoclasm.
That’s why you still see whitewashed, bare churches here in the United States in many places. Oddly, those same churches usually dust off statues of the virgin Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus every year for Christmas (actually they bring it out during Advent, but call it Christmas!). Despite that seeming contradiction, many of these groups still believe that a Christian should only see images as aids to learning, but not as aids to worship.
For them, worship is only spiritual and has no external means of grace or aids. Any image can quickly become an idol, so why not be safe and dispense with them?
Anglicans and Icons
Anglicans, for the most part, have ended up retaining images and icons to some degree. Sometimes this is for personal use and sometimes in congregational worship.
In worship icons and visual depictions are mostly stationary and are not usually bowed to or kissed, etc. If a person does bow before a depiction, they are to be bowing in prayer to God, not to the depiction itself. However, objects such as the cross are carried (in procession) or venerated (on Good Friday or Holy Cross Day). This practice is based on Paul’s statement to the Galatians Christians that “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”
This is good because human beings need symbols, images, and icons. We live in a world of texture, color, visual stimulation and dimensional reality. We love beauty and we are calmed and emotionally salved by it. As James K.A. Smith has pointed out, if we remove Christian symbolism and iconography, it will merely be replaced with secular or alternative religious iconography.
And this need isn’t just made up by sociologists today. It is in the Bible. We were made with eyes in a world of color, image, and light. That’s why God had Moses craft a bronze serpent as an icon of healing (reverse healing psychology?) and why he carefully prescribed the way the tabernacle and temple should look. Of course, he warned them of abuses. But he never told them to abandon symbol as aid to worship.
It is true that God was not to be pictured by Israel. But now Christ himself is an icon, the incarnate Son is the image of God. He was a human being that people could look upon, touch, and feel in order to see God. This changed everything because now God could be seen visually. He showed us how to use our eyes to see God.
So what would it look like if we Christians used icons and images properly in the worship of God?
Look through an icon. See it as a window to God. Not as a god itself, but as a window to him. How does this work? Let me share my own personal experience of the icons in worship and places of prayer.
I have an icon of Christ crucified in my place of prayer at home. When I pray, If often gaze upon him. The icon has beautifully captured his passion and his love. I am drawn to him, and I see his gaze looking back upon me. None of this would be the same without the icon.
I have also venerated the holy cross. This simply means that I touched the cross that was carried past me. This experience put me in the crowd around Jesus. I knew myself to be someone whom he forgave. I felt as if my burdens were transferred to the cross.
Now watch for a reflection of light upon your own life. I have another icon of the Mother and Child. Jesus is pictured as clinging to Mary’s neck. When I look at this icon, I’m always drawn to Jesus’ hands holding on to his mother. I’m holding on too. But she is also holding him. I’m being held. This icon helps cultivate in me a sense of profound affection for God’s love and for his care for me as a mother would care for a child, and as Mary cared for Jesus.
And then I sometimes sit in an empty church that is full of beautiful portrayals. When I do, I sense a calm peace. I am not alone, but am surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. The beauty that fills that place gives me a taste of heaven. My eyes see God in a fresh way, and my soul rejoices.
In our home we have an icon of Peter, being saved from the water (after he briefly walked on it!). He is saying “Lord, Save me!” When I focus on this icon, I see the water surrounding Peter. Its impossible to judge him when looking at this icon. You can only fall into the water with him. You can only be saved. This beautiful icon doesn’t just remind me that I need to be saved by Jesus again and again, it takes me there to the overwhelming waters. I am Peter in that moment, yelling “Lord, Save me!” and Jesus is reaching for me.
As a parent, I want my children to be safe. I don’t want them trying to walk on water. But if I see their eyes in the eyes of Peter, in that water, I also see Jesus reaching for them. I can trust them into his hands. I can encourage them when they want to step out in faith, and when its time for them to “leave the boat.”
In my study I am surrounded by the saints. I look up and see the Call of the Disciples. They are gathering the overflowing nets that Jesus provided. I’m a disciple too, and only Jesus can provide a catch of fish. His gaze is so calm in that boat as he watches them. I focus on his calm demeanor, and I realize that he is looking at me that way too. In my ministry, I rest in him. He is the one who makes us fishers of men. He fills the nets. He is at peace. Now, so am I.
To my left is Mary of the Streets (featured with this post). She and baby Jesus are portrayed in Greek style, but as of African descent. Jesus clings to her neck as she holds him with the sign of blessing and the sign of the Holy Trinity. Though poor, she is rich in love and devotion. I see in her the faith of the street people that I’ve known, which has almost always been more powerful than mine. No matter what happens, I can trust in the Lord as Mary did and as so many who suffer do every day.
To my right are the Saints and Angels that surround the throne of God, worshipping him and crying “Holy, Holy, Holy!” I don’t belong there, but he has made us worthy to stand before him. At the Eucharist, there I am gathered with the People and the Saints and Angels. I’m not a stranger at his holy table, and I won’t be a stranger when heaven comes down to earth someday. I feel the glory of heaven when I look at this icon, and I’m right in the middle of it by God’s grace.
Behind me is the nativity. In the Greek understanding, Joseph is being pictured as being tempted by the devil. He is tempted to abandon Mary. Yet he remains faithful and obeys the voice of the angel. The devil is pictured as a man and he looks quite convincing. Joseph is my icon window to the faithfulness of God in our lives even in confusion, temptation, and trial.
Gazing Upon and Through The Icons
So yes, I believe in using icons as windows to God. Most Anglicans also believe that visual images can aid our worship, but should never become the object of worship. That’s why you’ll see some iconography or other visual representations in an Anglican Church.
I hope this has been a help to you. If you want to see and experience God in a new way, gaze upon an icon as you pray and see how the Holy Spirit opens up a window for you to look through.
Greg is the founder of Anglican Compass (previously known as Anglican Pastor). He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America. He served in a non-denominational church before being called into the Anglican church in 2003. He has served as an Associate Pastor, Parish Administrator, and Rector. He currently serves as the Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South.