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Icons in the Postmodern Church

Fr. James L. Obermeyer

Icon of the Resurrection painted by Fr. Jim Obermeyer

Where do icons fit into the church of the 21st century and what is their meaning? In an age when many churches are dismissing religious symbols as something that is not needed, many people are looking for meaning in their fragmented lives. Are symbols important? The question really should be, "Why are we Christians throwing out religious symbols and taking on the symbols of the world, and why is the world taking religious symbols and using them?" Churches are looking more like office buildings and malls are looking more like churches, complete with vaulted ceilings, icons(paintings) on their walls and towers, and many with carillon bells. Ironic isn't it, that in my own community they built a bell tower at the commuter train station but there is not one church I am aware of with a bell tower in a town of around 300,000 people.

We human beings need symbolism. It makes life meaningful, right from the wedding rings and all the ceremony that goes with the wedding, to the birth of babies and the proverbial cigar given out to celebrate the new life coming into the world, and let's not forget funeral traditions. The truth is that if we throw out the symbols of the Christian Faith, we will adopt other symbols because humans are symbolic by nature. For instance, there is a church that refuses to put a cross up for fear of offense to visitors, but behind the pulpit stands a large globe of the world with flags lined up on each side. What is going on? In my humble opinion, there is a watering down of the Gospel message happening in many churches because of the misleading impression that symbols take away the true faith of the heart.

Why should not God's house of worship be the most beautiful building in town? Icons have been used in the church from the very earliest days according to Eusebius in The History of the Christian Church, written around the year AD 300. Icons have been called "windows into heaven" because of their powerful symbolic value. There is a reason icons are painted the way that they are and used in Church buildings and homes and in worship.

Several points must be made concerning images in the church. What about the commandment, "thou shall not make unto thee any graven image to fall down and worship it?" First of all, the same God who gave this commandment also told His people to make a Temple in Jerusalem and make two golden statues of cherubim or angels, with their wings touching over the mercy seat. Then He told them to carve angels in the gold of the walls of the Temple. If He was against images, He would not have contradicted His own word in telling them not to make images. The truth is that He was warning them about worshipping images. There is a definite difference between worship and veneration. We worship God alone. However, we venerate His mother, the saints and icons, much as we venerate the grandmother that we love. We do not worship our grandmother, but we may have pictures of her and venerate them in showing our love for her. We are people of pictures and images and art. God made us that way because He is that way. He loves beauty and He created beauty. Beauty is important in our lives, and no one can contradict this. Why then should not beauty be a part of our worship? Personally I find nothing inspiring about worshipping in an office building or a school and so forth. I know, because our church worshipped in a school for 6 years until obtaining our own chapel.

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Icons express our desire to use our senses in worship. True worship in the Old and New Testaments used all the senses that God has given us. Our eyes are important. When we see icons or pictures, we experience something that makes our faith just a little more real. It gives us a bit more of a connection with God in seeing a depiction of Jesus, God who became one of us. When we look at an icon of the crucifixion, we think of Him who suffered in our place. Icons tell a story. Think of how powerful the images were in the movie by Mel Gibson, "The Passion of the Christ." It made the passion of Christ so real to all who saw it. Not too many people left the theaters with dry eyes. They may tell of a Bible event, a saint's life, or just show us a bit of the glory of God.

There is much symbolism in iconography. The figures, whether of our Lord, His mother or the saints, are somewhat otherworldly. The proportions of the figures are not always exact to us, although there is a definite look that is similar in all good icons. The pattern of the icon of our Lord for instance, is taken from the earliest icon of Christ. Eusebius, in about the year 300 AD tells us that there were color portraits of our Lord and the apostles that had been there from the beginning of the church. He even said that in his day there was a bronze statue he had seen himself of Jesus in his town of Caesarea. This was a statue of the woman with the issue of blood that people had erected in front of the house where she lived. Most of these have been destroyed since, but they once existed and were accepted in the early church. It is fascinating when we look at icons of the apostles that there has always been an accepted look for each of them. As with Christ, there have been icons of the Theotokos (God-bearer), or Virgin Mary from the earliest days of the Church. She is depicted much the same, and in fact tradition tells us that there are several in existence that were painted by the evangelist St. Luke.

There is a feeling of reverence when praying in front of icons. What inspiration is it to look up and see a tiled ceiling when praying? We need something to help focus our thoughts on our Lord when praying, and Icons are a great way to do that. It seems that there is a tremendous resurgence of icons in many denominations, from Eastern Orthodox to Roman Catholic and even in Protestant denominations. Is it because our churches have been stripped of their beauty and the images that mean so much to practically all people? Educators have told us for years that we learn by seeing as well as hearing. If we follow the logic of many churches today, shall we strip our homes of their beauty by throwing out the photos of our loved ones including those who have passed on? Everybody would agree this is ridiculous. Why not also be surrounded with "pictures" of our spiritual family with whom we will live forever?

Let us honor God with our heart and also our minds, eyes and talent.

Updated March 8, 2005. Fr. Jim painted the icon of the Resurrection above.

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