I did not grow up in a tradition that uses icons. I was told, in fact, that icons were dangerous idols that Catholics prayed to. So what in the heavens or on earth led me to be a proponent of using icons in our worship service this advent? I cannot speak for all Catholics, but as I have asked questions and studied the use of icons by the Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church, I now believe that icons can be a very powerful aide in our growth toward Jesus and in our worship of him.
I have found three ways of understanding icons to be helpful: biography, companion, and communion. Depending on your background or your sense of adventure, one or more of these views may resonate with you.
Icons remind us that we are not alone in our pursuit of God. A good biography about Adoniram Judson or Elisabeth Elliot can remind us of the stories of Christians who have lived beyond their own abilities for the sake of Jesus. We will relate to some peoples’ stories better than others, but those stories that we end up relating to can be a powerful reminder to us that we are not alone as we strive to live out God’s story. Icons, like biographies, can function as this type of reminder.
Every once in a while we either see or hear of someone’s perspective or story that hits us like lightning. It’s that moment where we can say, “There is someone who gets it! And I want to get it too.” If they are in your church, you might grab regular breakfasts with them to benefit from their wisdom. Or you might resonate with someone like St. Francis of Assisi. You might read everything of his that is in print and memorize certain passages and in this way submit yourself to his mentorship because it’s almost like he knows you! Icons can similarly serve as companion and mentor.
Most amazingly, we are part of the communion of saints, and we believe that the saints are in heaven actually interceding for us right now. Many Anglicans believe that you can ask a specific saint to intercede for you in a similar way that you might ask someone at the end of a worship service to intercede for you. One member of our congregation who uses icons in this way told me, “Yeah, a lot of people are careless with their prepositions. It’s not praying to the saints. It’s more praying with the saints.” Icons can serve as a visual connection to a person who is in heaven from whom we can ask for intercession. How cool is it that you could ask John the Baptist or the prophet Isaiah to intercede for you!?!
This advent, I hope that you are engaged with how God uses people to prepare the way for his coming. Maybe the icon of Gabriel in our sanctuary will help to remind you of God’s communication and revelation. Maybe Isaiah will become your companion because of his repentance and willingness to submit to God’s greater vision. (Isaiah is my companion.) And maybe you will ask Zechariah to intercede for you in times when you are in doubt of God’s plan for your life. Ultimately, it is my hope that if you do not already value the church art of iconography that you will be able to submit it and its use to the glory and mystery of God.
His name be praised.