“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses1, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” ~ Hebrews 12:1
One of the most striking visuals in an Orthodox church is the great number and variety of highly stylized icons covering walls, ceilings, and seemingly any other available floor or shelf space.
Strictly speaking, an icon (εικών, eikon – image, picture) is a portable sacred image, painted on a piece of wood according to the style and techniques of Byzantine art. But in its broader sense, an icon is any sacred image painted, or otherwise reproduced, for the purpose of veneration2.
The Patristic Fathers taught that an “icon makes present that which it represents.” Veneration happens when we stop seeing an icon as an object of art or decoration and nothing more, and begin seeing it as a close, face-to-face encounter with the person represented. Veneration is far more than the acts of bowing, kissing, crossing oneself, offering incense or lighting candles. In fact, those things only become veneration when they are offered towards the person who is made present in an icon.
Many icons depict persons recognized as holy Saints by the church. Of these, some of them are martyrs, having died for their Christian witness; some are confessors, having maintained their witness under especially difficult and or dangerous conditions, but not lost their lives; but the majority of Saints are neither; just people in all ages recognized as extraordinarily holy. Saints are not an anachronist relic of the distant past. They have been recognized since the birth of the church and new Saints continue to be identified and recognized to this day.
For most of church history, the majority of Christians could not read or write. In the Greco-Roman world of the Apostles, it is estimated that less than 15% of the population was literate. Hearing the Scripture read during church services and understanding the stories and people depicted in the icons adorning the church building served as important tools for the transmission of Christian tradition and faith. It follows then that icons continue to serve as educational and worshiping aids. The Holy Spirit speaks to us through icons, as images that complement the written words of Scripture. Icons also serve to transport us into the realm of spiritual experience, to go beyond our material world, to show us the greatness and perfection of the divine reality that is invisible to us.
During an Orthodox church service, it feels like the entire congregation is worshiping along with all of the Saints depicted in the icons adorning the church. And even when praying alone in an empty Orthodox church, you cannot feel alone; but rather accompanied, comforted, and supported by all of the Saints present through the icons.
1 Witness (Gr. μάρτυς, mártys) in its original meaning, the Greek word martyr, was used in the secular sphere as well as in the New Testament. The process of bearing witness was not intended to lead to the death of the witness, although it is known from ancient writers (e.g., Josephus) and from the New Testament that witnesses often died for their testimonies. During the early Christian centuries, the term martyr came to mean one who gives his or her life for the faith. A confessor (ομολογητής) came to mean a person who does not actually die for the faith but witnesses to it under difficult and often dangerous conditions.
2 Veneration (Gr. σεβασμός) is a reverence, love, and recognition paid to all those persons portrayed in an icon. Many people in the West often misinterpret veneration as worship; however, worship (προσκύνησης, total devotion of the self) in the Eastern Orthodox Church is reserved for God alone.