Venerating Icons
Icons are “windows to heaven.” When we venerate icons, we are not adoring the angels or human saints depicted. Neither are we worshipping the wood and paint with which icons are made. We worship God alone. We stand before them and pray to God, or join with the saint in praying to God, or ask the saint to join us in our prayer to God.
The general etiquette of venerating icons is:
1. make two reverences;
2. kiss the icon;
3. make a final reverence.
We venerate angels and saints, recognizing the Spirit of God and the Grace of God acting in and through them. We honor them for their loving response to God’s love in their lives. By that honoring and recognition, we dedicate ourselves to God, just as they do.
The question of the correct form of worshipping God was dealt with particularly in the 7th Ecumenical Council, where the use of icons was authorized and blessed. God not only prescribed the images of the cherubim to be place on the ark of the covenant, but St. Paul wrote of Christ in Col. 1:15: “He is the image (“icon”) of the invisible God.”
A common metaphor people today understand is that these saints are part of our spiritual family. Just as we keep pictures of Grandma Lily and Uncle Lestor, sometimes stopping to remember them or to kiss their pictures, we have pictures of our spiritual family, too.
We scrupulously observe the Biblical injunction against using and worshipping graven images. In Byzantine Churches, it is strictly forbidden to use statues. Icons themselves are created according to clear rules and traditions which distinguish them from mere pictorial art. For example, icons are intentionally two dimensional, abstract in style, and the figures, buildings, and landscapes are quite stylized. Reverse perspective is often used. We do these things because icons are not intended to portray what things looked like or to create a graven image, but to show the spiritual reality and beauty of the person or event.