Aids to Worship: How Christian Imagery and Icons Can Help You Worship God
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Our Creator gave us physical senses to experience the world around us. In His mercy and wisdom, He inspired His people to create various aids to worship that engage those senses.
One category of such an aid is that of Christian imagery – images and artwork specifically intended to help in the act of worshiping God by providing a focus for wandering eyes, a reminder to wandering minds, and a visual depiction of people, places and events to reassure us that these people really lived, and these things really happened.
Example: The Cross
A universal example of such imagery which is recognizable to all Christian traditions is simply the Cross. Protestant traditions, as well as Catholics and Orthodox, all recognize the Cross as a fundamental symbol of our Faith. When Christians see the Cross, they see many things – during seasons of penitence they see the looming instrument of torture and execution which Jesus was placed on; during seasons of joy and thanksgiving, they see the empty cross, transformed from a cross of shame, to the Cross of Salvation. It calls to mind key aspects of the Salvation story and reminds us both that Jesus died for our sins, and also that the cross and the grave could not hold him.
Example: The Crucifix
Nearly as universal is the Crucifix, which depicts Jesus on the Cross as he died.
I say “nearly” as universal, because there are a number of Christians who are uncomfortable with the Crucifix, either because of its cultural ties to Roman Catholicism (though the Crucifix as a Christian symbol certainly didn’t originate in Rome), or because it is seen as morbid. Whatever the case, I would encourage the person uncomfortable or dismayed by the Crucifix that this is how you should feel, to some extent – it is painful to be confronted with such a concrete representation of the agony that I had a hand in causing my Lord.
However, the image of the Crucifix is useful for reminding the Christian of the qualities of humility, obedience, and faithfulness that Jesus exemplified for all His sheep. When I see a Crucifix, I am reminded of the Christ hymn found in Philippians 2:5-11, in which Paul exhorts Christians to have the mind of humility and self-sacrifice.
Icons and Iconography
Within the category of Christian imagery is a subcategory of artwork called icons, which are representations of the people and events which are influential to the formation and communication of our Christian faith. Icons are distinct from other forms of Christian art, such as Christian symbolism (e.g. the cross, tongues of flame, a descending dove, fish, etc.), statuary (i.e. three-dimensional representations of Biblical characters), and religious art not intended for use in worship. Icons are notably present in church traditions with a liturgical tradition, such as Anglicans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics.
Icons and iconography are part of a beautiful tradition in the Church going back to the second century, a tradition which seeks to engage the sense of sight that our Creator gave us so that we can have some measure of experience and ready recall of the truths of the Gospel. Iconography, which is the art of producing icons, is a practice governed by styles and motifs which are passed down from generation to generation of iconographers. Different Church traditions have different iconographic styles, so that Eastern Orthodox icons look different from Catholic icons, which also look different from Coptic icons.
In Protestant traditions, especially in the New World, there have been varying ideas for and against icons. Some traditions accept them as pretty works of art, while some roundly reject anything that could be branded an “icon” while accepting “religious artwork” by contemporary artists. This concern is not new to the Church; during a period of about a century in the first millennium, a violent repression of iconography (called the iconoclasm) led the ancient Church to examine the creation and use of icons in worship. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 843 A.D., the Church ruled against the iconoclasts (those who violently opposed iconography) and restored previously forbidden icons to church buildings and sanctuaries.
Specific Examples of Icons
Icons, being the two-dimensional representation of Christ, his saints, and recording events they are involved in, can take the form of simple portraits of Jesus in different roles (such as, the Good Shepherd, Pantocrator, and Christ the King).
They can also be similarly simple portraits of various saints, including Old Testament saints (such as the Prophets and King David), New Testament saints (such as the Apostles), and saints recognized by the Church after the events recorded in the New Testament (such as Ss. Benedict and Augustine of Hippo).
Icons can also be depictions of certain events – there are icons of Jesus cleansing the Temple, icons of the Nativity, and icons of Jesus’ baptism.
The Stations of the Cross
My personal favorite icon is actually a collection of icons, which can be found in pretty much every liturgical tradition and is seeing some renewed popularity in some contemporary church movements – the Stations of the Cross, which depict the sequence of events from Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus, through Jesus’ walk to Golgotha, his ascension upon the cross of shame, and his death and burial in the tomb.
It is a tradition during Holy Week (and especially on Good Friday) in Anglican churches, as well as Orthodox and Catholic congregations, that the parishioners make a mini-pilgrimage around the church Sanctuary, or a chapel, or in some cases a garden path where the icons that make up the Stations are set up for contemplation by the faithful.
Each icon in the collection calls to mind the individual event that it depicts, and the collection calls to mind the long progression of mistreatment, injustice, and ignominy that Jesus was subjected to before his resurrection, before the cross of shame was transformed to the Cross of Salvation.
Icons of the Saints
Icons of the saints are perhaps the most controversial to the individual coming from some evangelical Protestant traditions, where the concept of a saint is somewhat different than what is meant when an Anglican, Orthodox, or Roman Catholic person says “Saint.”
In general usage, both the evangelical Protestant and their liturgical brothers use the term saint to refer to the universal class of all the saved Christ-followers that make up the Church. However, it is atypical for the evangelical Protestant to hold up individuals as specific examples of faith, service, or a model for life. Some of this has to do with the excesses of the Roman church in the medieval period, and some is just a plain misunderstanding of what it means to be a “Saint” as the liturgical churches understand it.
All baptized and confirmed Christians are in the process of being sanctified, that is, being made saints. A “Saint” is someone whom the historic Church pretty much agrees, as far as any humans can judge or make a determination, is an example of what it means to live a saintly life.
Icons of the Saints, therefore, serve as reminders that such people really existed, and can be held up as examples of virtuous living. An Anglican priest I know who comes from the Orthodox Church in America likened the icons of the Saints to family photographs that a person might keep at their desk at work. Orthodox writers will typically refer to icons as “windows into heaven.”
A particularly western form of iconography is the stained-glass window. While Eastern Orthodox icons tend to be murals or on canvas, the Medieval Church used stained-glass to accomplish the same effect – teaching the story of the Bible to an illiterate populace through the large windows used in Gothic style churches and cathedrals.
Canterbury Cathedral (England), the Cathedral at Chartres (France), Coventry Cathedral (England), York Minster (England), and Florence Cathedral (Italy), are all examples of churches that incorporate this western form of iconography. I have also been to several Anglican churches here in the United States that have amazing stained-glass works.
If you are fortunate enough to attend such a church, then you can appreciate what a unique experience this is in a worship setting.
How are Icons Used in Anglican Modes of Worship?
Anglicanism, being a Church tradition which encompasses many opinions within the spectrum of orthodox theological belief, contains different views on icons as well as different modes of incorporation of icons in worship.
As I noted above, many Anglican churches observe the annual tradition of walking and praying at the Stations of the Cross during Holy Week. Likewise, many Anglican churches display either a simple Cross or a Crucifix on or near their altar.
My parish, which is named after Jesus’ character of the Good Shepherd, displays an icon of the Good Shepherd over the Credence table (where the communion vessels are placed before and after the Eucharistic Rite). Other parishes may similarly display the icons of patron saints or characteristics of Christ or the Trinity. For example, a parish named for St. Peter might display an icon of the Apostle Peter, while a parish named “Holy Spirit” might display an icon of Jesus’ baptism with a descending dove, or an icon of Pentecost with tongues of fire over the heads of the Apostles.
Icons in Anglican church usage are generally used as aids to right-thinking in times of prayer: I look at the icon of the Good Shepherd when I feel my mind wandering, because it reminds me that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, and I should keep my mind focused on him. The icon itself is not Jesus and has no special power or qualities of its own; it is merely a created thing that aids the worshiper in directing their thoughts and focus in the proper direction rather than letting their mind drift when saying the prayers that they’ve said many times over many weeks.
Icons in Anglican individual prayer usage may differ wildly from not being used at all, to being used similarly to how I’ve noted above in congregational settings, to being used in ways that are not strictly Anglican but are also legitimate uses as recognized by the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
For instance, in the Orthodox tradition, icons are regularly censed and venerated (though not worshiped) in personal and corporate prayer. This is somewhat outside of what would usually be in the everyday Anglican’s comfort zone, but it is certainly acceptable within orthodox Christian practice, and an Anglican who was moved to emulate the practice would not be in the wrong or somehow less (or more) Anglican for doing so.
Where Should I Start if I Want to Begin Using an Icon or Icons?
Start Small, with a Cross and/or Crucifix
Before I get into the specific use of icons in worship, I want to first say that a person interested in using icons should examine their use of other Christian imagery.
The reason for this is that in our Christianized culture, there are many Christian images that we kind of gloss over or use as decorative motifs, but for some reason don’t incorporate in our worship. I grew up in a tradition that uses very little Christian imagery in the worship space, although crosses and fishes show up regularly in homes and in lobbies.
If this describes your experience, I would highly recommend starting slow and small. Rather than going from little to almost no imagery to then having icons in abundance, start with either a prayer Cross or Crucifix. As I stated above, these are two universal images of the faith that will provoke very little squeamishness, except what is intended from looking the price of our sins in the face every time we go to pray.
When I started incorporating a simple prayer Cross in my personal prayers, it had a marked change on my prayer life – beforehand, my prayers consisted mainly of disorganized petitions for personal situations, and occasional thanksgivings. Afterward, I found my prayers more focused and intentional, and I noticed that looking at the cross during prayer heightened the sense of purpose to my prayers. I no longer felt like I was casting messages in a bottle hoping that God would get around to answering them if they rose to His level of attention. The presence of the cross at my prayer time provided ready assurance that not only does God hear and answer the prayers I make, he answers the prayers I never knew could be made.
Incorporate Icons of Jesus Christ
After you are comfortable with a Cross or Crucifix, I would suggest next incorporating an icon of Jesus in one of his roles in his earthly ministry – such as Christ Pantocrator or Christ the Good Shepherd. One could also incorporate Christ the King, especially during the season of Advent, or in Ordinary Time. These icons remind us that Christ is our Master (in terms of us being his disciples) as well as the protector of his flock.
One of my favorite juxtapositions in church statuary is at my diocese’s Cathedral, where there is a large full-color suspended crucifix over the altar, and at the back of the apse is a statue of Christ the King. Replicating this juxtaposition, with a prayer crucifix and an icon of Christ the King nearby, reminds one that the cross was not the end, and that Christ’s reign is ongoing and eternal, which provides reassurance in the midst of the trials of life.
Another Christ icon, which would be especially appropriate to display during Easter-tide, is the Christus Victor, which shows Christ standing on the broken gates of hades helping the resurrected Adam and Eve out of their tombs.
Follow the Church Year
You will notice that I’ve suggested that some icons are more appropriate in different seasons; this is because I feel very strongly that the cycle of the Church year is an important tool for our prayers, because it calls to mind in a regular fashion the points of the salvation story, and reinforces that not every day is Easter, nor every season Lent.
However, having a number of icons for home use may not be practical for all readers of this post, so if you find that any of those icons I have suggested for specific seasons resonates with you outside of that season, do not feel there is some rule that says you can’t display it.
Incorporate Icons of the Saints
As you grow in your comfort with the traditions of the Church, especially with regard to views on the saints, you may find that you want to incorporate an icon of a Saint to whom you feel a particular kinship, or who has some special significance to you. Or you may not. Of the types of icons I’ve enumerated above, I would say that for an Anglican the use of icons of the saints is the most elective.
For my part, I have an icon of St. Matthias, who was selected by lot to replace Judas Iscariot. My birthday is on St. Matthias’ day, so as a birthday present this past year, my Vicar gave me the icon. St. Matthias reminds me to value the input and contribution of newcomers, since he attained to the calling of an Apostle after the other eleven.
It is my prayer that you would be encouraged to explore this ancient Christian tradition of using icons in prayer. So long as you approach their use with the right mind and expectations, you will find the use of imagery and icons a blessing to your worship experience.
Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Our Lord Jesus.
Lincoln Anderson is a Lay Catechist at The Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Opelika-Auburn, AL. He blogs at Words and Meditation and you can follow him on Twitter @wordsmeditation.
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