Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
Come up the mountain to me! — Deuteronomy 10:1
The call of Moses by God to ascend Mount Sinai to enter into closer communion with Him reminds us that prayer, like climbing a mountain, isn’t easy.
But unlike Moses, who ascended the mountain by himself, Jesus leads us up the Mount of Transfiguration “to pray” and to “listen to him” (Luke 9:28, 36), so that we, too, might be transfigured in Him, who is “the light of the world” (John 8:12).
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” as the saying goes. And I think most would agree that whenever we read something, particularly when it is long and complicated, it is easier to understand when it is augmented with good visual aids.
Imagine trying to assemble some of the “put-together” furniture commonly sold today without the benefit of diagrams and pictures in the instruction manuals. Proper images can enhance our understanding of what we read and help to make it easier to remember. And I think this is no less true in the spiritual life
St. Jerome, a 5th century doctor of the Church, pointedly reminds us that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” So if your diet of sacred Scripture is only what you hear at Mass each week, you might be too tired to climb the daily mountain of prayer so essential to spiritual health and growth. But a beautiful tradition of the Christian East can help motivate our desire to pray and make our reflection upon sacred Scripture more fruitful.
When I pray and read Scripture, I find the use of icons particularly helpful. I was first introduced to icons by my good and longtime friend, Father Jim Swift, rector of Holy Trinity Seminary in Texas. He helped me understand how icons and lectio divina (literally, “divine reading”) can enhance our meditative prayer upon sacred Scripture and the mysteries of our faith. In fact, icons have a special place alongside sacred Scripture as affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other” (n. 1160).
It is helpful here to point out that the words “icon” and “image” mean the same thing. So when Scripture says that we are created in the image of God, it is also correct to say that each of us is a flesh and blood icon of God. This is why what we do to our neighbor we also do to God. Icons help nurture the image of God in us and to bless that image in our neighbor.
Icons are called “the Gospel in line and color,” and as such are more than religious art — they are an encounter with the reality of the mystery they depict. This is why the Church so values them above other forms of sacred art.
Historically, some have thought of icons as “books for the illiterate.” But the truth is they are books that give image to what we read in Scripture and hear proclaimed in the Gospel. And perhaps for this reason, many feel it is more proper to describe icons as “written” versus painted, and “read” instead of gazed upon. A proper icon, like a beautiful translation of the Bible, can be said to be Scripture made visible.
Icons may appear amateurish by the standards of Western art, particularly with their flat, two-dimensional look and lack of realistic detail. But where secular and religious art tend to draw our eyes and heart into their artistic renderings, icons do the opposite — the mystery depicted enters into us as we open our heart to it. We are not bystanders but participants and sharers in the mysteries of our salvation. Icons are instructive and lenses that help us to focus on God.
As “windows into Heaven,” icons have a purifying effect as well and help us to pray, “A pure heart create for me O God” (Psalm 51:12). We all know the power that certain images can have on our memory, especially when it is a memory of sin. But icons, as windows, expose our memory to the healing and purifying light of Christ. And the more we contemplate icons, the more the dark memories of sin and hurt are bleached out until we see “no one else but Jesus alone” (Matthew 17:8).
It was the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky who famously declared, “Beauty will save the world.” And who is more beautiful than Christ, who is Beauty itself? Icons, then, are encounters with the divinizing beauty of Christ, who makes “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). That is why I recommend that when you read Scripture and pray, do so with an icon of Christ before you. Among the most common of Christ are those called the Pantocrator (literally, the “Almighty” or “All-powerful”). One variation of this icon that I recommend is that of Christ holding an open book of Scripture, which is simply called “Christ the Teacher,” a very appropriate icon for your prayer and sacred reading.
I would also recommend an icon of the Blessed Mother (Theotokos – the “God-bearer”). A popular icon of her is called “Our Lady of the Sign” in which Mary is shown with arms, bent at the elbow, lifted up in prayer, with Christ as a young boy encircled in light (aureole) beneath her heart representing the womb.
Another beautiful icon is that of “Our Lady of Perpetual Help.”
Of course icons that depict the many scenes and miracles found in Scripture and that of the saints are to be recommended as well.
In time, I would recommend that you find a quiet place in your home and make what is called an “icon corner” where you can pray with your icons and reflect upon the Word of God. While there are literally thousands of icons to choose from, Eastern Christians are fond of saying that we do not find icons, but that they find us.
We are all called to be living icons of God who reflect the light of Christ in all that we do, think, and say.
May you be richly blessed as you endeavor each day to ascend the mountain of prayer, led by Christ our Light.