“Bowing to Icons???!!!!” (R & R Reflections, 2)

In my last post, I shared my appreciation for the bows we brought to God and each other in our prayers throughout the day – with our “bows to God” being especially focused toward the icon at the front of the oratory (or worship center). Understanding the nature and symbolism of icons (especially from, say, a Greek Orthodox background) helped me tremendously to see and appreciate what, exactly, we were bowing to in the icon above.

  • John the Baptist (standing to the right): understood as the last “Old Testament” figure, with words of the prophet on his lips and expectations of the Messiah (foretold and foreshadowed in the Old) in his heart
  • Mary (standing to the left): the first person to accept Christ into her life and, therefore, the first of Christian believers
  • Note that both John and Mary face Christ – conveying and emphasizing that is in Christ that the Old and New meet.
  • The enthroned Christ (a throne, not so surprisingly, like Emperor Constantine’s arched throne) rests his feet on footstool – its corners reflecting the four corners of the universe… Jesus is Lord of all. (Note how Christ, even when seated, is as big as John and Mary. Clearly, he’s not only central but bigger than them both!)
  • Note the significance of colors and the message of colors in the icon. Blue is the color of divinity, red humanity, gold and white the glory and the light of God. The white areas or lines on the flesh and clothing represent the transfigured light of Christ. Accordingly: Christ is part and emerges out of the glory and light of God, Christ is divine and puts on humanity, Mary (representing all of us) is human and takes on divinity,…
  • In Christ’s halo are the Greek letters which comprise the word “ego” or “I am.” That it is in the circle of the halo speaks of repetition. Reminiscent of God’s words to Moses: Christ is the eternal “I am”: “I am what I am” and “I will be what I will be.”
  • Christ holds the Bible, the Word open with his left hand. Not so surprisingly, the text is from John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” His right hand is held up in blessing. Hard to see in the icon above (but clear in the inset from another icon) are two fingers held up (conveying the two natures of Christ, human and divine) and the other three fingers coming together (signifying the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

It was clear to me… and it should be clear, I believe, to the open-minded and open-hearted among us and around us: that our bowing in front of the icon on our way into the worship was not any king of idolatry but a real gesture of reverence for the Lord of all Creation (to which the icon points, to which the icon is a window). In much the same way, when I put my cross necklace on in the morning, I do not see my kissing it as a worship of the metal or even the cross as much as a way of kissing Christ.

The story was told, in fact, during our time apart of a woman who could not understand why her father would kiss a bedside picture of her departed mother each night before he went to sleep. Upon hearing and unpacking some of the meanings of the icon and the real grounds for bowing, it became clear: the old man was not kissing a picture as much as he was kissing his beloved goodnight.

My Jesus, my Saviour
Lord there is none like You
All of my days, I want to praise
The wonders of Your mighty love
My comfort, my shelter
Tower of refuge and strength
Let every breath, all that I am
Never cease to worship You

Shout to the Lord
All the earth let us sing
Power and majesty
Praise to the King
Mountains bow down
And the seas will roar
At the sound of Your name

I sing for joy
At the work of Your hands
Forever I’ll love You
Forever I’ll stand
Nothing compares to the promise
I have in You

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