Why believers look to their icons in times of distress.
"You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God" (Ex. 20:4-5).
Since the idea of iconoclasm is so embedded in Jewish tradition that would one day become part of the inheritance of Christianity, why then do we in Orthodoxy, the fullest expression and flowering of said Faith, have such a proliferation of holy images? And why are they so respected and venerated? And did you know that they sometimes also interact back with us? Did we mention that sometimes they intervene in wars and battles? And save cities? Oh, and that in the Orthodox world, including Russia, Holy Icons, especially particularly famous ones, are still turned to in times of trouble and fear to aid the people and protect them?
Some Theological Background
Perhaps it is best to begin with an Orthodox perspective on what icons are and why they are venerated. We started the article quoting the Prohibition on Images. The Prohibition existed during the time before Christ, since at that time the Father had not revealed His full Image in the Son to the world. Thus, no one could know what an image of the Father looked like, and anything made was bound to fall short and be faulty and the product of the maker's imagination. But when Christ came to Earth, He was the Fullness of God made Man. As the second person of the Holy Trinity, by looking upon the face of Christ, you could now say quite literally that you had seen the Face of God. Christ Himself says, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn. 14:9). Moreover, by taking on human flesh, Christ had redeemed all matter from the curse of the Fall by which it had been marred, when Man, being half matter, sinned and fell, taking the material world into decay and ruin with him, as he was the capstone of the material creation.
This elevation and sanctification of matter, along with Christ coming as God's Image, opened the door for the use of matter to illustrate God, just as God had illustrated Himself in matter. St. John of Damascus phrases it like this,
"It is obvious that at that time [before Christ] you could not make an image of the invisible God, but when you see the Formless One become man for your sake, then you will make images of Him in His human form. When you contemplate God becoming man, then you can depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to us, you may then draw His likeness...Paint everything with words and colors both in books and on boards."
Moreover, the prohibition on images in Judaism did not resemble modern iconoclasm as one might find it practiced in say, Islam or Calvinist versions of Protestantism. Though making an image of God Himself was not done, many images of lesser beings were made. Consider, for example, the angels on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant; the temple veil was embroidered with angel images, and archaeology has revealed a synagogue from the 2nd or 3rd century in Dura Europos, covered in images of Old Testament saints, similar in appearance to Orthodox churches.
From early in the history of the Church, Holy Icons were used to preach and teach the Holy Gospel to a largely illiterate audience. But they are not simple teaching tools or flash cards. The Church teaches that since Christ is an image of God, and those who die in Christ are united in Christ, Christ is also reflected in His saints. This reflected divinity or glory that illumines the saints is accessible through their images or icons, as the icon is an image of its Prototype, the Saint whom it depicts. Thus, as we can make an icon of Christ and revere it, as the reverence given to the material icon is transferred to its Prototype, in this case, Christ. The Saints are mystically bound together in the Life of Christ, and so they too can be depicted, revered, and asked for favors, as you would ask a friend that has closer access to a great king than you do to bring your petitions to his attention.
Historical Interactions with Icons
Through the ages, the icons have occasionally also interacted back with the Faithful in various ways, as their Prototypes act through their images. Some heal in a miraculous way, like their Prototypes did in earthly life, other stream myrrh or exude scented oil; sometimes in response to the faithfulness of the people, sometimes to warn the people of a coming disaster, or other important event. These miraculous icons are particularly loved and revered, and a large legendarium has built up around them.
To process on a special occasion with Holy Icons is an ancient tradition that appeared in the Byzantine Empire in the 4th century. St. john Chrysostom would organize night processions against the Arians through the streets of Constantinople. For this occasion, silver crosses were placed on shafts, which were solemnly carried around the City, along with holy icons. People followed with lighted candles. This is the manner in which processions arose in the Church.
The Faithful have also been bringing out icons in times of trouble, disease, persecution, or war probably at least since St. Constantine saw "In hoc signo vinces." One famous example is the icon of the Virgin Mary which was held responsible for protecting Constantinople during the siege of 626 AD, when it was paraded around the Theodosian Walls by the bishop Sergios.
Icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria
When Russia Christianized in the 10th century, Byzantine ideas about the creation and use of icons and the powers they could possess passed, along with the Orthodox Faith, into Russian culture. This led to events where the processing of icons was credited with bringing about protection or victory in battle. Consider this example courtesy of the Virtual Russian Museum:
"Icons of the Mother of God of the Holy Sign were popular in Novgorod in the twelfth century, when one allegedly saved the besieged city from an invasion by the Suzdalites. When Archbishop Elijah of Novgorod was praying, he heard a voice commanding him to take the image of the Virgin-- the town's Patroness--from the Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour and hang it on the city wall. During the procession, an enemy arrow struck the icon. The Virgin turned her face towards the city, giving a sign to the people of Novgorod. The Suzdal regiments were blinded and fled in terror. Following this miraculous sign, the archbishop established an official Russian Orthodox holiday in honor of the Mother of God of the Holy Sign."
Our Lady of the Holy Sign Icon
In modern times as well, the protection of the holy icons has not gone unnoticed. The Our Lady of Kazan icon has a rich history. Originally sourced from Constantinople, it was lost in 1438, and found over 140 years later in 1579 wholly intact. Copies of this icon were made and distributed to many churches in Russia. According to legend, this icon, or one of its copies, played a role in the miraculous salvation of Russia from Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
Our Lady of Kazan
In 1941, Metropolitan Ilia of the Antiochian Church had a vision of the Theotokos. He had been fervently praying for Russia. So the Virgin told him to tell the Russians to carry Her Icon of Kazan in procession around Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), then serve a prayer service before the icon in Moscow. The icon should then stay with the troops in Stalingrad (now Volgograd), and later move with them to the border. This was done. Leningrad did not fall. Moscow did not surrender. The Nazis could not cross the Volga. They were eventually pushed back well beyond the border.
And these are not isolated incidents. For generations, Russians have witnessed icons streaming fragrant myrrh, granting miraculous healings, offering their protection to individuals, cities, and the entire country in times of distress and danger. The icon is at the heart of Russian and Orthodox religious life, allowing us in our earthly clay to commune with the Uncreated God and those of us who have gone on to closer communion with Him and beg their heavenly favors.
Myrrh Streaming Icon of St. Barbara
The Kursk Root Icon
What new miracles will God and His Saints grant us through their Holy Icons in these present dangerous times is yet to be revealed in His good time.