Talk given to Lutheran group at St. Luke Orthodox Church
during Lent 2001 by Alexandria Lukashonak
Icon of the Theotokos
Orthodox Christianity and Iconography go hand in hand -- you don't get
one without the other, and so today, I'd like to introduce you to Icons - particularly to
the Icon of our Lady of the Sign which is the one you see on the wall of the sanctuary,
the one that greets you as you enter our church. The Icon of the Virgin Mary Theotokos,
which means birth giver of God, is seen as the heart of the church offering us her Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Old Testament times, the temple was the place where God dwelled.
With the incarnation of Christ, He came to dwell among us and in us. His Mother becomes
the new temple and as such she is given an important place in the church.
Before I go on, I'd like to tell you a little bit about what icons
are and what they are not:
An icon is a form of Holy Scripture. It represents a true account of
a holy person or event, which actually occurred. Icons date back to Genesis 1: 26
humanity was created in the "icon" or "image" and likeness of God, but God had not yet
become incarnate and had no visible, physical form. With the incarnation of Christ, that
physical form became visible and was able to be depicted. The icon that we see here today
is actually a copy of one, which was found in the catacombs dating back to the first
As we all know, the bible was not available in the early days of the
Church. Even after the word of God was put into writing, it was virtually impossible for
the average person to own a copy of the various scriptures. They had to be hand copied
on vellum and were very expensive. In addition, the literacy rate in many countries was
not high enough for the masses to read the scripture. The Church met this problem early
on by adapting iconography, already developed in the first century, to a teaching use.
Almost the entire bible would be painted in a manner, which was strictly regulated so
that it correctly portrayed the scripture and these icons decorated the walls of
churches to the extent that, in some churches, there would be no bare walls left.
Iconography, in fact, became another language.
There was a period of time in the 8th century when rulers in the
East (Leo III and Constantine V) attempted to subject the Church to their rule. In
order to gain control of the Church, they attacked zealous Christians, especially monks,
who defended the integrity of the Church. Their attack was specifically aimed at the
veneration of icons. Eventually they were defeated and the proper use of icons was
confirmed by the Council of Nicea held in 787, long before the church became divided.
Icons are not humanistic drawings of holy persons. They are not
sentimental, personal revelations but are called upon to be true and faithful to the
spiritual and ascetic qualities of the persons depicted, that is, the true reality of
the person as he or she was created to be, unmarred by sin. This is actually what
being a "Saint" is all about.
Icons are objects of reverence or respect and veneration or honor.
This is very different from worship. We do not worship icons, rather, when correctly
made and used in worship, icons give a greater understanding and awareness of spirit
and truth and lift the soul upward in adoration of God and his creation. Honor rendered
to the image ascends to its prototype and he who venerates an icon, adores the person.
The Icon of our Lady of the Sign which greets you upon entering St.
Luke's is so named because she is the sign of the Incarnate Christ coming to us. In Isaiah
7:14, we read: "The Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin shall be with Child and
shall call his name Emmanuel (God with us )." It is also known as the Platytera, a Greek
word meaning "more spacious than the Heavens." In a hymn from St.Basil's Liturgy, we sing:
'For He made your womb more spacious than the heavens."
The Mother of God is shown with her hands upraised in prayer, and she
is offering us her son, Jesus, usually shown in a mandula over her bosom. (A mandula is
an oval circle representing the universe and showing that Jesus is the Creator of the
universe.) The many winged angels, the cherubim, shown on either side of Mary indicate
that she is higher than the angels Again, we sing: " more honorable than the cherubim and
beyond compare, more glorious than the seraphim, you gave birth to God the Word. "The
letters at the top of the icon stand for Mary, Mother of God, and the letters on either
side of Christ are his initials.
The letters in Jesus' halo stand for "O Own" meaning "I am," the name
given to him on Mt. Sinai. The placement of this icon in the church is important. It is
displayed in the dome over the altar because Mary who presents Christ to the world, also
represents us in worship before God and is seen as a model in prayer to her Son, who
we are all called to love and worship.
I'd like to close with the words of Peter Gillquist concerning his
reaction during one of his early encounters with Icons. (This is taken from Again
Magazine, Volume 9, No. 4.)
"I remember entering a church sometime ago and seeing a picture or
icon of Mary with open arms front and center on the wall (apse) just behind the altar.
My first impulse was to wonder why Christ was not featured at that particular place in
the church though he was shown in a large circle that was super imposed over her heart.
When I asked why she was so prominently featured, the Christian scholar with me
explained: 'This is perhaps one of the most evangelistic icons in the entire church.
What you see is Christ living as Lord in Mary's life and her outstretched arms are an
invitation to you and me to let him live in our lives as he does in hers.' The power of
that icon stays in my mind to this day, for she has set the pace (standard) for all of
us to personally give our lives to Jesus Christ.
Icon of the Nativity
Icons in the altar at St. Luke
Written (Painted) by Cheryl Pituch a former Parishioner
The icon of the Nativity of our Lord is on the North wall above the
table of preparation. There is a relationship between the Nativity of Christ and the
service of preparation which precedes the Liturgy. In the service the Holy gifts are
prepared to be offered as Christ's birth is his preparation to be offered for our sins.
The child is rapped in swaddling cloth which is symbolic of his grave rapping's. The
icon depicts Joseph being tempted to put Mary away, the wise man, shepherds, angels and
star from the East. Also can be seen are the midwifes washing the child Jesus and the
The Crucifixion of our Lord
This Icon on the South wall of the altar depicts Christ who said,
"And I, If I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself." (John 12:
32) The Theotokos, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, Apostle John and the St.
Longinius are standing below the cross. From Christ's side flow blood and water which
represent the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. This is literally the forgiveness
of sins that gushed out of Jesus' side; the water gushed unto regeneration and the
washing away of sin and the blood as drink productive of life everlasting.
This Icon of the Eucharist is on the back wall behind the altar
showing Christ giving Communion to His apostles. All the apostles are in attendance,
including St. Paul who was historically not in attendance at the Lord's Supper. The icon
is not of the Lord's Supper, but rather a mystical icon of the Eternal Eucharist which
was celebrated in the past, is celebrated in the present and will be celebrated in the
future in the Kingdom of Heaven. An open Gospel is present on the Altar with the words of
St. Luke. Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, "Take this and divide it among
yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the
kingdom of God comes." And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them,
saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." (Luke 22: