When we enter an Orthodox church, the first thing we do is to reverence and kiss the ikons. What does this signify; what does it teach us? We know that we are not reverencing the object itself, the wood and the paint; we understand that our reverence is being shown for the person portrayed in the ikon and that the reverence we show to the ikon passes over to the prototype, to the one portrayed. Since a saint has become a saint because he or she truly has Christ dwelling in them, and since they are glorified by the fulness of Christ in them, and by their own life in Christ, the reverence we show to any ikon, no matter who is portrayed in it, passes to Christ, the source of holiness.
Let us pause for a moment and think: the veneration and reverence we show to an ikon passes over to the prototype. Mankind is created in the ikon (image) of God. This, then, is the first lesson which we must learn from the veneration of ikons. If each human being is created in the ikon of God, and the reverence we show toward the ikon passes over to the prototype, what should our relationship with our neighbour, with each other human being be? If we reverence an ikon, we reverence the prototype; if we hate or disdain an ikon, does this not also pass to the prototype of the ikon?
Brothers and sisters, each human being is an image of the living God. Are we not taught, by our reverence of ikons, that the way in which we treat any other human being is the manner in which we are treating God? If we have love and reverence for another person, does that love and reverence not pass over to the prototype — to God? And if we have hatred, malice or disdain for another person, does not that also reflect to the prototype — to God? This is just what Jesus Christ told us when He said, “As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto Me” (Mt.25:40).
Therefore, the first lesson we learn from the ikon and the veneration of ikons is that our disposition toward our fellow humans reflects our true disposition toward God. We are taught by our reverencing of the ikon to carefully guard ourselves against hatred, malice and disdain of our neighbour. Every human being, regardless of race, gender or even religion, is created in God’s image. That image may have become darkened by sin, by separation from a living relationship with God, but it is there nonetheless. We must learn to love and reverence our fellow human beings, openly and without reservation, for only then can we truly come to love and reverence God. The fact that we are taught this through the reverencing of ikons, which are dogmatic, also teaches us that we have this love and reverence without any compromise of the faith. In this way, our very first approach to the ikon opens to us a more clear and certain understanding of the message of Christ’s Gospel.
Bishop Lazar Puhalo