When the Orthodox Church is brought up among American Protestants the most common first reaction is, “Orthodox…what is that?” The second most common is “They are like Catholics but don’t have a Pope and their priests can get married.”
After a moment of silence to ponder that peculiar definition of a Christian group is often amended; “they pray to saints and worship icons.”…
Reaction, “Ohhh… OK… That’s why we are not Orthodox. It’s one of THEM Christian groups. “
So… while two objections were brought up there, we are going to now discus the later …Icons.
Right out the gate an Orthodox Christian will retort, “We venerate …not worship.” And to that Americas reply ” tomato, tomahto “…same thing.
Before both parties split ways at that point with ill feelings it’s our job as slightly obscure Orthodox Christians to explain the difference between veneration and worship. And lucky for us Americans make this easy. How is that? Well…as father “?” recently pointed out.
It makes American Protestants real uncomfortable to see men and women crossing themselves and giving a bow before every icon they pass. But it would bother them just as much if someone refused to cross their heart at the pledge of allegiance to the flag. It really bothers Americans to see a flag being dragged along the ground. And burning a flag just might start an outright fight in the midst of patriotic Americans. This is veneration.
It doesn’t mean they are worshiping the flag. But they certainly do not treat the flag as a common piece of cloth. It’s not what the flag is made out of or who made it. What makes it special is what it represents.
It’s the same for icons. Although they might have been painted by common Christians they do not represent common people. They represent very special people. And those Christian flags deserve a salute at least as much as the stars and stripes.
Furthermore the pictures themselves represent actual holy people who (according to the Orthodox Christian faith) are still living as we speak.
It would appear very odd to see a modern person treating pictures of family members with carelessness and disregard. And we as 21 century Americans don’t find it odd at all to kiss pictures of those who are loved and missed. Icons are no different. Christians wish they had actual pictures of Jesus, Mary, The Apostles and Saints but we don’t. Painted pictures are all we have so we make due. And we treat these pictures as special, not because of what they are but because of who they represent.
The Icons themselves are not considered the actual person any more than your family picture is considered your family. We venerate the picture of Jesus not the frame and paint. If the icon at some point lost the picture it would then loose its status just as the flag would lose its significance if it no longer had stars and stripes.
Idolatry would be the idea that the country was the flag you are saluting. If then someone were to burn that flag then they would then be destroying the actual country.
This is the difference between veneration and worship. And it is no different in practice than saluting the flag or kissing a loved one’s picture.