When I entered the monastery back in 1985, I knew nothing about icons. I had never visited an Orthodox church and had no idea that icons had been used by Christians for centuries in both public worship and private devotion. Towards the end of my novitiate, I read my first book about praying with icons: Behold, the Beauty of the Lord by Henri Nouwen, published in 1987. In it Nouwen describes several icons with which he had prayed for some time, noting their distinguishing characteristics and describing the insights he had gained from praying with them.
Later I learned that icons were sometimes described as “windows into heaven.” Most often when we look at a window we are not looking at the window itself, but are looking through the window to what lies beyond it. In the same way, when we use icons in prayer, the focus of our prayer is not the icon itself but the sacred mystery in represents. We are, as it were, drawn through the icon into the divine mystery of which it speaks.
In his Letter to the Colossians, from which we read today, St Paul says that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God.” The Greek word here translated as “image” is “icon.” “[Jesus] is the icon of the invisible God,” says Paul. We cannot see or touch God, who is “invisible” to our human senses; just as we cannot see or touch the sacred mysteries that are pictured in icons. But just as icons can be ‘windows’ for us, helping us enter into divine mysteries, so too, Jesus is a ‘window’ into the mystery of God, a means by which we can more fully grasp that which lies beyond our ability to see or touch or measure. As the Evangelist John says, “No one has ever seen God. It is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18).
Jesus is “the image of the invisible God,” the Incarnation of God who “was made flesh and lived among us.” When we gaze on him – contemplating his words and his actions, his priorities and his mission, his compassion and his willingness to take on human suffering, his humility and purity of heart, his desire to heal and to bless, his willingness to serve rather that to be served – we are looking deeply into the mystery of God himself. We experience the true nature of God by contemplating his Incarnate Son.
One of our dear departed brothers, Paul Wessinger, had this to say on the occasion of his 90th birthday: “At age 24, when I came to SSJE just out of seminary, I had a very clear definition of God. I feel much closer to God now, but I certainly can’t in any way describe who God is, other than to say, through Jesus I experience God as love.” This is our testimony as well, and the testimony of the earliest Christians. As the author of 1st John puts it: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it…” (I Jn 1:1-2a). Through Jesus we have experienced God as love.
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