One of the first things that visitors, especially non-Orthodox, notice in Orthodox Churches is the abundance of icons. Icons are everywhere. They hang on the walls and lie on stands. There may be frescos or mosaics. Believers light candles, kiss them and pray before them. They are an integral part of Orthodox life.
But some Christians, some Protestants, are very much against the veneration of icons. They accuse Orthodox of worshipping idols. We have to understand the difference between worship and veneration. We worship only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we can venerate, that is show respect, honor and love to other people and things. For example, no doubt we have photographs of our loved ones. In our homes, they are placed in places of honor. What is more natural than to keep a photograph of our mother and kiss it, if she has passed away. This is veneration. Or when the national flag is raised, we remove our hats and place our hands on our hearts. This is another form of veneration. We should also remember how many schools and public buildings have portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They too are hung in places of honor and honor is shown to them. All of these are forms of veneration, and are in a sense, secular icons. Considering that, what is more natural than have and to venerate icons of Jesus Christ, His mother and the saints.
We also have to remember that we are not venerating the paint and wood of the icon. Rather, the veneration given to the icon passes right through, so to speak, to the person depicted in the icon. To look at in another way, a father of the church said that if he see a cross made out of two simple pieces of wood he venerates this as the cross of Christ. However, if later to the cross is broken into parts, for him they are now simple pieces of wood.
Those who oppose icons base their opposition on the Ten Commandments which say
“ And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me…” (Ex 20:1-5)
What is surprising is that opposition to icons even arose in the Orthodox Church. In the 8th century AD the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) emperors began a campaign against icons. They ordered icons to be taken out of public places, church and even private homes. Many Orthodox believers, clergy, monastics and lay people, suffered in defense of icons. No one is sure why the emperor began this movement of “iconoclasm” (literally meaning the smashing of icons). After all, icons had been used in the Orthodox Church for many centuries. There is even a tradition which says that St. Luke painted the first icon of the Mother of God. Some suggest that the Emperor began this campaign against icons under the influence of Islam, which is very much against icons. This campaign disturbed the church and a council was called in 787 AD to proclaim the importance, the necessity of icons.
Even in the Old Testament itself, God orders the making of images for the Ark of the Covenant. This is the holy box that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the manna and Aron’s staff that budded. This was the holiest thing in Judaism, the locus of God’s presence. God told the Jews to put Cherubim (angels) on the Ark
“…And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you.” (Ex 25:18-21)
So we can see that even in Old Testament times God ordered images to be made.