The Icon: Prayer Without Words
It was a weekly occurrence in our family, and in most families in our parish. My mother would dress us up and take us to church for the weekly devotions to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Our church of Holy Redeemer in Detroit, Michigan, is a large basilica-style church that seats a thousand people. The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is enshrined on the left side of the church, with its own marble altar surrounded by candles. After devotions, my mother would buy a candle and place it before the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, and we would kneel and spend additional moments in prayer. The beautiful gold, red, and blue colors of the icon sparkled in the flickering candlelight.
Even as a little boy I sensed there was something sacred and intimate about kneeling before the icon. I knew instinctively that this image before me was not a photograph or a painted replica of what Mary and Jesus actually looked like. Rather, the image was divine, sacred, and godly.
This picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is called an icon, from the Greek eikon, meaning an image, depiction, or pictorial representation. The New Testament describes Christ as the eikon, namely, the image and exact representation of God. (See Heb 1:3.) As Jesus makes God visible to us, so the icon makes the holiness of the person depicted visible to us.
The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, then, doesn’t just show Mary as a woman and a mother; it represents Mary as the Mother of God. It shows the divine shining through Mary. The icon invites us to walk through the picture into the divine presence. Some people see the icon as a meeting place in which God’s divine presence meets us, and we meet God. The icon is fittingly called “a window into heaven.”
Icons were never meant to be worshiped or venerated as something holy in themselves. The reverence shown an icon must be done with the understanding that we are venerating the person or event it portrays, not the artwork. Icons are windows into the spiritual world that enable us to contemplate spiritual matters, put us into a prayerful frame of mind, and remind us of events in the Bible, the life of Christ, and the saints.
The icon is not a photographic-type picture. Originally, icons gave people who could not read or write a way to understand the Christian message and the holiness of the person delivering that message. For example, if an artist wished to show a figure was divine, the icon portrayed light emanating from the head in the form of a circle. This was called a “nimbus,” and later a “halo.” To show the uniqueness of Jesus, a cross was usually placed within his halo.