When it comes to the Bible, we always have much to learn. In today’s religious culture some look upon those from the Eastern Churches as people who do not know much about the Bible or even worse, as never having read it. Reading and studying the Bible is looked through the eyes of the last 50 years.
Our grandparents and ancestors were, in fact, very literate in the Scriptures, even though they might not have been able to read or write.
Besides, the printing press was only invented about 500 years ago. If you look at the facts more closely, you will see that perhaps our ancestors were very Bible literate and their understanding of the Word of God was in fact, very sophisticated. Looking at Ukraine over the last 1,000 years you can notice a very deep, contemplative faith in most of the population. They knew what God had spoken and how people were to respond to His Word.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that they prayed every day and most of them attended Divine Liturgy every day. That was where they heard the reading of the whole New Testament once each year. However, they had another version of the Bible before them, this one written by paint, namely, the icons.
The same people who accuse Eastern Christians as biblical illiterates also say that icons are a form of idolatry. How uninformed are they?
Icons represent the great figures of the Bible world from Adam to the apostle, as well as the many witnesses of the faith throughout the history of the church. We, in the East, when we look upon icons, actually see them as being present to us today. Amongst these are Jesus and the Mother of God. Because we see them as being present, we are able to address them as being present. Our prayer is to a living person.
When we enter one of our churches we become surrounded by the presence of the Bible narrative. The parables of Jesus are depicted and the twelve great feasts of the liturgical year are brought to life. Icons make the communion of saints present to us. Our prayer is made easier because we can see the Bible before us.
Icons were the Bible in an age before the printing press made mass production possible and affordable. Icons conveyed the message of the Word of God to the people before universal literacy was common. As one theologian said, icons became another language into which the Scripture was accurately translated, and in which it was accurately interpreted.
In the prayers for the blessing of an Iconostas, which were composed well over a thousand years ago, we read, “We implore you, bestow your heavenly blessing upon these icons that preach to us the Gospel and which we have erected in honour, glory, and memory of the birth, miracles and good deeds of your only begotten Son. So that not only by reading the Gospels, but also by meditating on these pictorial representations of our Lord, Jesus Christ, His Blessed Mother, the angels, and all the saints, we may recall their great deeds and thus be enlightened and inspired by their example to lead good lives according to your will”.
Let us look at the icons through different eyes the next time we are in church.
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