In the Orthodox Church the view of Heaven is that it is not static but always dynamic. (J52) It is taught that all those who go there continue to grow towards a fuller perfection even after they have come to live in this blessed place, because God is still infinitely more than whatever they had partaken of Him in their own journey towards Him on earth. (F145) Thus the reality for all Eternity is that as God is creatively alive and infinitely full, so those who have come to live in His presence can and will continuously grow and grow in holiness and in greater life when they are living closer to Him. (S182)
We are much more than we are aware of in our day to day existence. We haven’t discovered even a small part of our full dimension as human beings, since we are not yet open to perceive things as they really are in truth. God is Truth, as He plainly said to His Disciples and Apostles. It is only by being with Him directly and continuously by our loving choice that we can become in time fully icons of Him, and live moment by moment filled with His Life and Love. This is very creative, dynamic, and lively in every sense of the words. This is a life worth living. It is what we were made to be. If we humbly ask Christ to come near, open our hearts and minds, leave selfishness, and choose Heavenly things, it is then that we have begun to remove the barrier that keeps us away from the fullness of His Light. (CJ742)
The icons are “windows into Heaven” so they reflect this Heavenly truth even when shown here on earth, and so are dynamic rather than static, balanced but not symmetrical. They imply motion, aliveness, vitality, vigor, and strength even though they are yet in form just two-dimensional art. Rest in motion, peace in growth, life in more life—ideas hard to express in our still fallen world, but with Christ all things are possible. Let us yearn towards His Light and see then with a greater sight!
Icons are not just pictures or art, but have a living spiritual dimension beyond just the material form by which they are seen. When we look at an icon we are entering in some mysterious way into a relationship with the person or event depicted, and this is a two-way relationship. (F137) This is a mystery that cannot be fully explained but can be directly felt.
The world of God and the revelation of Heavenly things is always present since God is always present. It is not God that is absent, but us. Through the Church this spiritual world can become open to us when we enter and live in the Church ardently and with love. It is our cooperation and active participation that can begin to open Heaven to us, even if we have been sinful before like the Good Thief dying next to Christ for his sins (S365), but it is still by God’s grace and love that any good thing can happen. He is the doer, but we must learn to move with Him and in Him, for in Him we have our being as St. Paul (CS1484) says. This takes practice and the Church wisely guides those who wish to live a Divine life here through humility and love. Simple words, but hard to lose our false ego to do them.
After coming to a particular holy person or subject of an icon then, the best way to choose one is to notice if you are feeling drawn to any particular image. (S65) That means that at this time we can have a dynamic interaction with that icon and person or event over a longer period of time. It is not an intellectual exercise, but deeper than just the rational mind, just like love is more, or respect, or admiration. Let us choose by being quiet and open to “see” an image, an icon that appeals directly to us. Blessed picking!
All people are made in the Image of God from their creation. (F143) This is said in the beginning of the Holy Scriptures. When human beings open themselves into a living relationship with God and the Church, they begin to blossom and become more and more like Jesus Christ Who is an Image of God the Father. His Light begins to shine in them, and purify them, and cleanse them until they become living icons of Him. (S345) That is why they are called saints, which means holy.
They reflect His Light in them and shine with reflected glory. (S397) The Virgin Mary and most of the Apostles became holy like this, and in time many more people also became like them. (T60) They too shone with Him manifestly becoming living icons even while alive here on earth. Because they are with Him and live in Him and image Him even now, we can call on them as older brothers and sisters in the Faith to hear us because they are with Him so closely. God answers prayers, even sometimes through the Saints, but He answers them.
They were human like us. They had all of the human qualities and challenges of fallen human nature like us. They needed the same purification, avoidance of sin, and choosing the better part like us, and then they chose to follow Christ up the path to Golgotha, each in their own unique way as God led them. They followed the Lamb of God wherever He goes, as did St. John the Baptist (S16) and we need to learn to do this too. We are not different from the saints by nature, just by practice, and practice, and practice. If we ask them for help in our struggles, their very frailty and humanness will encourage us to go forward and live a real spiritual life, with God present right here and right now. Let us behold the beauty of the Virgin Mary and all the Saints as we draw near to Him!
According to St. Basil (S37), Christ is the image of God the Father, Whom no man hath ever seen. We can see God by beholding Jesus Christ manifest inwardly when He becomes the very Light of our life and our very means of perception, and then seeing all other things through Him. We can see God outwardly by looking at His Holy icons which are a direct revelation of Him as He was in the flesh. Then, however, we must look through those icons as “windows into the Heavenly Realms”: where Christ is the very light of perception of the Next World. (J36)
This Light is the light of all men, as St. John the Evangelist says. We need to learn how to see everything at all times through this light “…which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (John 1:9) Heaven is filled with this Light which warms the heart, illumines the mind, and fills all those living there with ineffable sweetness and love.
The Holy Icons also help us in another way as we are always included in the act of beholding an icon and are a living part of each icon that we behold. This “window into Heaven” is a two-way window. When we see Him with love and compassion, the image of God that was planted in us becomes alive and luminous, for we are essentially made in His Image from our conception. (J40) The word Icon is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Image, so we are made as the icons of Him.
This word is used to describe the beginning of Creation of people, and defines us as essentially related to Him from the very first moment of our being. We are not just children of God, but in some sense have the possibility of becoming so infused with Him that we can shine with His grace and love, lit up in reflection by showing forth His image cleansed and enlightened then by Him. Let us reach out to Him ardently now so that He reaches back to us today in love!
Jesus made the first icon by pressing His face to a cloth, sometimes known as Veronica’s Veil. Veronica’s name means “true icon” (S407). It is also called “the image not-made-by-hands.” All icons of Him are patterned after this image. (J80) St. Luke was the first iconographer or icon painter. He painted the Virgin Mary from life. Some of his icons are still here so we can see what she looked like too. (T22) Therefore, from the beginning, the icons are patterned after those that they depict, and have an actual historic basis.
There are icon pattern books that tell the iconographer how to paint different people and scenes so that they keep a direct continuity with the entire history of icon painting. For example, among the Apostles St. Peter (S299) is always shown with short white hair and a short white beard, while St. Paul (S298) is always shown with longer dark hair and beard, and with a receding hairline, because this is how they really looked in life. St. Andrew (S105), however, is always shown with his hair and beard somewhat disheveled, which was a distinguishing characteristic of him. The icons show this historic actual dimension, but they are, in fact, more than just earthly portraits.
All of the icons then have two dimensions, one earthly after the form which each person appeared in this world, and one Heavenly in the deliberate abstraction added to the image to show us more than just realism. (J16) God was both Man and God. When He was on earth He was always more than just what people could see outwardly. Some people found that He was God incarnate even while He was here. All the icons include this spiritual dimension that brings us right back to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, Who is the express image of God the Father. And we are all made in His Image. (F130) Let us look deeply into the icons to see this dimension too!