Icons, Dead Christians, and Prayer Requests

By Bishop Kenneth Myers

“Why is it ok to pray to saints,” the question began. The writer was intrigued by the Catholic and Orthodox practice, but had been told by others that, “It is wrong to pray to anyone but God.” There followed a question about the use of icons in prayer, and how in the world a painted picture could be an instrument of spiritual life.

The common and easy answer is that dead Christians aren’t dead. They are alive in Christ, and just as we can ask someone with skin on to pray for us, we can also ask someone with skin off, so to speak.

I would just add one thing: whoever said, “It is wrong to pray to anyone but God,” is confusing worship and prayer. It is wrong to worship anyone but God. This is clear from Scripture. But to ask or petition someone else for something is perfectly fine. To ask or petition – this is precisely what “pray” means: “Pray tell me, what is the time?” No one is disturbed if you “pray” to someone to tell you the time of day.

We ask people to intercede for us before God all the time – “Hey, will you pray for me about my job interview tomorrow?” What we mean is, “I am asking you to join me in asking God to move on my behalf regarding my job interview tomorrow.” It isn’t because you have skin on that I can ask you to pray for me. It’s because we share a common unity in Christ. Those who have died in the flesh are not dead, Jesus says, but alive in God (Mt. 22.31-33). Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with Christ (2 Co. 5.8f).

Let me explain it like this. When a person dies, where is that person? “Present with Christ,” is the answer. OK. Now, when I become a believer, where am I? “In Christ” is the answer. I’m in Christ and St. Nicholas is in Christ, so I can ask him to pray for me.

That is the “what” of the matter. As to the “how” of the matter – I don’t have a clue – heavenly voicemail? Heck, I don’t even know how the internet happens.
As for using icons – they are “windows into heaven,” so to speak. Funny, a modern Protestant can sit for three hours and watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and see it as a vehicle of increased devotion, and turn right around and have trouble with a painted (or “written”) icon doing the same.

Using icons in spiritual devotion isn’t a new thing. It has a history going back to the early church. There is evidence of their use in the 200’s, and by the 300’s icons were prevalent. In other words, using icons in the Christian spiritual life predates the canonization of Scripture by a good 150-200 years! Wrap your mind around that – before a pastor could say, “Turn in your Bibles to the fourth Gospel,” he could say, “Be sure and light a candle in front of the icon of Jesus and pray for our church.” The last great Ecumenical Council (Nicea II in A.D. 787) dealt with the issue of icons. There were some Christians who were dissing the use of icons and the council of Christian leaders officially affirmed their use in prayer.

So, just a bit more – the Greek word eikon is translated as “image”; Jesus is the “express image” of the invisible God, the Bible says. Eikon originally meant “the image in which the original is contained.” With that in mind, we can see icons as, in a sense, “containing” what they depict (Christ, some saint, some event from the life of Jesus). That’s confusing to us moderns until we think about – get this – icons on a smart phone. Click on the icon and it takes you to the program. The icon on the screen is an “image” of the program, and in a way “contains” the program. Now, apply the same idea to an icon used in devotion. Yes, it is “just” an image, but it connects us to the reality behind it.

Saint Jerome gets the final words: “If the Apostles and Martyrs, while still in the body, can pray for others, at a time when they must still be anxious for themselves, how much more after their crowns, victories, and triumphs are won! One man, Moses, obtains from God pardon for six hundred thousand men in arms; and Stephen, the imitator of the Lord, and the first martyr in Christ, begs forgiveness for his persecutors; and shall their power be less after having begun to be with Christ? The Apostle Paul declares that two hundred three score and sixteen souls, sailing with him, were freely given him; and, after he is dissolved and has begun to be with Christ, shall he close his lips, and not be able to utter a word in behalf of those who throughout the whole world believed at his preaching of the Gospel?” (Against Vigilantius, Paragraph 6).

St. Jerome, pray for us to understand the Bible and the faith more than we do.