Icons…and Nationalism


Icons are an essential part of the Orthodox life, and so are found in all Orthodox Churches. Some churches have just a few icons on the icon screen up front, while other churches have every inch of wall space covered with icons, but all Orthodox churches have icons. The identification of icons with Orthodoxy is so complete that the annual commemoration of the restoration of icons to the churches after the period of iconoclasm is not called “the Triumph of Icons”, but “the Triumph of Orthodoxy”.

Visitors to Orthodox churches sometimes wonder aloud why this is. Even when they are too theologically sophisticated to equate icons with idols, we still seem to suffer in their eyes from an embarrassment of riches. They remember how the Second Council of Nicea in 787 compared the kissing of icons to the non-objectionable kissing of the Gospel book and of the Cross (and, the Council might have added, to a Jew kissing the Torah scrolls), and they therefore acknowledge that kissing icons is not idolatrous, since neither the Christian kissing the Gospel book nor the Jew kissing the Torah scrolls worships them when they kiss them. But though icons are therefore legitimate and allowable in churches, they still wonder if this is not too much of a good thing. After all, though icons are allowed, they are not mandatory. There is no rule that says that an Orthodox church has to have lots and lots of icons. So why do we have so many? The answer is two-fold.

First of all, churches have lots of icons of Christ and His saints for the same reason that your grandmother has lots of photos of her children and her grandchildren—because they are beloved family.

There is no law saying that a grandmother has to adorn her wall space with photos her husband in his uniform during the war and photos of their children when they were young and photos of them when they were older and photos of their grandchildren, but I defy you to find me a grandmother who doesn’t do this anyway. These people are her family. She loves them and they love her, and it comforts the human heart to see pictures of people that are loved. (That is also, by the way, why every husband has in his wallet a picture of his wife.) Images are powerful, and they unite us to people we love and care about.

In the same way, the images of Christ and His Mother and His friends (i.e. the saints) are not just historical characters for the Orthodox in the same way that Genghis Khan, Napoleon, or William of Orange are historical characters. They are family, people that love us and whom we love in return. Of course we want to see their faces when we look around us in church.

Family is important. Family anchors us in the world, telling us who we are, how we are to behave, and to whom we belong. And when we are in trouble, it is to family that we turn. In the same way, when Orthodox people need help, they turn not only to God the Source of life (obviously), but also to their spiritual family, asking the Theotokos and the saints for their help and prayers.

Secondly, we also have lots of icons in our churches because worship does not take place on earth, but in heaven, where the saints are. St. Paul told us that though our bodies may be on earth, we are nonetheless sitting with Christ in the heavenlies (Ephesians 2:6), and so that is where the Eucharist actually takes place. That is why at the beginning of the anaphora the celebrant says to the assembled faithful, “Lift up your hearts!” In saying this he is not urging them to cheer up. He is urging them to ascend to where Christ is, and they respond by saying, “We lift them up unto the Lord” (or in one ancient version, “We have them with the Lord”).

The presence of icons around us expresses the truth that our worship takes place with them in heaven. Unlike the west, in Orthodoxy the Church is not divided into “the Church Militant” down here and “the Church Triumphant” up there. There is just one Church, and we all worship together.

This is not just an Orthodox thing. I knew it when I was an Anglican, though I was slow to draw the necessary conclusions from it. The Anglican Eucharistic Prayer of Consecration begins by saying, “Therefore with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee and saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory”. Note: the people praise God with all the company of heaven, because that is where they are—in heaven with them. (Historians will note that Mr. Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer, borrowed this bit from earlier liturgies.)

We note too that this all means that the Church down here cannot be divided by nationalism any more than can the Church in heaven. We are all one people, and our true citizenship comes not from any nation, but from heaven (Philippians 3:20). The saints remind us of this. There are not Ukrainian saints for the Ukrainian people, and Russian saints for the Russian people, and American saints for the American people. There are just saints, and each of them is for all the people. St. Nektarios was a Greek, but he belongs to the whole Church. St. Herman was a Russian, but he too belongs to everyone.

No truly Orthodox iconographer, for example, would show Christ holding an American flag, declaring Him to be “Christ the Saviour of America”, or clothe the Theotokos with the Canadian Maple Leaf, declaring her “the Joy of All Canada”. Christ is the Saviour of all men, not just Americans. The Theotokos is the joy of all who sorrow, not just the joy of Canadians. It is a heretical reduction to coopt Christ, His Mother, and His saints in the service of nationalism or of any earthly ideology.

Mural from Kyiv Patriarchate Church Consecrated 13 October 2018 Mural from Kyiv Patriarchate Church Consecrated 13 October 2018     

The wolfsangle in a detail on the mural with Kalashnikov assault rifles below it. Photo: Dimpenews.com. The wolfsangle in a detail on the mural with Kalashnikov assault rifles below it. Photo: Dimpenews.com.     

Nationalism is in principle divisive, and is arguably the cause of most wars. But nationalism (unlike patriotism, which is something altogether different) has no place in the life of the Church or in the heart of a Christian. The presence in our churches of many icons, including icons of saints from different nations, reminds us of this, and silently rebukes us from the walls if we fall prey to nationalism.

Nationalism is very exciting, and it gets the adrenaline flowing, especially in time of war when the media is filled with nationalistic news and lots of flags. That is the time when we should turn to the icons of the saints which adorn our church walls, and reflect that these saints call us to unity and peace. We don’t really need adrenaline, however much the governments find it helpful to their purposes. We need the grace of God. We need the witness and faces of His saints. We need the icons.

Mary3/26/2022 11:03 pm
Of course, Christ comes first, but everybody should have love and respect for their people and/or nation. With all due respect, some North Americans have a hard time understanding this concept.
The Archpriest Nicholas Young3/22/2022 5:38 pm
There is a difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is the wish to take care of one's spiritual inheritance, one's own kin and culture. Nationalism is setting one nation up and above all others; often hate and jealousy are part and parcel of this phenomenon. Father Lawrence has this in mind, it would seem, so there is no need to attack him for warning about the dangers of nationalism. A good healthy patriotism helps hold countries together, nationalism is all to often fed by pride.
Blagoje3/22/2022 10:07 am
This website was better before when it was still "Pravoslavie" in English and focused on translating Old World material as opposed to peddling American junk.
Panagiotis3/20/2022 3:54 pm
To Etropy: May Almighty God Bless you Orthodox Brother...May our God, that we fear, Bless you... Just my humble opinion....
Panagiotis3/20/2022 3:54 am
With all due respect to Father Lawrence, his comment that "nationalism has no place in the life of the church" is absolute nonsense! In many Orthodox Nations, nationalism and the Orthodox Church are intertwined.. Take for example my Serbian Brothers and the Serbian Orthodox Church. Without Serbian Nationalism, the Serbian Orthodox Church would have been decimated years ago. And without the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Serbian people would have been destroyed and/or assimilated. The same thing applies to Greece and Russia.. What would you rather have, internationalism and globalism, which results when nationalism is destroyed..Is this what you want? I guarantee you when the Antichrist, or False Messiah, arrives, he will definitely be an internationalist, and he will not be a nationalist! Holy Tzar Marytr Nicholas II was a nationalist who built many Orthodox Churches, and that is why the internationalists, the Bolshevik communist monsters, came from all over the world to overthrow the Orthodox Monarchy and destroy Holy Orthodox Russia. You need to do historical research, and see who financed the Russian Revolution, and I guarantee you they were internationalists! I could go on and on, citing many examples and facts, but hopefully you get the picture. It is the no good liberals that want to destroy nationalism, and they are trying to make nationalism a dirty word. They will replace nationalism with internationalism, liberalism, secular humanism, and nihilism, and this will result in the destruction of the Orthodox Church... Having said that, I do not believe that nationalism should result in conflict between sovereign nations, and I support the Ukrainian People, the sovereignty of Ukraine, and the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). And I also respect the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), they are both my Orthodox Brothers, and people should have a choice to freely choose which one of those Churches to belong to, without coercion from anyone. By the way, I do believe our Orthodox Faith is FIRST and foremost the MOST important thing, but nationalism also has a role in many Orthodox Nations. And ALL Orthodox Christians are my brothers, including Ukrainians, Russians, Serbians, Greeks, Macedonians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Georgians, Tatars, and all others... Just my humble opinion.
Rdr Andreas Moran3/20/2022 1:58 am
In 1 Corinthians 9:24, Apostle Paul says: “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.” When a race is run, spectators cheer on those running in the race. So, we may think of the icons of the saints on the side walls of the church as being those who have won the prize cheering on and encouraging us in the church symbolically running the race towards the sanctuary which represents Christ’s Kingdom.
Etropy3/20/2022 12:08 am
This author does not know what nationalism is, and thus he has no place telling people to avoid it. Nationalism is simply the special love for one's own people. It is mandatory for a Christian to love and cherish the people of his own blood and to not forsake them or even equate their needs with the needs of others. The nation is based in kinship, and unique ties of kinship are theologically significant. Regarding small ties of kinship, Paul said to Timothy, "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." John Chrysostom elaborated on this principle and said, "The law of God and of nature is violated by him who provides not for his own family." He goes on to say, "it is not the same thing to neglect our kindred, as to neglect a stranger. How should it be? But the fault is greater here, to desert one known than one who is unknown to us, a friend than one who is not a friend." The nation is an extended family. If you do not look after your nation, but prefer to prioritize the welfare of other nations ahead of your own, you are worse than an infidel. If you deny your nation's very existence or importance, it is the same as denying your family's existence and importance, and hence you are worse than an infidel. To push this point further, the Basis of the Social Concept of the ROC states, "The Orthodox Christian is called to love his fatherland, which has a territorial dimension, and his brothers by blood who live everywhere in the world." In contrast to the author's ahistorical notions about the universality of the Church with respect to nationhood, the ROC also states, "The universal nature of the Church, however, does not mean that Christians should have no right to national identity and national self-expressions. On the contrary, the Church unites in herself the universal with the national. Thus, the Orthodox Church, though universal, consists of many Autocephalous National Churches. Orthodox Christians, aware of being citizens of the heavenly homeland, should not forget about their earthly homeland." Nationalism, that is, the special love for one's own nation rooted in ties of kinship, is a duty for all Orthodox Christians and always has been. Only in the last half century has the concept of the nation been dismissed or allegedly "debunked." Anti-nationalism is a very modern and anti-Orthodox notion. All of Christian history is defined by national belonging and special love of kin. The author has done a massive disservice to those in Orthodoxy, especially if they feel like their particular people is being disenfranchised. What is his answer to, "Father, I'm afraid for my people. I want to fight for them" He has no answer to this because he doesn't believe those particular people exist in the first place, or if he does, they do not matter to him as his people. It is truly a disservice and a shame.
Wm Almy III3/19/2022 5:12 pm
I reread the article two more times to find the insult against a fellow OCA priest. I did not see it. What I did see was a well stated plea to avoid nationalist behavior for those following Christ in the Orthodox fashion.
Joseph Lipper3/18/2022 5:12 pm
St. Herman of Alaska, in his troparia, is referred to as "Joy of All America" and in the troparia for St. Nikolai of Zicha, he is referred to as "the pride of the Serbian people". Fr. Lawrence seems to be attacking a neighboring OCA clergy who has an Icon and Akathist to the Theotokos "Joy of All Canada". His grudge here seems to be more personal than theologically based. However, we should certainly be careful with nationalism, especially when concepts like "Russkye Mir" are used in support of military invasions.
Anonymous3/18/2022 3:42 pm
I couldn't agree more - nationalism has no place in the church. But why are you focusing on the schismatic Ukrainian churches? We all know that they are at fault! I am surprised that this article did not point out the horrible abomination of the Russian main military cathedral. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/04/24/russias-new-military-mega-church-to-feature-putin-stalin-crimea-mosaics-a70100 https://www.rt.com/russia/486856-army-church-putin-stalin-mosaic/
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