That’s a curious notion. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it said that way before, but it’s a statement of a truth that Orthodox Christians take for granted. “Ikons don’t lie,” means something like this: You can depend on an ikon to faithfully represent what is written in the Holy Scriptures, or what we know from the life of the Church in history. Anyone pictured in an ikon has to have existed, not exactly as they are depicted (though often the image is nearer their real appearance than many think). Any thing and any event shown in an ikon has to have existed or taken place. Modern historical critics notwithstanding, we believe what the ikons show us; we accept them as “Gospel truth.”
A limited number of figures in an ikon are known representations of invisibilities. “Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers,” and other “bodiless powers” (cf. Colossian 1:16 JB), or of intangible yet real entities, “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (Revelation 12:9 NIV). The former are depicted as winged men, winged wheels, flames of fire, and the like; the latter is often shown as a dragon (a mythological monster) or as a dark-hued human. We understand what’s going on. We’re not taken in, we know the reality is there but can’t be shown directly, so we accept what’s been handed over to us.
When a person really understands this, that ikons don’t lie, he can begin to explore the writer’s mind and share in his spiritual vision. (The painter of an ikon is called its writer.) Many people are drawn to Orthodoxy at first because of the ikons, attracted to them by the experience of the holiness of beauty. Hopefully they won’t stop there but, following the path indicated by the ikons, soon come to the beauty of holiness. Ikons are there partly to assist in dividing the wheat from the chaff in us, and among us. This is an invisible winnowing, outside the ken of most of mankind, but it has effects.
Why are ikons so important to the Orthodox?
Why are they considered indispensable?
It’s supposed to have something to do with the Incarnation.
If the invisible, eternal God never came among us, He could not have been depicted—hence, the iconoclasm (ikon-breaking) of the Jews who believe in the pre-incarnate God and cannot conceive of Him any other way. If the Eternal had not come and “pitched His tent” among us, we would indeed be transgressors in depicting Him. As such, in Orthodox ikons, the Father is never depicted, “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father” (John 6:46 NASB); nor is the Holy Spirit, “The Spirit breatheth where he will; and thou hearest his voice, but thou knowest not whence he cometh, and whither he goeth” (John 3:8 Douay-Rheims). Only the image of a dove, the sign not the appearance of the Holy Spirit, or flames of fire, again a sign of His presence, yet not His face, are shown in the ikons.
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
John 14:8-9 NIV
Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God before all ages (cf. John 1:1), tells us that to see Him is to see the Father. The holy apostles continue in His teaching, writing “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NIV). All these testimonies are foundational to the Orthodox Christian understanding of ikons. Jesus Christ is the ikon of the Father. We are ikons of Jesus Christ. Whoever honors Jesus Christ, whoever honors the Word of God, honors the Father. Whoever honors human beings, who are ikons of Jesus Christ, honors the Lord. This is the less talked about meaning of ikons.
Why is it less talked about?
Maybe, because it has practical significance. Maybe, because people would rather not admit it.
Why are ikons on my mind today?
It’s because I’m thinking about the theology of giving gifts, yes, the theology of giving each other gifts at Christmas. People say that this is just a Christian version of the gift giving at certain holiday times practiced by almost every culture since time began. I’m not so sure…