The Sign of the Cross, Icons, and Tradition in the Orthodox Church
Posted By Lewis Heart on August 25, 2019
Hymn: “O Taste and see that the Lord is
good, that the Lord is good.” One of the first things you’re gonna see
when you come in an Orthodox Church is—there’s gonna be icons in there. What are these things?
What do they mean? Are they idols? Do we worship icons? Those are questions that very naturally
might come to mind. What are icons? First of all, they are pictures
of people we love. Our heroes, the ones we aspire to be like. What Orthodox Christians
do when they come upon an icon—perhaps there’s one next to the door as soon as they come
into the worship space, the nave—what they do is they make the sign of the Cross, and
then they kiss the icon. That’s called “venerating.” You might hear a mom say, “Go venerate the
icon.” Pretty soon you’d conclude that that means “Go kiss the icon.”
Why a kiss? You could picture a soldier in wartime who has a photo of his wife. And if
no one was looking, he might actually kiss the photo. Orthodoxy grew up in a culture
where it’s the custom to greet a friend with a kiss. It’s just a sign of affection.
“Greet one another with a holy kiss,” says St. Paul.
Let’s talk about making the sign of the Cross. The Cross is, quite naturally, the
shape of a cross, that you draw by touching forehead, and your belly or your lower chest,
one shoulder and then the other shoulder. In the Orthodox Church we also form our hands
into a particular pattern when we make the sign of the Cross. Bringing together the three
fingers to represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and these two fingers to represent
Christ’s two natures, human and divine—coming down to the palm, like he came down to earth.
Holding our hand like that, we make the sign of the Cross.
It sounds so complicated. When I was becoming Orthodox, and I learned that you’re supposed
to do all this, you know, wrangling your fingers into a certain shape, I thought, “This is
just too complicated! Why is this church like this? It’s too hard.” I grew in time to
appreciate the traditions of the Church. Because traditions—a living tradition—brings life,
and it forges a community together. So when I was becoming Orthodox, somewhat uncertainly,
following my husband, who was enthusiastically becoming Orthodox, I was a lot more hesitant—and
I came to appreciate the things that seemed little and picky at first. I came to appreciate
them as some of the—like the Christmas traditions of this big family I was joining, this family
all over the world and for 2000 years. And I enjoy taking part in those traditions now,
and making them my own tradition. Hymn: “O Taste and see that the Lord is
good, that the Lord is good.”