Why Orthodox Christians Kiss Icons

Orthodox women kissing an icon

Perhaps one of the most controversial spiritual practices in the Eastern Orthodox Church – aside from veneration of the Theotokos and intercessory prayer to the Saints – is the presence and veneration of holy icons. In most Orthodox churches, you will see countless icons on the walls and ceilings. The parish will also usually have a few icons on stands in the church you can approach and kiss. But why do Orthodox churches have icons in the first place, and why do we kiss them? Isn’t that idolatry?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

What are icons?

Icons are pictorial representations of Biblical scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, historical events in the life of the Church, and portraits of the Saints. They are usually two-dimensional images that can be made of paint, mosaic, embroidery, carving, engraving, or other methods.

Orthodox Icon of Christ Pantocrator
Icon of the Pantocrator (Gr. Almighty One). You can usually find this icon within the largest dome in an Orthodox church, or somewhere on the church’s ceiling.

These holy images preserve the doctrinal teachings of the Church. In other words, they declare what we believe in the universal language only an image can successfully speak. As such, they are an integral part of Orthodox faith and spiritual life. They have a sacramental character, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. The icon connects with and speaks to us, preaches to us in its depiction, teaches us, illumines us, and assists us to imitate the Saints and God.

No “graven” image?

It is easy to see why most Protestants would mistakenly think icons might be idols. After all, the second commandment tells us not to make any “graven (sometimes translated, “carved”) image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5). It sounds rather straightforward. However, a few chapters later, God tells His people to make images of cherubim and place them over the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 27:17-20). So, which is it?

Related: Top 10 Online Orthodox Icon Shops

Clearly, God makes a distinction between the proper and improper use of holy images here. Thus, we can see it is not the image itself that is idolatrous, but the misuse of that image. The worshiping of that image, serving it as though it were God. That is what causes someone to fall into idolatry.

Veneration is not worship

Like the cloak of Jesus that healed the woman with an issue of blood, these icons convey the grace of God as He wills it. However, they are not divine beings. Thus, we do not worship them, nor do we worship the person(s) depicted within them. Instead, we venerate them. Veneration (σεβασμός) is a reverence (ευλάβεια), honor of love, or recognition paid to all those portrayed in an icon. Many people in the West often misinterpret veneration as worship; however, worship (προσκύνησης, total devotion of the self) in the Eastern Orthodox Church is reserved for God alone.

Read More: Sunday Of The Triumph Of Orthodoxy

A mother who misses her son may carry his picture in her purse. Sometimes she might take it out to kiss it. But this woman is not worshiping that picture. Nor is she so confused as to believe that picture is actually her son. And so it is with icons.

Why the Orthodox kiss and venerate holy icons

As St. John Damascene says, “I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake, and in matter made his abode, and through matter worked my salvation.”

Orthodox Christians kiss icons and bow before them because Christ entered the world and made Himself a part of it; and that world He entered is good and holy. In this way, icons serve as windows into heaven, showing us the glory of Christ.

Read On: Why Orthodox Christians Venerate Relics

Moreover, we venerate icons with the understanding that veneration is not paid to the material object itself, but to the person or event represented in that icon “in spirit and truth” (John 4: 24). The veneration given to the icon passes over, as Saint Basil says, to its prototype, causing those who look at them to commemorate and love and respect that person or event.

We kiss icons to express our love!

Contrary to what most people believe, we do not worship the icons, but instead venerate (or pay respect) to them. Orthodox Christians kiss icons to show those depicted in them the love we have for them. Not only that, but it also conveys to them the honor they should receive for being icons of Christ, shining examples for us that teach us how to live the Christian life.

Keep Reading: 8 Things To Expect In An Orthodox Church

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13 Responses

  1. As a Messianic Jew, I have much respect for the Orthodox Christian Church for her history and purity. Reading about why Orthodox Christians kiss icons is eye opening however foreign to me as I assumed it was idolatry. Thank you for your explanation.

      1. What I don’t understand is why it is “mandatory” for us to venerate the icon. If it is meant as an expression of love, why does the church make it a mandatory expression?
        Is there a reference in the bile to where we’re supposed to venerate in the first place?

        1. Paula,

          Christ is Risen! We will answer your question with another question, if that’s all right. If it is meant as an expression of love to obey the commandments, why is it “mandatory”? Or why is it considered “mandatory” to worship our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, when that, too, is an expression of love? We would also ask why you feel something needs to be written down to be a legitimate practice in the life of the Church. There is an incredibly rich history of Christian practices that were preserved orally, safeguarded by the Holy Spirit. Of course, we ask this in love to help you critically assess your position on this, not out of derision or a desire to debate. God bless!

          1. Once I was very sick, I had a bad flu, and had to go the the church for a sad event in the family (funeral), and being sick I refused to kiss the icons because I could spread the virus but the priest felt very offended and asked me stupid questions, I explained my reasons but he still could not understand. Later the paper he red ontook fire (most likely a sign from God for the priest because he scolded me, who was the priest to judge me?). In the othodox church all people were drinking from the same glass. Also, lot of babies were killed in the church during baptism when plunged completely and brutally into the water, I have not seen a priest behind bars. When they wil change these barbaric practices ? I am orthodox but I do not agree with many practices in the church.

          2. Anonymous,

            Christ is in our midst! You should never refuse to venerate an icon because of physical illness. They deserve your veneration, no matter how sick you are. Your reason is another way of saying you would refuse to touch the Lord Himself, because you were afraid that others who touched Him would get sick because of you. It denies the power of God at work in you and in all of us. Your concern for others is admirable, but it should not distance you from your Lord, especially in times of grief.

            God does not “punish” us in the sense you are implying. It is quite prideful of you to assume that the Lord would punish someone who slighted you. After all, who are you, that the Lord would personally intervene because your spiritual elder schooled you on the practices of the Faith? As mere creatures, we must submit to the will of the Lord and to the teachings and practices that have been part of the Holy Tradition of the Church since its beginning. We all drink from the same chalice, as that chalice is Holy and contains the very Body and Blood of the Lord.

            We assume that you are referring to the incident two years ago in Romania when you speak of infant death during baptism. We would hesitate to say that “lots” of babies have died in this manner. It seems to be a minority, and there were most likely co-morbidities involved that caused the child to suffer cardiac arrest at such a young age. The priests do not deserve arrest, as they are providing a vital Sacrament of the Church to the child, who despite earthly death, is experiencing the eternal joy of heaven with our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

            Friend, you may call yourself Orthodox, but rejecting the things you reject in this comment emphatically makes you NOT Orthodox. May the Lord bless you.

  2. Thank you for your reply.
    I don’t need to be in a church in order to pray to God or communicate with Him. I don’t need to follow their rules if we feel they are not right, the rules of church were made by man to control the man over thousands of years. How many religions have been created and on wich purpose than to divide the humanity to better control it? There is only one God and should be only one religion. How many versions of the Bible we have today, which one is the good one, many changed were made, a lot of information was hidden from us on which purpose.? I have yet to see a greedy priest behind bars for killing God’s children, the little angels killed in the name of some church’s barbaric rules, here one of the many cases: https://globalnews.ca/news/7622357/baby-baptism-death-romania-orthodox-church/#:~:text=A%20six-week-old%20child,three%20times%20for%20the%20ceremony.
    Of course, the greedy Romanian Orthodox church priests do not want to change the rules, most of them do not follow God, only the money : https://www.rferl.org/a/romania-orthodox-church-baptism-baby-death/31133162.html
    I may not qualify as an orthodox but am a strong believe in God regardless

    1. Iuliana,

      Christ is in our midst. Unfortunately, you do not seem to be Orthodox. You are placing your own pride and opinion above that of the Holy Fathers and the Church. The rules of the Church were established by the Apostles and their disciples. Woe to those who believe they know better than the closest disciples of our Lord!

      We absolutely agree that there should only be one religion. It was men who believed they knew better than the Church who splintered themselves away from His Church. It is for this same reason that there are so many different versions of the Bible. Those who investigate the history of the Christian Faith can easily discern this through some basic research. Only in the Orthodox Church can we find the fullness of the Truth; no information is hidden from you; you need only seek it, and you will find it in the Orthodox Church. Hopefully, one day you will see that. God bless.

      1. No church and nobody holds the absolute truth. The two years of so called pandemic I learned how much we were lied to for soo long.
        The muslims say the same, that theirs is the true religion, what can you say about that ? One positive thing about them is they do not pray to icons or statues as the christians do (the mosques are clean of these things), which I much appreciate, they are more humble and do not display the wealth or make a fashion parade when coming to the mosque, as I often see in the orthodox church (at least in Romania).

        1. Iuliana,

          Christ is in our midst. To say there is no such thing as absolute truth is to deny the power of God. Muslims deny our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ; therefore, their religion is false. There are quite a few other theological arguments that could be made against Islam, but the denial of Christ is first and foremost. And arguably, it is the only proof we need to justify its falsehood. One cannot call oneself a Christian and believe that other religions are also true. The very belief in Jesus as Lord and God immediately necessitates that all other religions be wrong. Otherwise, you call Christ a liar.

          Orthodox churches are decorated in gold and fine materials because that is what the Lord deserves. Perhaps more importantly, it is what He commands. He instructed that His Temple be built of solid gold and bronze, the curtains made of the finest fabrics. The entire book of Leviticus describes His requirements in incredible detail.

          The fullness of the Truth can only be found in Orthodoxy. We will pray for the Lord to lead you back to Him in His fullness and eradicate the hardness in your heart. God bless.

  3. The decline of the orthodox church is real, an article worth reading here on some of the reasons why: https://pappaspost.com/what-happened-how-did-we-get-here-where-are-we-going-a-master-class-in-decline-in-eastern-orthodox-church-membership/
    Speaking about muslims, Jesus (known as Isa in arabic) and virgin Mary (Maryam) are both mentioned in the Quran, have you ever been curious to look into it?
    God does not require churches covered in gold when billions of peoples and kids are starving in the world. I don’t feel comfortable coming into a church filled with gold, this is not right. In Romania, hundreds of fancy churches were built after 1989 but no new hospitals or schools. Only the People’s Salvation Cathedral in Bucharest costed 185 000 000 Euro, how many schools or hospitals could they build with this money and all the money spent with the other new churches which are emptier every day. How many poor people could be fed with this money? We culd have invested this money to crwate jobs, I left Romania because of the corruption and lack of economic opportunities. The corrupt politicians and clergy decide where the poor Romanian taxpayers money goes. I am living now in the west and I see here also the church big decline as it has chosen the wrong path, it is time for a big change.

    1. Iuliana,

      Christ is in our midst. The Church has gone through tribulation since its beginning. That does not change the fact that it is still the Church Christ established.

      Yes, Jesus Christ and His Mother are mentioned. However, Islam denies His identity as the Son of God and God.

      Your assessment makes it sound as though the parishioners of Orthodox churches do not give money to help those in need. In your particular case, Romania’s government has been responsible for the lack of schools and hospitals. That is not the fault of the Church. Churches are necessary for the worship of the Lord. And the money we still have after the construction of that which is fit for the Lord is meant for the poor.

      The decline of the Church has nothing to do with the Church, but with the weakness of heart of its members, who turn away from her and from the Lord to indulge their own sins. That is why the Church is in decline.

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