We saw that there are many things in our world and our society which have a greater meaning than what is simply on the surface. I gave the example of a nation’s flag or a wedding ring. These are more than simply a piece of cloth, or a band of gold, rather they point beyond themselves to what they signify.
In the Church, we see this most perfectly in the Sacraments. When Christ instituted the seven Sacraments, He used the normal things of life - for the Eucharist it was bread and wine, for Baptism it was water, the laying on of hands for Ordination and Confirmation, spoken words for Marriage, anointing with oil for the Sacrament of the Sick, and the words of absolution for Confession. But it is through these words or things which we can find around us, that Heaven and Earth are joined, and God acts in them to supernaturally touch our souls. Something happens in the Sacraments, and the agent, the one who does it, is God Himself. He uses the things of the earth to give us access to the things of Heaven. And He does it in a way which is accessible to us. We know what water is, or bread and wine, or oil or the spoken word. We know as well that these things are transformed into something much greater than themselves when they are found in the context of the Holy Rites of the Church, in the action of the Sacraments.
How many times has a child’s head been washed, and water been poured over it, before its baptism? And yet, through this simple sacramental action, it is not their head which is clean, but their very soul - washed clean from original sin, and united to Christ and His Church. And words of love and commitment must have been exchanged by a couple before their wedding day, but when they do it in the sight of God, witnessed by His Priest, something all-together different happens. What we see and feel, what our senses tell us, gives way to something greater, something much more profound. Of course, we can ignore these rites and reduce what is going on to a simple human ritual. In place of Baptism some may think of it as a service of thanksgiving for the safe birth, or a naming ceremony. And Matrimony can be reduced to the level of a commitment of one to another. And in these cases, nothing happens to the souls of those involved. They have been brought down to the human level. But this is not what the Church does, nor is it what the Sacraments do. And as these have been given to us by God Himself, then we have to say that they are part of what God has in mind for us, so that we can live and flourish. He has given us something so much greater, so why would we settle for anything less?
In society, then, we use the things of this world to point beyond themselves, and in our faith, this process is elevated in the most wonderful way in the Sacraments. It is with this in mind that we can see what an icon is, and what place it has in devotion.