Our Church is a holy place. It is holy because we come here for worship, to be nourished in faith through the Gospel and preaching, to open our hearts and minds to God in prayers of praise, thanksgiving and petition, to celebrate the mystery of our salvation in Jesus Christ and to dedicate ourselves to a life of holiness and service to the Lord. The church building itself reflects this faith and calls us to enter into communion with God.
The nave of the church is separated from the altar area by a screen with icons. Incense drifts on the air. There is a dome overhead, painted with another icon, and image of Christ looking down from on high.
It feels like a different world, as indeed it is meant to, for this is a Byzantine Catholic church, decorated to represent the Kingdom of Heaven. There is no disorder: only peace, serenity, silence. And the icons are an integral part of this earthly representation of the Kingdom. "Icon" comes from a Greek word that means "image." It is the same word that is used in the Old Testament Book of Genesis to express the idea that humanity is made in the image of God, the same word used by St. Paul when he says that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God. Icons are images: images of a greater reality than we now experience. Icons are used to teach not only Gospel stories, but actual theology as well. The symbols become means through which Heaven might reach down to the worshiper.
According to Eastern tradition, the first iconographer was St. Luke. It is not accidental that he is both an evangelist and an iconographer, because the preached and printed Word are considered by the Eastern world as equal, two facets of the same Truth. The grace of God is not limited to the intellect: it can enter the soul intuitively through the eyes as well.
And yet, to Western eyes, icons can often seem dark, sad, primitive. What is it about them that inspires us Eastern Rite Catholics so profoundly? How are they understood?
There is no sense of direction of light in an icon, as the light is God's light, coming from behind — or beyond — the figure in the icon. There are no shadows in icons as there are none in the kingdom of God. The background is gold, the gold of another world, the gold of Eternal Light. In the same way, there is no attempt to make the person in the icon look "real:" the figure is distorted intentionally, elongated, so that it cannot be confused with a real person.
So it is that the eyes on an icon are large and luminous, for they have seen the glory of God. The nose is narrow, the mouth is small be cause the presence of God has lessened the need for sensual satisfaction. Halos surround the figures as essential parts of the person. The icon is an image: the worshiper is focused not on what is seen in the icon, but rather what is seen through it. What is seen through the icon is the love of God, expressed through His creatures. Expressed through Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer, seen always as serene and tender, wearing a cloak of red. Expressed through the Christ Child whom she holds, who is never depicted as a helpless baby, but larger than life, touching her and touching all of us. Ex pressed, most particularly, through Christ Himself.
Christ is literally at the center of our church building. In the dome is an Icon of Jesus Christ the Almighty, the Pantocrator. Jesus Christ is in the Glory of the Father and He will come to judge the living and the dead. He is the Lord Jesus, the One to whom we look in hope and to whom we must give an account for our lives. Jesus Christ is central to the life of believers. The Icon of the Pantocrator expresses this faith.
At the front of the church is the icon screen or iconostas, separating the nave of the church from the sanctuary, representing the curtain which separates the Ark of The Covenant from the main part of the Temple, dividing the Divine from the human but also — through its images — uniting the two worlds into one. The Iconostas is broken by doors in its center, just as our world is broken by the Divine breaking into our lives. Only the clergy may enter through these doors, and then only at specific moments in the liturgy. These doors are called Royal Doors. To the one side of the door is an Icon of Mary, the Theotokos; to the other, the image of Christ. Beside Mary is St. Nicholas the Wonder-Worker; beside Christ is St. John the Baptist, the saint for whom our church is named. On the Royal Doors is the Annunciation diptych and the Icons of the Evangelists are placed in the order in which they are found in the New Testament: St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John. Each evangelist is shown with the book he wrote. Through the Gospels Christ speaks to us. They royal doors are symbols of the Gates of Paradise. They are opened as an invitation for us to share in the Kingdom of God, The priest enters through the doors only when he acts in Christ's name. Icons of the Archangels St. Michael and St. Gabriel are placed on the deacon doors. They are dressed in robes of messengers and each hoids a disc with a seal. St. Michael means one who is like God. St. Gabriel is the messenger of God who announced the plan of salvation to the Mother of God.
On the Sanctuary wall behind the Altar is the Icon of the Communion of the Apostles and above it the Icon of the Virgin of the Sign flanked by two angels. On the side Altars are two sacrificial Icons, the sacrifice of Abraham and the Man of Sorrows both flanked by two angels.
On the Nave walls are Icons of the Saints: Cosmas, Damian, Catherine, Anastasia, Theodore, Demetrius, Simeon Stylites, John of Damascus, Thekla, Mary of Egypt, Stephen, and Constantine. Above them are the Feast Day Icons: the Nativity of the Mother of God, the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, the Annunciation, the Nativity of our Lord, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Baptism of Christ, the Transfiguration of our Lord, Palm Sunday, the Descent in to Hades (Resurrection), the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, and the Dormition of the Mother of God.
Above the Feast Day Icons are Icons of the Prophets: Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, Daniel, Elisha, Habbakuk, Zachariah, and Jeremiah. On the Main Altar are Icons of the three Hierarchs: St. John Chrystostom, St. Basil the Great, and the St. Gregory the Theologian.
Icons are not painted to be beautiful: they are painted to express Truth. Icons are doorways into stillness, into closeness with God. In St. John's Cathedral, if we sit with icons long enough, we too can enter into that stillness, into that communion. And if we listen to them closely enough, with our hearts, we just may discern the voice of God.