Why Do We Kiss Icons?
When we enter an Orthodox Church, the Narthex (vestibule) typically displays a few important icons alongside candle stands and offering tables. First, there is an icon of Panagia, our Holy Mother of God, typically holding Christ alongside an icon of the Patron Saint/s of that church and the icon of the particular Saint or feast day.
As Orthodox Christians, we view icons as visual representations of Christ, people and stories in the Bible and the Saints. They serve to inspire and guide us in our prayer, encouraging us to seek the Kingdom of Heaven and focus on attaining salvation. We look beyond what is depicted in the icon - it is a gateway to the eternal life.
When we see an icon we cross ourselves with the sign of the cross. The cross is a sign of humility and victory and when we make it over ourselves, we are asking for God's blessing.
These icons are not idols, they are not Gods themselves nor do they picture Saints as Gods either. They serve as reminders of those who are alive in the Heavenly Kingdom who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We don’t worship the icon itself - the wood, the paint; we merely greet the icon with a reverent kiss (veneration) to show respect and honour to what the icon represents. “Greet one another with a kiss of love” - 1 Peter 5:14. These depictions visually show us the presence of God.
In this way, not only do we venerate icons, we also venerate and show reverence and respect to other things such as Holy Relics, the Gospel and the Cross. This is because Christ is represented and present in all these things. In the same way we also kiss a priest’s hand, not only to receive a blessing, but to honour their hands which touch the Holy Eucharist - the blood and body of Christ.
We worship Christ with our entire heart, mind, body and soul - that’s why we venerate!
Our ultimate destiny and the truest desire of a Christian is to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, having eternal communion with God. These icons serve to help us focus on this goal, to limit distractions and give us strength.