It is common for visitors to enter an Orthodox church and think, “Wow! They really like Mary.” And we do really like Mary, but what a visitor first sees is not necessarily why we like Mary. When entering an Orthodox Church, it is common to see a large image of Mary above the altar. However, it would not be entirely accurate to describe this as an image of Mary. It is better described as an image, or what Orthodox call an icon, of the Incarnation. The icon depicts Mary with her arms wide spread accepting the will of God and inviting us to do likewise. Inside her belly is the Christ, the Word of God.
This icon is also the second part of a three part story. The first part is depicted by an icon called the Pantocreator, or Creator of All. It is found in the ceilings of many Orthodox churches, but not all, since it is an expensive icon to create. The icon depicts Christ in heaven as ruler over all creation. The third part is seen lower than the icon of the Incarnation and that is the image of the cross. Taken as a whole, the Church visually expresses much of the Gospel story.
In front of the altar, on what is called the Iconastasis, are a series of icons that vary from church to church. However, in the center there are always two icons that do not vary. On the right is an icon depicting Christ and on the left an icon depicting Mary. It is common for someone visiting for the first time to assume that we are putting Mary on the same level as Jesus. However, these icons are not depictions of persons, but ideas. The icon depicting Mary is an icon of the first coming of Jesus. The Christ child is in Mary’s arms and her hand is directed towards Jesus declaring that He is the way. The icon depicting Jesus is an icon of the second coming. Christ is depicted holding the book of life, and it is closed. The church uses these icons to visually state that all of the Christian life takes place between these two icons, between the first and second coming of Christ.