from Walking on Water, Ch. 2 p. 23-24
An icon is a symbol, rather than a sign. A sign may point the way to something, such as: Athens – 10 kilometers. But the sign is not Athens, even when we reach the city limits and read Athens. A symbol, however, unlike a sign, contains within some quality of what it represents. An icon of the Annunciation, for instance, does more than point to the angel and the girl; it contains, for us, some of Mary’s acceptance and obedience, and so affects our own ability to accept, to obey.
Francis of Assisi says that “in pictures of God and the blessed Virgin painted on wood, God and the blessed Virgin are held in mind, yet the wood and the painting ascribe nothing to themselves, because they are just wood and paint; so the servant of God is a kind of painting, that is, a creature of God in which God is honoured for the sake of his benefits. But he ought to ascribe nothing to himself, just like the wood or the painting, but should render honour and glory to God alone.”
What an interesting way to consider symbols versus signs. A symbol carries with it some quality of what it represents, and does not merely point the way to something. When we behold a symbol, an icon, we hold that which is represented by the symbol in mind. We don’t consider the materials that are used in the symbol, all honor goes to the symbol that is portrayed, rather than the materials the icon is comprised of.
Likewise, we as servants of God, are like icons – God is honored through us. We should not credit to ourselves honor and glory, but rather should render all honor and glory to God. In this way, we are merely the wood and paint, representing God, and to God goes all the honor.