"The icon is a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to the victory of the saints and the disgrace of demons."
~St. John of Damascus
I will never forget the first time I experienced worship in an Eastern Orthodox church. As I entered the Nave through the large wooden double doors, it was as if I was stepping out of this world and into another. My senses were overcome with the unexpected beauty of sights, sounds, and smells that crashed into my cognisance. I was awed...elevated...transported to a different realm...a realm of transcendent beauty and holiness that has yet to be matched in my earthly experience.
Everywhere I looked, my eyes feasted on the images of the faith I hold dear to. No matter where I turned or what I attuned my ear to, the landscape of heaven and the symphony of the saints drew near to me in rapturous occasion. While each corner and every wall held some mystery worth exploring, I could not help but thinking that this was the heavenly shadow or copy that Hebrews 8:5 speaks of. The congregants moved freely about the nave as being led by an invisible wind, stopping to pray, to bow, to meditate, to kiss, or to venerate some saint or holy object. The priests and deacons moved in a similar fashion in what seemed like perfect harmony to and from the sanctuary as they began preparing the Holy Table, while the readers and choir filled the hall with the chanted canticles of scripture and antiphonal singing. The activity of this place was constant and vibrant, yet the organic participation afforded by the Divine Liturgy gave one not only the sense of incredible freedom, but perfect order. Even the repetitious litanies served to instill a sense of timeless wonder and sacred worship that I yet to find elsewhere.
On the beautifully carved Iconostasis the life-sized icons of Christ the Pantocrator,Mary the mother of our Lord, John the Baptist, the patron saint of the church, and the two archangels Gabriel and Michael, stand as both guards and hosts to the sacred table behind it. Their rich colors and glorified figures paint seemed to shout that we had indeed "...come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first born who are registered in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant..." I was surrounded...as it were...by a great cloud of witnesses.
Growing up as a protestant evangelical, I had been subliminally taught that the senses were unsanctified creatures that needed to be denied in order to achieve holiness. Touching, tasting, seeing, and smelling were ways to get around in the world, not a means to encounter God. I thank God however for the witness of the ancient church that seems to say, that if faith comes by hearing, then how much more can it come through seeing, tasting, touching, and smelling!