Friday, November 1, 2013

Icons: Part One

"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 it 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! 

Our protestant, puritanical roots suggest that the senses should be suppressed so that we can succeed in seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil. However, in doing so, our imagination, given to us by God, is quelled and our senses are dulled to a point where life is limited to the hereafter instead of being eternally present in the now!  When God created Adam, He gave him natural senses that He might be able to interact in the eternal and temporal realms.  Though he failed, God's design for humanity was never in err, and thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, the second Adam, our senses have been redeemed and will one day be ultimately glorified along with our bodies.   Holiness cannot be achieved by focusing on what we must deny, rather holiness is attained by beholding that which we will soon become like! "But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." ~1 John 3:2  When we behold Him, we shall become like Him!  So why not start now?

Enter Icons

For most Christians in the West, icons are nothing more than the little pictures on our computer screens that direct us to a document, photo, or some other application when we click it.  However, icons have been a part of our Christian heritage since the first centuries of the Church.  Early Christians, many of whom were illiterate, understood that icons (Greek for image) were not only vital for helping the faithful to remember spiritual truths, they were used to activate the imagination to bring the unseen into the seen.

Contrary to popular belief, icons were not invented by an apostate medieval church.  They have been around since the beginning.  Even in the legalistic traditions of the Hebrew faith, images have been used in temple worship and synagogues for thousands of years.  From the first century, believers used crosses, fishes, peacocks, shepherds, and doves as icons of their faith, and created portraits of apostles and saints as well as murals of Biblical scenes, as evidenced in the ancient tombs and catacombs of early Christians. 

Eusebius saw with his own eyes a bronze statue of Christ and the woman with the issue of blood as well as portraits of Peter and Paul. (Church History Book 7, Chapter 18).  Saint Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century mentioned being brought to tears while gazing upon the painting of "The Sacrifice of Isaac", while his contemporary, Gregory of Nazianzen speaking of the image depicting the cruelties that befell Christians in the arena under the emperor Julian said, "The images venerated in public places still bear the scars of that plague." 

 To the early church and those who came after them, icons served as models and patterns for holy living.  The saints and scenes depicted with stone and paint and wood became for early believers visual reminders of such a costly and precious faith, exhorting them without words to " imitators of God as dear children."  Timothy Ware, in The Orthodox Church, dovetails Leonitius's statement, " 'Icons are opened books to remind us of God' ; they are one of the means which the church employs to teach faith.  He who lacks learning or leisure to study works of theology has only to enter a church to see unfolded before him on the walls all the mysteries of the Christian religion."

It has been said that Icons are windows or portals into heaven; that they serve the sincere believer as a sort of gateway into the eternal.  The ancient Celtic Christians had a similar idea of certain geographical locations which they called "thin places".  These were special, physical settings where significant spiritual events or encounters took place, and thus the veil between heaven and earth became very "thin".  Icons, for the more ancient faith followers, also become physical agents or locations where one might taste and see that the Lord is good!   Fr. Jack Sparks in his essay No Graven Image: Icons and Their Proper Use, sums our discussion up this way"...icons (along with the Scripture read­ings, prayers, and hymns) help us worship God, help us grow in the image and likeness of God. Though visible and material, their con­tent, theology in color, helps us to see and know the invisible and spiritual."

In Icons: Part Two and Three, we will explore the Biblical theology of icons, their use and unique identity in Christian worship; and in Part Four, we will conclude our discussion with the findings of the 7th and final ecumenical council as well as the doctrinal significance of icons in Christian worship.  So stick around and check back often for updates!  I am going to try to have the three remaining parts finished by the end of November.

In the Lion, In the Lamb,

Fr. Mark


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