Archive for the ‘Icon’ Category

Why do you Orthodox have all those weird pictures –

7 March 08

. . .
Particularly when it says not to have images.

These are called Icons – which is Greek for image.

Deep sigh. Ok, here goes.

That’s Exodus 20:4. The quote is somewhat iffy. There are all kinds of contradictory translations. There is also contradictory scripture in the same book. Consider Exodus 26:1 where God instructs Moses to make the tabernacle with the sculptures of Cherubim at the sides. Beware of “proving” anything with a single chapter-verse quote. Take the whole of Scripture into account.

Let us also point out that those Cherubim are graven images and Icons (paintings) are not. Status are, but we don’t have them. Nice little point, that.

Besides all of which, we live in the New Testament, not the Old. I don’t know of any sane Christian who thinks that we live under the 618 laws of the Old Testament. See Acts where James pins Peter’s ears back on the whole Judaizing business. The Incarnation of Christ changed (and broke) all kinds of rules.

First Icon is painted – actually the correct term is written – by St. Luke. Remember that Luke was a physician and a very educated and well-traveled man. That Icon has been copied many times, so we know what it looked like. The style is from the Egyptian burial paintings of the time. Remember that the whole of Middle Eastern culture was radically transformed by Greek culture. Why Greek and not Roman? Glad you asked. The conquests of Alexander were the greatest ever achieved by a single individual. He conquered all of the eastern Mediterranean basin, all of Asia Minor, and most of Asia Major all the way to and into India. Upon his death (323 BC) the empire was split into pieces by his generals. These were called the Diadochoi (Διάδοχοι in Greek). The major survivors were: Ptolemy – all of Egyptian Africa, Cassander – most of Greece, Lysimachus – the major lands around the Bosporus, Seleucus – most of what we call the Middle East today – Iran and the like over to and including Israel. These were held by the Greeks and their descendants until the Romans came calling. Remember Cleopatra? She was the last of Ptolemy’s line. Yeah, the one that carried on with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. She died in 30BC, so the Roman influence was not nearly as long and strong as the Greek. Besides, the Roman’s were a little on the weak side culturally and borrowed heavily from the Greeks.

Anyway, the culture of the entire Middle East became an amalgam of the local native culture, an overlay of Persian (Iranian), with a top layer of Greek culture. The Ptolemaic Egyptians had developed a very stylized form of funeral portraiture by the time of the Apostles, and Luke was quite familiar with the style and proficient at executing it.

I dare say that even the most virulent Bible pounder should think before criticizing the beliefs and practices of the Apostles. Do they really know better than Luke?

Next, it is indeed impossible (and improper) to attempt to portray the Father. He is unseen. However, there is a different slant on Christ. Christ is God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity. He is fully human as well as fully Divine. He has a human body. We humans have seen Him. A three dimensional living body that may indeed be represented. The Saints – more properly the Holy Ones – a better translation of Hagia – are human beings who have lived among us. And still do – remember that when Paul talked about the Saints he was talking about specific living people that he knew, loved, and ADMIRED. He thought that they were worthy of praise and emulation. There was no formal court, no Devil’s advocate or any such. The people could and did recognize the Holy Ones in their midst. And still can.

Tell me something – does anyone out there have a problem with asking a fellow Christian to pray for him? Have you never asked anyone in your Church to pray for you? Have you never prayed for someone else? Have you never listened to anyone else in your church with respect or tried to emulate someone you admire?

I find it of interest that the most fundamentally protestant people I have ever met in my life, those that do not even want a Cross or any kind of art in their church almost always have portraits of their families all over their homes, especially in the hall. I almost always see a picture of mother somewhere handy. If a son is in the military there is usually a portrait – in uniform – on the mantelpiece or an end table. Or both. Do you have a problem with that?

I have seen women whose husband or a child has died cradle a picture and hug it and address the person who has died. It this improper?

Now then, the early Church definitely had Icons from the beginning. The Catacombs that protestants are so fond of are full of Icons painted on the walls. So, 2000 years later we know more than the early Church?

Further, let me point out that the last council of the unbroken Church (before Rome left the East) – the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 or Seventh Ecumenical Council – firmly ended any controversy and firmly supported the use of Icons.

Let me also point out that the word iconoclast that is so popular today is not a term of admiration. It means those who destroy images and is a term of derision when used properly.

Well, maybe you have a point, maybe pictures are ok. But I see people bowing to them and kissing them. Ahem, let us pay attention here. The Orthodox don’t change anything in a hurry. After all the last real Liturgical Reform for the Eastern Orthodox Church was in the fourth century, and that was pretty minor by what people mean by liturgical reform nowadays. And we haven’t changed much since. There were two main type of bows performed in the Byzantine era. The first was touching the floor with the right hand, this was pretty much the equivalent of the modern court bow that you would use in England on formal presentation to the ruling monarch (Queen right now). The other was the full Eastern bow, or prostration, where the knees, palms of the hands, and forehead were placed to the floor. The bow of the slave to the master, as it were.

Now then, you will see the first kind of bow a lot before Icons. You will also see it at many places during the services. You don’t see the full prostration at all on Sundays (unless the people don’t know any better). The thing is that, although we are not even fit to be God’s slaves (as the Moslems think), He has raised us to the status of Sons and Daughters, higher than the angels even. It is not proper to give the bow of a slave on the day of joy and resurrection. There are some other occasions where it is indeed proper, but that’s another whole discussion.

Anyway, why do it in front of a painting. Let’s go back to the woman hugging the portrait of someone who is not there for comfort. We know full well, even as does that woman, that the portrait is not the person. But, since the person is dead and not present, we can derive human warmth and comfort from showing respect to the portrait of that person.

What! What! You would ask someone who is dead to pray for you. Little minds, little minds – here we go. Looky here, we know full well that from our point of view, that of earthbound carnal creature, that the Day of Judgment has not yet come. We know that this is a future event. However – the Kingdom of Heaven is completely outside time. All that has ever been or ever will be is encapsulated within the Kingdom of Heaven. To the Saints in Heaven, all time is available, even as it is to Our Lord.

These portraits of the Saints have been called Windows into Heaven. They generally show us someone or some event worthy of emulation. Don’t you sometimes use stories of someone’s conduct in adversity to inspire yourself and others? Don’t you love and admire people who live the life that is patterned after Christ? So do we. It is immaterial whether this person lives now, or 2 years ago, or 20, or 200, or 2000. They are all our beloved family in Christ, some are brothers, some sisters, some mothers, some fathers. We have a large, loving, and complete family. We do not ignore someone just because they are no longer physically here.

One of the fundamental differences between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity is that we don’t buy that “Christ died for you” business. That is only a limited and partial truth. The entire mighty act of Birth, Life, Death, Resurrection is not a solo adventure. Christ died for us. Plural. Furthermore, His Mighty act fully redeemed and restored the fallen world. From the viewpoint of the Orthodox, we can live daily in the Kingdom of Heaven by participating in the Life of Christ. It is our choice whether we perceive things from the standpoint of the fallen and broken world, or from the Healed and Restored World.

In terms of the fallen world, a bit of paint on some wood is foolish. And while we are here, let me point out that not all Icons are very good art. Some are pretty bad, as art.

However, if we shift our perception to that of the Recreated World of the Resurrection of Our Lord, we can see through these Icons into the Kingdom of Our Beloved Lord.

If you don’t think that God can work His will through material objects like painted boards maybe you had better revisit the Scripture that talks of the woman healed from merely touching the robe of Christ. The Great God Who is Creator and Master of the Universe can (and does) work any way He pleases. Who are you to place limits on His Power and Goodness and Love?

And that works for us.

Oh yeah, that First Icon I was talking about. Well, this is what it looks like:

The Sweet Kissing

Icons sometimes tell a story. This Icon of the Nativity has a lot in it. There is the Kingdom of Heaven and the Holy Spirit in the top center. There are the Angelic Hosts in the upper left. The Wise Men coming in the center left. The Angelic Midwife in the upper right. Manger and animals in the center. Shepherd in the center right. John the Baptist and family in the lower right. Joseph being tempted by Satan in the lower left. A very concerned Mary watches the temptation. This is one of the very few icons where the focus of Mary is not on Christ.

The Nativity

This one also tells a story. It is the Icon of the Resurrection. That’s Satan that is bound and Christ stands atop him on the broken gates of hell. Adam and Eve are being lifted from their tombs. See if you can figure out who the others looking on are.

The Resurrection

Herself sez: The Ol’ Curmudgeon put it all in a nutshell, as usual! For those who are interested in a more technical discussion of this same topic, I posted an article about Icons by St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco on Turtle Rock the other day. The Icon FAQ by Fr. John Whiteford is another source of solid information about Iconography and how it is used in Orthodox worship. A list of additional very solid articles may be found here.


God Rest Ye Merry – –

13 December 07

– – Merchants, May you make the Yuletide Paaay – Tom Lehrer.

Of all the curious phenomena that I observe in our schizophrenic society none is more amusing than the modern attitude toward Christmas.

As I have observed on more than one occasion, Christmas is Christ’s Mass, the celebration of the Incarnation of God as Man, and the first act of the re-creation of the fallen world by Christ. That’s the anchor, and we’ll come back to it in a bit.

First off, the nuttier Christian haters really don’t need to worry. The destruction of Christmas is taking place whether or not they help it along. There is nothing that the anti-Christian crowd can do that is as damaging to Christians as that which so many have done to themselves. Oh, you don’t think that they are Christian haters? They are really atheists and object to any religion? Could be, but by my experience they do persecute Christians and do not go after Moslems. I grant you that some of the more ignorant and self-righteous fringies who claim to be Christian can be pretty obnoxious, but there is some genuine concern that their fellow man experience salvation. The more poisonous aspects of their behavior are purely human cussedness and cannot be justified by any formal Christian theology. This is not true of the Moslems, where killing unbelievers, rape, and slavery are all considered virtuous behavior and earn credits toward paradise. I don’t see the “no religion” crowd tackling them. The idiots are anti-Christian, not anti-religion, or perhaps they just lack the guts to really follow their mouths with true action. Or, more likely, this shows their true stripes – just anti-Christian. Note that the majority of those who want no public Christian displays also do not want us to win in the current war with Islam. There is a common and current delusion that the “terrorists” are just extremists comparable to some of our own extremists. Not so. The extremists that come from the Christian societies have to roll their own theology. It is not and never has been part of the central Christian dogma that hatred is good. “Love your enemies” is Christian, not Moslem. (“Love your enemies – and drive ‘em nuts” is Dave Gardner). What we of the modern world think of as Moslem extremism is, in fact, part of their central belief system. Those who think differently have not studied Islam. The greatest example of the big lie in the modern era is not Hitler and the Nazis. It is that the Moslem world has managed to portray itself as a peaceful religion. Bull. Study the real deal and you will find that death to unbelievers is at the core, along with rape and slavery. The Moslems have killed and enslaved more people than any other group in the history of the world. (Try 270,000,000 dead from Moslem murders). Contrariwise, there is no way that anyone can justify murder, rape, and slavery in Christian doctrine. If the anti-religion nuts were really true to their statements they would run all the Moslems out of this country before they even started worrying about Christians.

Even without the leftist attacks on Christmas we are in trouble. The current commercialization of Christmas has done more damage than all the atheists that ever were. The current orgy of consumerism in December is a pagan midwinter festival that has absolutely nothing to do with the incarnation of Christ. The Christmas tree is a pagan leftover from the Germans. This gift-giving extravaganza is more damaging to Christ’s Mass than having the pagans persecute us. Also, you might think about the huge number of Christmas musical pieces that have nothing to do with Christ. Dashing through the snow, silver bells, snowmen and all the rest of that sort of dreck have nothing to do with the Birth of Our Lord.

The other destructive force is so much more subtle and insidious that most Christians don’t have a clue that it is dangerous. I speak of the Western view of Christmas as exemplified in “Silent Night”. The “sweet baby” Jesus figure so beloved by the West has little to do with the mighty God who is Master of the Universe. The Eastern Church says that the Womb of Mary is “more spacious than the Heavens” for she contained the Master and Creator of the Heavens for 9 months within her body. The “Holy Family:” Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus is not the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit that should be the focus of the Christian. It is easy to be seduced by the “sweetness” of the Holy Family imagery and to forget that the Christian is called to constant and intense spiritual warfare. In the imagery of the West, the paintings depicting the birth of Christ are usually extremely romantic in style. All kinds of sentimental feelings are displayed and evoked by these tender images. Contrast that with Eastern Iconography. The Incarnation icons are usually rather stark and frequently busy with details all around the borders that depict the various things associated with the birth. Unless it is an 18th century icon with a great deal of Italian influence, that is. Then you may see some Western romanticism, but not otherwise.

Herself sez: Here is an excellent example of the Orthodox Icon of the Nativity of Our Lord:

Nativity of Our Lord

The Theotokos (The Mother of God) lies quietly after giving birth. She is looking worriedly at Joseph (lower left corner) who is being tempted by Satan in the guise of an old man. (We know that Satan can take many guises – from the voices of doubt in our minds, to the temptations of secular life, to simply missing our prayers.) In the lower right corner, the midwives bathe the Infant in wonder that He was born without violating His Mother’s Virginity. Above the midwives, a shepherd plays a pipe. On the left of the Theotokos and Christ, we see the Magi riding on beautiful horses and following the mystery of the Star. Above them, the Angels sing. Over all is seen the Star of the Nativity. In the upper right corner, the angels announce to stunned shepherds that Christ is Born! All around, we can see the mountains clapping their hands (“let the floods clap their hands and let the hills be joyful together.” [Psalms 98:8]) In the very center of the Icon is Christ, bathed in the Light of the Star, lying in the manger. The animals gaze at Him in wonder. As according to Orthodox tradition, the Nativity of Christ is depicted in a cave, not in a building.

As Christians, we should indeed fight against the forces that would make us second-class citizens. But we should also remember that salvation and spiritual growth is more important than comfort. It may be easier for us to live the Christian life of prayer, fasting, and struggle without all the external distractions of the “Merry Merchants”. Perhaps we should think about ignoring the whole mess of public extravaganza and concentrate on the aspects of salvation that we are offered.

If we look at the ads we see silly people asking snotty children if they believe in Santa Claus and the poisonous little examples of consumerism replying that they believe in cashmere. I think that we should abandon that whole trail to the people who think of it as having some importance. There is no salvation in Santa Claus or in cashmere. We know that our Salvation is in and through Christ, and that to grow in Him daily through the Holy Spirit is our belief and our goal.

Let the merchants have the pagan mid-winter festival. Let the great unwashed have their festival without Christian symbols, for we know that only in Christ are we participating in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christmas [Christ’s Mass] is in the Church and the home, not the mall or the Internet store.

Herself sez: On December 25 / January 7, and not before, we will chant in Church:

Troparion of Nativity, Tone 4

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath shone upon the world the light of wisdom! For by it, they who worshipped the stars, were taught by a star to adore Thee: the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high! O Lord, glory be to Thee.

Kontakion of the Nativity, Tone 3

Today the virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels with shepherds glorify Him, the Magi journey with the Star! Since for our sake the Pre-eternal God is born as a Little Child!

As noted by the Ol’ Curmudgeon, there is no place for commercialism or consumerism in either the Icon or the Hymnography of the Nativity!

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