Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Why Orthodox Christianity? Worship.

Why Orthodox Christianity? Through the deafening din of noise in the modern age, Orthodoxy appears as just another voice in the babble, and just another flavor choice on the “what would I like today” buffet. (To clear something up from the start, Orthodoxy Christianity is not a denomination. Denominations are the result of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500's. Orthodoxy predates that by about one thousand five hundred years, placing it safely outside of denominational labels.) So, with the multitude of voices why should anyone listen to Orthodox Christianity, and in the proliferation of choices why come to Orthodoxy?

Worship. How we approach God says a lot about our understanding of God. There is and has been, at large, quite a bit of talk about Biblical or New Testament worship.
True Christian worship is an image of eternity. It is not man-centered, but God-centered, reflecting not the tempestuousness of earthly ages and existence, but rather the serene immutability of eternal heavenly living. Thus, true Christianity understands worship to be God revealed. God built the ladder by which humanity may once again ascend; He did this so that humanity may have a successful return.

In Christ Jesus, the Old Testament was fulfilled (Mat. 5:17). We now have, in Christ, the fullness of God as revealed to humanity (Eph 1:17). In the Old Testament, God gave to the Hebrew people a very concrete and definite revelation of how to worship (Ex. 35ff). Moses makes it clear, this is the revelation that he received from God on Sinai. This revelation was very particular. It was not Moses' own ideas, nor was it according to his likes or dislikes. Why? Because true worship is about humanity returning to God and being restored to His image and likeness. Worship has to be a revelation from God because only God knows the truest way for humanity to be healed and made whole.

The Jerusalem Temple
But, Christ came; surely in the book of Acts the apostles went from an intense Hebraic liturgical worship to sitting around at home having “free-form" worship? The answer is no. Even the book of Acts speaks of the nascent Church worshiping in the temple and then going to a believer's home to partake of Holy Communion (Acts 2:46, breaking of bread is known to be the Eucharist). The early Church's life was informed by Liturgical Temple worship. When the Christians were forced out of the Temple and Synagogues, this Mosaic revelation of worship became the foundation of Christian worship. St. James the brother of our Lord is credited with the first Christian Liturgy. Although one could elaborate more from the book of Acts, I want to shift to one of the most worship based books in the New Testament: the book of Revelation. In fact, only in revealed liturgical worship is Revelation truly understood. Outside of liturgy, it takes on a host of bizarre interpretations (our modern age has proven this).

In Revelation, we have a glimpse of heaven. There are the twenty-four elders with electric guitars on stage, jamming out some emotive chords. The four living creatures are casually milling about with some great java … well, maybe not. What we do see is a throne which is beautiful beyond words (Rev. 4:2-3) upon which is seated the Living God and incredible heavenly hosts falling down before Him in worship. The four living creatures sing a hymn, which they repeat, as do the twenty-four elders. Clearly, the phrase “they do not cease ...” (Rev. 4:8) denotes repetition. In our modern age and mentalities we might feel sorry for these creatures, stuck in eternity repeating the same thing; yet, one does not get the impression that this is the case for them. They are enraptured in their ritual worship because it is God-centered and is given by God. Further, we find censers, incense, lamp stands, an altar, hymns and unspeakable beauty (cf. Rev. 5:8, 6:9, 8:3-4, 16:7). There is an overall sense of extreme awe and veneration for God which is reflected in the mode of worship and the disposition of the worshipers themselves. There are distinct acts of worship, such as standing and prostrations (Rev. 4:10, 5:14, 20:12).

The book of Revelation reflects what was revealed to Moses on Sinai (the Tabernacle and then the Temple in Jerusalem had all the above elements), the conclusion is that Moses also glimpsed heavenly worship, which was then imaged in the Tabernacle/Temple (Heb. 9:23ff). In Revelation, the Apostle John was assuring the worshiping community of Christians: behold, your act of worship is an extension of the eternal reality of worship in the heavenlies. Your worship is not just some man-made thing, but it is the beginning of heaven on earth. It is part of the cosmic battle, in fact, it is a vital feature in the overthrow of the enemy. The Church of God on earth is an image of the Church in heaven, or we might say it is a continuous extension of it in time and space. Worship is one of the paramount unifying factors. One could go on, but this suffices to show that Christianity has always seen worship as an image of heavenly reality. If Moses and the Apostle had almost identical revelations of worship (we can safely call this the Biblical revelation of worship), when and why is it that some assume these models can be thrown out the window? 

When did heaven change its mode of worship?

Elsewhere in the New Testament the Lord Jesus Christ is clearly portrayed as a liturgist, St. Paul tells us of heavenly worship: “The chief point is: We have such a High Priest, Who sat down on the right of the throne of the majesty in the heavens, a Liturgist of the holies and of the tabernacle, the true one, which the Lord pitched, and not of man” (Heb. 8:1-2, the word “liturgist” is most often translated as “minister” which diminishes the clearly liturgical tone of St. Paul). This heavenly tabernacle, not of man, is the very one imaged in Orthodox Christian worship (which simply is the way Christians have worshiped throughout the ages). Undergirded by this clearly Biblical understanding of worship Vladimir Lossky comments: "Christ, who is both the Sacrificer and the Sacrifice, offers on the heavenly altar the unique sacrifice which is done here below on numberless earthly altars in the eucharistic mystery. Thus, there is no schism between the invisible and the visible, between heaven and earth, between the Head seated at the Father's right hand, and the Church, His body, in which flows unceasingly His most precious blood."
St. Paul says, “I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). It is no stretch to contend that at the heart of the Gospel is true worship of God. St. Paul confirms that Christian worship is based on revelation, not the passing ideas of men.

Orthodox Christian Worship
When one enters an Orthodox Church these God revealed images are alive. There is an altar, beauty, incense, lamp stands, ritual hymns, petitions, a priest and so on. Everyone (priest and people) faces the altar, which has a host of meanings, among which is the throne of God. The focus is not a preacher, nor a band, nor a techno screen, nor a spinning globe, etc. We all face the throne of God (as they do in heaven). True Christianity does not reflect the mutable age (though it must work and live in it, engaging it on many levels) but the age to come: eternity. True worship reminds the worshiper that the paradigm of fallen earthly realities (no matter how innocuous) are not abiding (Jn 15:19). True worship reminds the world that it is temporal and passing away. St. John of Kronstadt says: “The church and worship are the embodiment and realization of all Christianity: here in words, in persons and actions is conveyed the entire economy of our salvation, all sacred and church history, all that is good, wise, eternal and immutable in God … His righteousness and holiness, His eternal power. Here we find a harmony that is wondrous in all things, an amazing logical connection in the whole and its parts: it is true divine wisdom accessible to simple, loving hearts.”

Modern "Christian rock worship"
Unfortunately many sectors of Christendom have abandoned the heavenly model of worship; opting instead for an earthly reflection, one that resonates with worldly likes and dislikes. Some even become indistinguishable from worldly events. Instead of being the image of heaven, Christianity is reduced to a fad of humanity; the worldly rather than the heavenly becomes the model. 

Lacking the heavenly image modern "Christianity" becomes a hollow shell, a mutable thing of this world rather than the eternal and immutable revelation of God.  A worldly model will never heal the world (though it may draw large crowds and be very entertaining, with a great emotional high), only the heavenly can (cf. Jn 6:33); indeed it must be light to the world (Jn. 8:12, 12:46).

Secular rock concert. Looks the same as "Christian rock"

When a Biblical standard is held to, one finds that Orthodoxy is living and worshiping accordingly. Of course, it was Orthodox Christianity that compiled the canon of Scripture (the Bible)…

Why Orthodox Christianity? Because true Christian worship is a revealed reflection of eternity centered around the throne of God. We invite everyone to come and worship the Living God as Christians always have.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Historical Experience and Spirituality of the Icon

The transcript of one of the icon talks given at Images of Eternity, an Icon exhibit and talks presented by St. Michael's Orthodox church on September 30th. The talk is entitled The Historical Experience and Spirituality of the Icon, presented by Fr. Zechariah Lynch

I hope to impart to our listeners in this brief talk a basic understanding of, first: what we will call the development of the icon, and second: the inner life of Christianity from which it developed. The inner life is what we understand as eternal revelation, and what we have named development is the expression of that revelation in time. Indeed, we are looking at two facets of a single reality.
It must be understood that when we speak of development, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, we are not speaking of something that was not and slowly developed into something that is. The underlying principle, the essence is for us unchanging. Human encounter and penetration and expression may develop. Thus we have for the confine of this talk two aspects, the essence and the expression of that essence in time.
First, I will address the expression of that essence in time. This is the Historical Experience. I have purposely said experience, because we must leave behind the notion that history is something that has happened, simply a string of past events. Indeed in the Christian life it is something happening. The Orthodox Christian faith does not see itself as detached from time, or driven along by time, but fulfilling time, and in an ultimate sense timeless. Thus, for us events that happened, in what is called the past, have deep significance. The history of the Church is not so much a culmination of events, as an organic whole of existence in Christ. Christ Jesus manifested Himself in time, but in Him time is also transcended. So, we see ourselves as abiding in time timelessly. This is important because we are not presenting events as marks on a time-line, but as parts, happenings of a life.

Image, Eikon, has existed in the Christian faith from its very beginning. Thanks to archaeological achievements many of these images, icons, have been uncovered. It is important to note that ancient Christianity ascribes the practice of icon painting to the Apostle Luke. Some would argue that this is a ploy to ascribe the practice to a famous figure, clearly we do not take this view. Tradition, which for us means the vivacious keeping alive of the knowledge and experience of Christ, attests that the Apostle Luke recorded for Christian posterity the image of Mary, the Virgin Mother of God. From the perspective of Christianity we are not looking for archaeological or historical evidence so as to “prove” that the practice of painting images is “ancient,” we know in the center of our being, in the essence, the very heart, that it is. Any evidence is simply icing on the cake, so to speak.
Image of Christ in the catacombs
Some of the most ancient Christian imagery is preserved in what is known as the catacombs. A simple search on all-knowing google reveals a wealth of information about Christian catacomb art, or one may prefer simply to check the library. Many of the images in catacombs such as, Commadilla, Domitilla and Priscilla, date from the 3rd and early 4th centuries. Images include Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, various early saints, Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Daniel and the three youths in the furnace of fire, etc. The catacombs highlight the fact that from earliest times Christians have viewed certain places as sacred space, area not simply used or occupied in a utilitarian way. It is also clear that Christianity sought to beautify and hallow the space in which it abode, not only through the worship of God in an oral manner but also in a pictorial. These spaces are filled with images and various decorative ornamentations and symbols. Even the floors of unearthed ancient Churches reveal a deep love of ornamentation and beauty, such as the site in Megiddo Israel which dates to the 3rd century.
Thus, we have the personal witness of the Church testifying that icons have been a part of her life from nascent years, plus archaeological evidence of early Christian sacred spaces. The 4th century historian of Christianity, Eusibius, mentions the practice of icons, though he himself was not a supporter (he was also an Arian), nonetheless he stands as a negative, so to speak, witness. I will note here that, like many other things in Christianity, icons were not simply unequivocally accepted. Yet, it is clear from historical experience icons have always been an integral component of Christian worship. Interestingly enough the precise expression of Christian thought regarding icons did not happen until the Iconoclast (one who fights or destroys icons) controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries. This is not too surprising. It in no way implies that there was a lack of earlier theological understanding, indeed it would have been impossible for such a deep spirituality to come out of nowhere. Those who gave expression to the theology of the icon were giving expression to the primordial revelation of Christ. From the Orthodox perspective we were never out to formulate a systematic Faith, almost all formulas of faith in the Orthodox Church are in counter to what is understood as untruth, or heresy.
Christianity is not a set of laws compiled and dictated from an elite echelon, but the keeping alive of the true experience of life in Christ. In its essence Christianity is content to live and know the experience of God, but if proper experience and life are challenged then the faith is expressed in as much as needed at that time to keep it true. Thus icons were an intrinsic experience of Christian life. When challenged they were explained and upheld through the experiential revelation of knowledge in Christ Jesus as preserved in the Church. When I say preserved do not think along the lines of canning, or mummies, but along the lines of the immune system. Our immune system preserves us from sickness, its job is to keep us healthy and alive. This is what we mean when we say preserving the faith.

During the above mentioned Iconoclast controversy a great many icons were lost. It was a policy of most Byzantine emperors starting with Leo III in 726AD to actively hunt down and destroy icons, and many times to torture and kill those found defending them. A very simplified reason for the rise of iconoclasm may be due to the political losses of the Byzantine Empire at that time. These losses were seen as chastisement, and a search began for the reason. Icons became the scapegoat: they must be a form of idolatry and we are finally paying for it! The arguments were of course very nuanced. There was brief respite from 786-815, during that time the 7th ecumenical Council of 787, which confirmed the Christian practice of icons, was held. Yet iconoclasm was not completely subdued until 843, in what is known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy. From this time on icons flowered without resistance in Orthodoxy. Iconoclasm was not about art and its place in Christianity, it was about revelation and the place of representing Spirit and Truth through material mediums. The most ancient icons painted on boards (such as those on display here) were mainly preserved outside of the Byzantine Empire. One the most ancient notable treasuries of our day resides at St. Catherine's Monastery at Sinai.
After what is referred to as the Great Schism of 1054 (this date is good for general reference only, details, as most of the time in history, are varied and complex), which marks the parting of ways between the Orthodox east and the Latin west, the Orthodox east became the de facto guardian of the icon. To a great degree icons became lost to the Latin and Protestant west. In fact further resistance to the icon found a home in western Europe.

But why icons? Why has Christianity so resolutely lived, practiced and defended icons? Why do we understand them to be holy objects? What is the inner essence, the spirituality, from which the icon springs? As has been pointed out in preceding talks, image has a fundamental role in Christianity. Christ, the Scriptures teach us, is the image of the Father (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, Heb 1:3), and a Christian is to be conformed to the image of Christ (1 Cor. 15:49, 2 Cor. 3:18, Col 3:9-10). Christians should reflect not some random idea, but the concrete revelation of God in the Eikon of Christ Jesus. (Keep in mind icon means image.) In Christ the Image of the Unseen God is revealed. The shining forth of true image is at the very heart of Christianity, it is part of its very nature, “since it is not only the revelation of the Word of God, but also the Image of God, manifested in the God-Man” (Ouspensky, Vol 1 p. 41).
The icon stands as a witness and trophy to the revelation of God on earth. It testifies for us that God has indeed become man; if He had not, icons would not be possible. Moreover, depicted around us even in this church are many men and women considered saints. The great cloud of witnesses as spoken of in Hebrews. They are here witnessing to the reality of Christ. For us they are not simply people who did good, they are people who in a most dynamic way, through the grace of God, were conformed to the image of Christ. For us icons are not memorials to righteous dead people, according to Orthodox thought no one who is in Christ is dead. The Icon is thus also a most vibrant herald of the Resurrection. We understand ourselves to be communing with the living, for they are abiding in Life Himself.
In the Icon we take up earthly material: wood, gesso, pigments and so on and re-orient them to proper reality. Through what is referred to in Christianity as the Fall of mankind, proper orientation was lost. Humanity and matter no longer were focused on God. In the icon matter is reinstated to its former purpose. God has once again sanctified matter by Himself becoming flesh (matter) and using matter for His glory. Matter was intended originally to lift mankind's vision to eternity, in the icon it is once again fulfilling this purpose. We confess the renewal of the created order in Christ. The icon is a focal point reflecting the potentialized sanctification of humanity and the material world through the Divine Incarnation.

the Transfiguration
In the mystery of the icon we find heavenly grace being transmitted to us who are still very much earth bound. In its proper role it becomes a lightening rod, transmitting in a focused manner the limitless power of Divine energy. It is not lightening itself, but a revealed conduit of its energy and power. The Icon in reality is the coming together of the spiritual and the material. It testifies to the fact that in truth there are not two different worlds, one material and one spiritual, but one unified whole in and through Christ Jesus. This unity is not some abstract metaphysical unity, it is objective and personal; the icon is founded upon the real union of the earthly, material and human to the heavenly, spiritual and divine in the person of the God-Man Christ Jesus. This reality extends to all aspects of the Church, in Orthodoxy everything becomes a reflection of this paramount principle. Indeed this is why from the earliest times Christians have sought to sanctify their places of worship with images. Orthodoxy is seeking to reflect not this broken world that is in desperate need of healing, but the endless timeless perfect age that is already advancing upon us. The age that is whole and complete, where it has been revealed there shall be no more brokenness or fragmentation; it is not to come, but indeed is right now coming. The icon is one of its heralds. It is in light of this that icons are sometimes referred to as “windows to heaven,” though it should be clear they are not simply windows for passive viewing, but of active beholding. And as has been seen in the preceding talk sometimes there are very miraculous manifestations (from our point of view) poured forth from the icon.

Through the icon we may behold and participate in the whole encompassing reality of the redeemed cosmos. The cosmos that is both transfigured and being transfigured through the transformative energy of Christ God. From day one Christians have been trying to live this message, which is essential to Faith. And from day one Christianity has been announcing this message in word and in image; expressing in a comprehensive manner the mysterious vision of faith.
In closing, the icon is a potent reality of Christian spirituality and eschatology, it takes its form from matter but transmits power from eternity. The icon witnesses to humanity of its true purpose in the order of the redeemed cosmos. But it must be understood that the icon is not a magic trinket, nor an image standing in the place of God. It is empowered by God's grace, and to understand and see it for what it is requires eyes that have been enlightened by divine light. If we approach with eyes burdened down with the ideologies and systems of this broken existence, then the icon will remain shrouded in darkness, whether idolatrous blasphemy, primitive religious art for display in museums, or a cloud of mystical confusion.