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.  

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