Monday, March 01, 2004

Icons Are For The Children
(in all of us...)

It was a pleasure last night to visit Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle for the Vespers of the Sunday of Orthodoxy. It is always nice to see so many faces from the past, priests, deacons, laymen and their families from nearly every Orthodox Church in the Seattle area gathered together in worship, proclaiming the unity of the Orthodox.

As we entered this beautiful Church, my daughter kept telling me: "It's so beautiful, Daddy!" And I have to agree. It is a beautiful Church and was a beautiful gathering of the Orthodox. Fr. Tom Tsagalakis of Holy Apostles ( in Kenmore preached a great sermon, and being an iconographer himself, he should know. Fr. Tom's emphasis was on being quiet, and listening, and standing before the icon in that manner, and letting God speak to us.

Well, I've always loved contemplating the theology of the icon, as well as looking at icons in reverence and love, and letting my heart be still so I can listen. But I've also loved discussing the icon with children, or, I should say, with my own child at least. In my thinking, icons are for children. Of course, we all have to become children, so that includes every one of us.

Part of the beauty of the icon, and part of what makes it stir up the heart and brings us a vision of God, is the fact that the icon inherently "says" something. We Orthodox have all learned in our chatecisms that icons are not suppsed to be representative paintings, and as such differ profoundly from ordinary art. The are also not supposed to be strictly symbolic, although they are generally loaded with symbolism. The purpose of the icon is to take us somewhere, and where it takes us is into the heart of a story of truth, into a theology where everything profoundly means something.

One of the most moving experiences I've had with relation to icons was when I first learned that the entire contents of the Troparion and Kontakion for Nativity is present in the Nativity icon. This is equally true for the Paschal icon of the Resurrection. The traditional icons show every single phrase in the Paschal troparion that we all love and enjoy singing each year on the Great Feast.

Well, knowing that icons speak to us the Truth, I have always made it my habit to discuss the icons with my daughter. In Church, I do not want her venerating and icon and kissing it until she knows what that saint is. As neither do I venerate an icon until I know who I am looking at - because I am not bring veneration to the icon as a physical object, as a work of art, or even simply something beautiful. No, I am kissing the saint himself (or herself) and venerating THEM. How can I do that if I don't know who it is?

That's the great Triump of Orthodoxy we sing about and remember each year on this special day. The fact that we have icons, and not only that we have them, but that they are an essential part of the Truth. They proclaim the fact that God really was incarnate in Christ, and therefore we now can make a picture of God himself. This would not be possible if He didn't become man. "The uncircumscribeable has Himself become circumscribed" is a literary phrases often repeated in the liturgical material in everything from the Divine Liturgy to the Paschal services to the liturgical material for Sunday of Orthodoxy. (The above is often translated in many different ways by different jurisdictions, so you may have never heard it before, but the original Greek uses the "un- able" version of the very same word as in the English translation above.)

With all this in mind, it was, therefore, a disappointment that on this great day of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, a triumph that is significant explicitly because God Himself who we could not possibly know, made himself Known, the service was almost entirely in a language that nobody present knew. I don't mind hearing a Kyria Eleaison every once in a while, because I know what it means. I even know what Doxa Si Theou means, so I don't mind that either. A few words in Greek are easily accessible to almost anyone who would care to learn them. But nobody present can understand the entire liturgical canon sung in Greek, and I would speculate that the cantors themselves probably do not understand the exact meaning of every word. (Since the ancient Greek that is chanted is almost a different language from the modern Greek that is spoke and read.)

It was unfortunately, then, that on the very day that we are celebrating a personal encounter with God, that encounter is obscured by those who apparently have no understanding of the theology of Icons in the Church, and the fact that his very theology is all about the revlation (the being made understood) of Him who cannot possibly be understood.

As for me, I don't mind teaching my children a few words in Greek, Russian, Slavonic, or any other language. But when it comes to the great joy of having icons in the Church, that is a great joy that can only be experienced by the Mind in tune with the Heart. Not only does it require the willingness to stand quietly in reverence before the icons, but it requires the understanding of what it is we stand before, and an appreciation of what is taught to us there. Icons are for the Children, to teach them (and each of us) the truths that we celebrate from day to day, year to year, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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