In the fall of 1990 my family and I made our first tentative steps inside an Orthodox Church. The nave of St. George Syrian Orthodox Church in Wichita seemed rather a dark place and packed with people. A bearded priest was swinging a censer -- filling the room with incense. The walls were covered with unfamiliar religious art and the choir was singing non-stop. The pictures, or icons, depicted our Lord and his mother, the saints, and various incidents from the life of Jesus. I was both repelled and attracted. One thought I had was "It's pretty, but doesn't the Bible warn against graven images?"
Yet, since 1990 the world of icons has become a part of my world. In public worship as well as in private devotions, Orthodox Christians pray before icons. Instead of bowing their heads and holding hands when saying grace before meals, an Orthodox family will stand upright with open eyes and face an icon when giving thanks. Orthodox Christians venerate but do not worship icons.
Although the word "icon" is simply the Greek word for "image", in the Eastern tradition the word connotes a rather special kind of image. Human beings, like you and I, were the first icons. For God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." (Genesis 1:26 NKJ) Hymn #414 in "the blue hymnal" (1) proclaims "we your children in your likeness share inventive powers with you." Christ also is an icon of God. According to St. Paul, "He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, . . . all things were created through him and for him." (Colossians 1:15-16 NKJ)
Whereas the image of God in Christ shines through clearly, we humans have darkened the image and likeness of God in our selves. According to Orthodox tradition, the work of Christ - with which we must cooperate -- is the work of restoring the transparency of the original image of God in humanity, restoring our status as true icons of God. To be an icon is to have a life-giving connection to a deep and holy reality.
Consider this: some of us have a grandmother who treasures or did treasure pictures of her children and grandchildren. They remind her who she loves and who loves her. Then again, we may carry a photograph of a special friend or lover. It seems that even when a person is far away, even dead, a photograph can recall for us their presence and the reality of mutual love. However, we know that the paper on which a photograph is printed slowly decays and, like all things of this world, eventually turns to dust. In like fashion, the wood and egg tempera out of which a painted icon is made will perish. It too is of this world. But these images, photographs and painted icons, recall to us persons, events in salvation history, and an eternal world that does not pass away. Icons remind us of our eternal history and destiny.
Let us stand in the presence of several of these icons from the Orthodox tradition and meditate upon their meaning.
By the hand of Jacqueline Mizaur, Shutesbury, Massachusetts
First Icon: The Mother of God of Tenderness
The Evangelist Luke is regarded as the first icon painter. The icon we have before us, known as "The Mother of God of Tenderness," is in the tradition of one of Luke's icons of Mary, the mother of God.
Since Saint Luke, many iconographers have painted this icon. It is in the nature of icon painting that all these painters work with the same elements of line and color. Originality is expressed within a tradition. Thus icons are the work of a community of persons, living and dead, and not the work of a single artist working alone. While icons are not signed, sometimes the name of the icon painter becomes known to us. A friend of ours in Massachusetts "wrote", as they say, the particular icon of the Mother of God of Tenderness that hangs in the dining room of our home. We acquired it directly from her. Jacqueline, like all icon painters working within the tradition, fasts and prays before entering into her daily work of making icons and always paints from existing prototypes. Orthodox iconographers prepare to paint with the same care with which they prepare themselves for communion.
Mary, who Eastern Christians often refer to as Theotokos, that is, literally "God bearer," is always portrayed with her son Jesus. Note that the body of Jesus is intentionally proportionate to that of a man, not that of an infant, and he wears adult clothing. His face, pressed against his mother's, is that of the Lord of Creation and of one who comforts his mother. Mary's eyes have an inward contemplative quality as if she might know what will happen to her child. On the other hand there is always the detail of Christ's bare feet, a vivid symbol of his physicality. Mary is utterly human, but ideally so in her total obedience to God.
Maxim Gorky, a late 19th century Russian author, in his memoir My Childhood, describes his beloved grandmother praying before an icon of the Theotokos.
"Grandmother would wake up and sit for a long time on the edge of the bed combing her wonderfully long hair. With her teeth clenched she would twitch her head and tear out whole plaits of long black silky hair and curse, under her breath, so as not to wake me: "To hell with this hair! I can't do a thing with it."
When she had somehow managed to disentangle her hair, she would quickly plait it into thick strands, hurriedly wash herself, snorting angrily, and then stand before her icons, without having succeeded in washing away the irritation from her large face, all wrinkled with sleep. And now would begin the real morning ablution which straightaway completely refreshed her. She would straighten her stooping back, throw her head back and gaze lovingly at the round face of the Virgin of Kazan, throw her arms out wide, cross herself fervently and whisper in a heated voice: "Blessed Virgin, remember us in times of trouble!"
She would bow down to the floor, slowly unbend and then whisper again ardently: "Source of all joys, purest beauty, flowering apple tree . . ." Almost every morning she would find some new words of praise, which made me listen to her prayers with even greater attention.
"Dearest heart of heaven, my refuge and protection, golden Sun, Mother of God, save us from evil, grant we offend no one, and that I, in turn, be not offended without just cause!"
Her dark eyes smiled and she seemed to grow younger again as she crossed herself again with slow movements of her heavy hand.
"Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, poor sinner, for Thine own Mother's sake." (2)
[from J. Forest, Praying with Icons (Orbis, 1997) p. xiv]
Second Icon: The Resurrection
In the East and also in certain Western languages such as French, Easter is called Pascha signifying a reiteration of the first Passover. Passover in Hebrew is pronounced "Pesah" from whence comes the word Pascha. It's also a geographical truth that Jerusalem can't be east of everywhere. Each feast of the Church has one or more festal icons. These are displayed at the entrance to the church on the feast day so that the worshipers can, by praying before them, prepare themselves for worship. Wherever an icon is set, that place more easily becomes a place of prayer.
Because Pascha is the feast of all feasts, there are several important Paschal icons. One depicts an empty tomb and an angel asking the myrrh-bearing women, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" This one, called the Anastasis or Resurrection icon, is the most frequently painted and the best known of Paschal icons. The word "Anastasis" is a Greek word composed of the two parts: "ana" meaning "again" and "stasis" meaning "standing". So "Anastasis" literally means "standing again."
The icon portrays what the Apostles' Creed affirms, that after his death and before his resurrection "Christ descended into hell." Here Christ stands on the brass gates of hell. Below these gates are instruments of bondage - locks and keys. They are broken and scattered. Satan himself is now bound - and humankind is free. On one side Christ grasps Adam, on the other side Eve, and raises them from the dead. The Old Testament kings, David and Solomon, in their crowns, John the Baptist, and the Old Testament prophets are all given new life. Dante would keep those preceding Christ's historic coming trapped in the first circle of hell. The Anastasis icon recognizes no such constraint of time. Notice the egg-shaped mandorla, that is, the oval surrounding Christ. Wherever a mandorla appears in an icon it is a symbol of divinity and the conjunction of heaven and earth.
This icon reminds us that Christ can enter into hell, our private hells of fear, of greed, of self-centeredness, shatter the bonds of that hell, take us by the hands, and lift us up. As the psalmist proclaims, "O Lord, you have searched me and known me . . . If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there." (Psalm 139:1,8 NRSV) We also recall St. Paul's letter to the Romans."For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39 NKJ)
We see that the Anastasis icon, and others like it portraying the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Transfiguration, and other events in sacred history, can be instruments of the transmission of Christian tradition and faith. Through icons, no less than through the written word, the Holy Spirit speaks to us and reveals truths that may not be evident to those using only the tools of reason.
Third Icon: Pantocrator
The worship space of an Orthodox Church is divided into two sections by an iconostasis - or icon screen - on which icons are hung. We see again that Greek root "stasis" meaning "standing". An iconostasis enables an icon to stand or be hung upright. Two doors, the Royal Doors, penetrate the center of the iconostasis. To the left of these doors is an icon of the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. At St. George's this icon is a Mother of God of Tenderness. To the right of the Royal Doors, in the most prominent position, is the icon of the Pantocrator. The word Pantocrator is Greek for "all ruler" - "pan" for "all" as in pandora or panhellenic and "crator" or "ruler" as in democracy, that is, rule of the people, or as in theocracy - rule of God. The Pantocrator is also painted on the central dome of Orthodox churches.
The Pantocrator depicts Christ in a glorified, kingly state. All icons of Christ have the seemingly impossible task of showing Christ as both God and man - the Pantocrator especially so. In the words of the Nicene Creed Christ is both "very God and very man." The rules of classical portraiture are not sufficient for such portrayal. Thus icons are illuminated by light coming from within the subject rather than from without. Halos are auras, if you will, composed of the uncreated light of God and a sign of divine glory. Often objects in the background of an icon are larger than similar objects in the foreground. Inverse lines of perspective move toward rather than away from the person at prayer before the icon.
Notice the severe but peaceful face of Christ the Pantocrator. Icons are not intended to force an emotional response. There are no dramatic movements or strong emotions shown. In this sense, icons are the opposite of the images in Mel Gibson's movie "Passion." The faces in icons are always shown frontal -- never in profile - because the icon is a window through which the one at prayer enters into communion with the reality standing behind the icon. There are certainly no grinning faces in icons -- no smiley Jesus! The Pantocrator is our judge as well as savior. Christ is shown here holding a Gospel book and raising his right hand in blessing.
This particular Pantocrator has one eye, the right eye, larger than the other. Of course the different-sized eyes have a particular meaning. Each eye stands for one of Christ's two natures - the larger right eye for his divine nature and the smaller left eye for his humanity. In naturalistic terms, the left eye is a so-called "lazy eye" - a fairly common malady that I suffered from as a child. For this reason I feel particularly drawn to this icon. A copy hangs on the east wall of my office at Bethel College.
The iconoclasts of the eighth and early ninth centuries destroyed many ancient icons. The 5th century original of this icon - one of the oldest we have -- survived because of its relatively isolated location in the monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. The iconoclasts claimed that icons were prohibited by the second commandment:
"You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God." (Exodus 20:4 RSV)
The Jewish Rabbis came to interpret this prohibition as against three-dimensional rather than against two-dimensional images, but the Christian icon-lovers or "iconophiles," particularly John of Damascus, argued the case for icons in a different, less legalistic, way by emphasizing the connection between icons and the Incarnation. The Incarnation of God in Christ changed everything. As incredible as it may seem, the invisible creator God become visible and clothed Himself in human flesh. Because God revealed himself to us in human form, we Christians are invited to reveal God's human image in painted icons as well as in our very lives.
The Incarnation does not diminish God's divinity but, rather, elevates the materiality of our bodies and of the world. In the Incarnation God elevates humanity and make the human form in all its particularistic physicality a fit subject for depiction in sacred and secular art. Icons, as well as other visual depictions of the human form are, in effect, sanctified by the Incarnation.
The bishops of the seventh ecumenical council, in 787 CE, agreed with John of Damascus and reaffirmed icons and their traditional roles: as "windows" through which we pray, as memorials, and as transmitters of salvation history. The council cautioned, though, that while icons should be shown respect, that is, venerated, they are not to be worshiped. And, furthermore, that the veneration or respect shown an icon passes to the original prototype of the icon, that is, to the reality standing behind the icon.
It has been 14 years since I first stood before the icons at St. George's. What then appeared alien is now familiar. What was once repulsive is now attractive. My family and I were Chrismated in the Orthodox Church in 1992. Rather than "conversion" I would describe the change as "becoming more myself."
Each of us is a pilgrim with a dramatic history and future. Icons are mysteries that point to and participate in a reality beyond our limited view. They call us to remember and to pray. They call us to become more ourselves: more Orthodox, more Mennonite, more ourselves in ways we cannot comprehend.