Saturday, April 13, 2013

The hardship of history…

and the beauty of iconspresented as the homily at the Orthodox Clergy Brotherhood of Greater Pittsburgh Doxology Service for the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

The Wikipedia web site begins its description of Orthodoxy Sunday with these words:

Despite the teaching about icons defined at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, the Iconoclasts began to trouble the Church again. After the death of the last Iconoclast emperor, Theophilos, his young son Michael III, with his mother the regent Theodora, and Patriarch Methodios, summoned the Synod of Constantinople in 842 to bring peace to the Church. At the end of the first session, all made a triumphal procession from the Church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophia, restoring the icons to the church. This occurred on 19 February, 842 (which that year was the first Sunday of Lent). The Synod decreed that a perpetual feast on the anniversary of that day should be observed each year on the First Sunday of Great Lent, and named the day, "the Sunday of Orthodoxy."

From this paragraph we can recognize a familiar pattern.

First there is the initial anti-icon movement — the iconoclasm of the Isaurian Emperors. Then there is the Seventh Ecumenical Council. That, one would think, should have settled things.

But then soon after, the iconoclasts rise again, supported by the Emperor and the army. Icons are prohibited by law. Large, beautiful icons are publicly destroyed. Patriarchs, bishops and clergy who defend icons are sent into exile. Monastics are imprisoned, tortured and some are even executed. The leader of the monastic “pro-icon” movement is St. Theodore, abbott of the Studion Monastery in Constantinople — he is sent into exile after he cried out to the Emperor, Leo V, to stay out of matters of church doctrine, and to mind his own imperial business.

One thing leads to another, and thankfully, the icons are once again restored at a Church Council under the leadership of the Empress Theodora and the Patriarch Methodios.

It is a happy ending. Unfortunately, history never stops at happy endings and usually always goes on just to make sure that people don’t get too comfortable. Soon, after the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 842, the good Patriarch Methodius dies and a rather difficult Ignatius takes his place. Ignatius proceeds to offend enough people around the Emperor that he is removed from office, and replaced with Photios the Great. The brilliant Photios is outmaneuvered by Ignatius and his party, who bring in the participation of Pope Nicholas of Rome, who, in turn, jumps at the opportunity to interfere in the affairs of Constantinople and the eastern Churches.

This sad state of affairs eventually produces the first major schism between Rome and the rest of the Church.

I mention this turn of events that occurred so soon after the Triumph of Orthodoxy, mainly to underscore this frustrating fact: there are no permanent “triumphs” in history or in this world.

History can be a bear, as any history student can tell you — especially one of my students at Christ the Saviour Seminary in Johnstown. But the really unbearable quality of church history has nothing to do with all the tedious details, the names, the dates and the footnotes.

The main difficulty of church history has to do with the inevitable disappointments of living in the world, in this fallen time and space, in this existence that is so profoundly riddled by sin and death. We learn quickly, as we grow up, that you can’t give away your heart to any political party or movement, politician or celebrity …

… and you can’t put too much faith in any historic victory, either. The end of World War II at the surrender on the USS Battleship Missouri was soon followed by the outbreak of the Korean War. Remember the nineties, when we all thought that the fall of the Iron Curtain would usher us into a long period of stability and prosperity? There were some scholars who even talked openly of “the end of history” as we know it.

Then came, of course, the many tragedies of 9/11 and the wars that followed it. Then came the financial collapse of old money and the rise of new, more distant powers.

We have learned the hard way that no political leader or president or king or congressman is ever going to fail to disappoint. Every movement and philosophy, every fad and fashion and style and even scientific theory gets superseded and made obsolete.

Of course we’ve been warned about this in Scripture. “Put not your faith in mortal princes,” the Psalmist tells us. Even our Lord said “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye not be troubled: for all these things must come to pass” (Matthew 24.6). The writer of Ecclesiastes says it most succinctly: “All — that is, everything in this world — is vanity.”

Now I say all this not to depress you. But it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that the while the things of this present age possess a certain glamour and attraction, they cannot be sought on their own. One cannot grasp the things of this world and try to derive joy and meaning from them, especially if they are torn out of their relationship with God.

By themselves, even the best of worldly things fall apart: but with God, they will remain and only grow in beauty. Against the tide of time and history — or rather, above the tide there is the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit.

And that truth explains the rugged persistence of the monastics — over twelve hundred years ago — who risked their lives under the icon-smashing Emperors. To these monastics and to almost all of the faithful, and to great theologians like St John of Damascus and St Theodore the Studite, icons were not merely old-fashioned primitive pieces of sentimental religiosity.

The iconoclasts, it must be remembered, were modernists who wanted to renovate the Christian religion and sweep away what they considered to be superstitious — even pagan — nonsense. The iconoclasts of today, who prefer a “minimalist religion,” say exactly the same thing.

But to the monastics and the faithful, and to St John and St Theodore, icons belonged to a different order of things. Icons belonged to an order that did not decay or disappoint, like the rest of history, time and space. It was an order of unfading beauty and peace.

To them, icons belonged to the Kingdom of God, not to the kingdom of men. Icons came from the Eschaton, the Last Day when all things will be transformed and glorified.

To them, icons powerfully testified to that profound, revolutionary truth that in Jesus Christ, human nature is brought into saving contact with the divine nature. To them, icons reveal the reality of theosis — that radical, eternal process of deification by which God calls all humanity to salvation.

To them, every single Orthodox icon preaches the powerful word that in the Apostolic proclamation of the Orthodox Gospel, Salvation is defined nothing more or less than theosis.

Salvation is not just escaping hell. It is not just a get-out-of-jail-free card in Cosmic Monopoly. Salvation is participating in the divine nature, as St Peter writes in his first epistle. Salvation is Theosis. It is nothing less than growing into the likeness of God. Forever.

It is this “eschatological message,” this “testimony of theosis,” that explains why our Orthodox icons look more than a little strange to modern eyes. An icon — particularly one that is written according to the traditional iconographic canons — does not look like a photograph. And even though all such icons are manifestly beautiful, there are some that simply do not “look pretty.” Some depict grievous acts like beheadings or stonings. Others depict the saints in extreme, haggard conditions — the icon of Holy Mother Mary of Egypt is one very obvious example.

But in every case, there is a certain, irreducible beauty that shines out of the saint in the icon. The light comes from within the saint — a proper icon does not have the usual photo-realistic or romantic shadows that you get with other styles of classic art. You get the impression that these holy persons simply “glow in the dark.”

All this is meant to be, of course. Every icon is painted in such a way that the light shines out of the soul through the body. The internal, essential light is really a light of Transfiguration — a light that was first manifest in the Holy Transfiguration of our Lord on Mt Tabor in the Gospels.

It is a light that shows forth the Beauty and Peace that is made possible by Jesus Christ alone — Who is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, coming to us and living amongst us as the Second Adam, the Head of the Body of Christ which is the Church.

It is a light that shows forth a possibility — it is a universal predestination that is offered as a gift — that you and I can be renewed and brought into Christ-likeness and share in the divine nature. We, too — if we accept the gift and cooperate with Grace — we too can become icons of Christ that do indeed “glow in the dark.”

This is the only Gospel that matters. This is the Orthodox Gospel that does not fall apart and deteriorate. The is the Gospel of the Triumph of Orthodoxy! This is the Orthodoxy that truly does keep the world and the stars and the planets moving, in good measure, just as our Vesperal verses told us so last night.

Icons are empirical that history is not all there is. Icons are evidence that the disappointments of time and space will not overcome the beauty and peace of Jesus Christ. Icons are shining beacons from the Last Day, the Kingdom of God, shining into the here and now.

Every Orthodox icon broadcasts this message that salvation is theosis.

But some icons proclaim it louder, with a broadcast in high-wattage, stereophonic HD.

There are two icons today at my friend’s church at St. George’s in Taylor, Pennsylvania. They positively stream with miraculous oil, redolent with the unmatchable fragrance of unknown fields of roses. There is so much oil, every day, that Fr Mark has to collect it with swaths of cotton.

You don’t have to take my word for it — and neither do I (to be honest). I am naturally a skeptic. So I looked for hidden tubes, or for my friend to sneak in late at night and apply the oil. I really wanted a reasonable explanation, because the alternative is shocking.

There was no reasonable explanation to be had. The shocking alternative is simply — and scarily — this: this weeping icon is an obvious, undeniable Sign from the Future. It is a Messenger from the Last Day. It is proof that deification exists — not just as a possibility, but a reality.

Since October of 2011, when those icons began to weep, I have been thinking a lot about this weeping, and about icons. I have been looking for explanations.

But then it occurred to me that I’m asking the wrong questions. Instead of me — and you — trying to comprehend this miracle that is really true of all icons, maybe it is better to consider a different possibility.

Maybe this miraculous Orthodox Gospel that is so beautifully presented in our icons … maybe this Gospel is comprehending us. If we call Icons “windows to heaven,” then should we be so surprised that the “looking” of icons might go both ways? Maybe we not only “look in” at the icon — maybe there is Someone “looking out” … at us?

Maybe we are meant to look at an icon as a symbol of what we are to become … that we ourselves are to glow in this present darkness.

You and I ought to be shining icons of Jesus Christ.

Maybe we are meant to look at these myrrh-streaming icons and recognize their challenge: you and I should be myrrh-streaming people, who everyday emit streams of the miraculous myron of mercy, of kindness, of the Orthodox Gospel, of healing generosity and constant intercession and Christ-like love.

Maybe, you and I ought to venerate these Orthodox icons, and became "venerable" ourselves … as images of Christ on a world with an unbearable history, in a time and space so riddled with sin and death.

You and I should ourselves broadcast a different message … a message of the Triumph of Orthodoxy … that with Christ, and Christ alone, there is beauty and peace.

My Comment

This excellent homily by Fr Jonathan Tobias focuses on just one aspect of Orthodox Christianity, and yet even from this singular focus, one can distinguish the outlines of Orthodoxy, which is the Christianity that I adhere to. And without meaning to offend or to exclude anyone, it is this faith and understanding of reality that I am pointing to when I say such things as ‘Orthodoxy is Christianity,’ and why I believe that the Church has never been and can never be divided, and why I welcome everyone home to it, because it is the common inheritance of all the saints, that is, all who confess Christ. For me there is no argument and nothing else to do but to invite, saying, ‘Come and see.’

P.S.: For those interested in ikons, a comment sent me by a reader privately led me to the webpage of the Prosopon School of Iconology. There looks to be much interesting material there. Just click on the linked name for a visit! 

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