Sunday, August 4, 2013

That Christ be formed in us

The following is quoted from Fr Anthony Coniaris' book Daily Vitamins for Spiritual Growth: Day by Day with Jesus through the Church Year, for August 3rd, which my sister in Christ, Mary Lona, sent me a while back, together with my response.

There appears in most Orthodox churches in the apse just above the holy table, a large painting of the Theotokos with the Christ Child in her bosom. The child has an adult face to denote that even in childhood He is the ‘wisdom of God and the power of God.’ Through the years I have met persons who have expressed dismay that the entire front wall of the sanctuary should be reserved for the Theotokos. These people believe that it should be Christ alone who should be depicted in such a strategically important visual area. Yet the figure of the Theotokos with child in the apse conveys to the worshipper a fundamentally important message, that is, Christ must be formed in us’ [Galatians 4:19] as He was formed in the Theotokos.

Elizabeth Briere writes, ‘People have been heard to remark that in Orthodox churches there are often more candles lit before the icon of the Mother of God than before the icon of Christ. That observation, however, is unwittingly revealing, for the usual icon of the Mother of God does not depict her alone; it is in fact an icon of the incarnation.’

The Theotokos is not someone on a pedestal. She is one of us, a prototype of the true believer. She summons us to respond to the call of God with the same faith and obedience as she did in order that Christ be formed in us as He was formed in her. Mary is the Typos [type] of the Church, the expression of the fulfillment of the Church's mission. She is the example of the new people in whom and among whom God dwells: “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” [1 Cor. 6:16]. Mary is the fulfillment of the purpose of Christ's coming to us. He came to make us temples of the living God. “Do you not know,” asks St. Paul, “that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?...God's temple is holy, and that temple you are” [1 Cor. 3:16-17]. As Mary became God's temple, so we are to become His temples.

Dear sister,

I've never read this passage, but this is my theology of Mary and this is how I explain to visitors to an Orthodox church as to why she is depicted in the apse as the ‘platytera’. I have one other explanation of her presence there. It is that she is the first Christian, and she leads us in the worship of her Son. The idea that she is up there to encourage us to form Christ in us just as she did, though spiritually of course, is an idea that is a bit harder to justify to people sometimes, who only notice how big she is while everyone else is so small.

When I used to give church tours, I always explained the arrangement of the two ikons flanking the royal doors in this way (and I received this from the priest who catechized me, Fr Michael Courey):

The ikon on the left is not an ikon of Mary, though she is in it (she is never shown without Jesus in an ikon except when it is a historical impossibility). The ikon on the left, the royal door (opening), and the ikon on the right, are all ikons of Christ, in this way:

On the left, it is the ikon of Christ in His first coming, born of woman. On the right, it is the ikon of Christ in His second coming, enthroned for judgment of the living and the dead (in some churches he is not shown seated on a throne, but in our church He is, and so is Mary seated with Jesus in her lap, on the other side). And in the center, the royal doors (when they are open) form the ikon of Christ in His presence with us today, in the form of His priests who go in and out through this opening, in the form of the Word of God (the scriptures) as they are proclaimed at this open doorway, and in the form of the Holy Mysteries which also come to us through this opening. So in the manner of a paradox, a non-ikon, a ‘hole in the wall’ is also an ikon, the ikon of Christ with us NOW, as living ikon.

Along with that explanation, I quoted the saying, “Between Christ's first and second comings, there's no Body here but us, living ikons.” This has been how I explained these ikons when giving a church tour for almost 20 years. I've been Orthodox for 22 years [now, 25 years], since I was 37, and from at least the age of 40 I was giving church tours, because I am an evangelist and a publicist. I know how to talk to crowds.

Anyway, yes, this is robust, authentic Orthodoxy. We are not throwing out the baby with the bathwater as people claim the Reformers did (actually not all of them did), but we are staying as close to scripture as we can, and quietly side-stepping the human weaknesses and errors that have been accumulating for centuries. This is a process that is always going on in the Church, but especially now, it is needful to be gently persistent in promoting what is good and true and without any shadow of doubt, and in such a way that the weak and foolish crutches of the spiritually lame will be discarded voluntarily, as crippled souls regain their powers of locomotion in the Christ.

In Hebrew this is the true meaning of Halacha, ‘the walk,’ though people translate it as ‘tradition’ when in actual fact, true Halacha is the exact opposite! To walk without crutches, to regain the power to walk (in the Spirit). So, the Jews, who are our closest relatives, are also subject to the same enfeebling false humility and mindless repetition of gradually deviating ‘tradition.’

Thanks again for your email and the quoted passage from Fr Coniaris. Most of what I know as an Orthodox Christian has come from him.

Your little brother in Christ,
who knows nothing and is nothing, only Christ.

Postscript—In looking for a suitable image of the ‘platytera’ ikon of the Theotokos to use in this post, I came across a wonderful webpage that shows ‘ikons under construction,’ in a way that few people experience. Take a look at what it takes to install three new ikons in St Katherine's Greek Orthodox Church of Northern Virginia by clicking this LINK. [Sorry, but this link now appears to be broken, 5/29/2011.]

Αγίασον τους αγαπώντας την ευπρέπειαν του οίκου Σου.
Sanctify those who lovingly work for the beauty of thy House.


polycarp7 said...

Coming from a Protestant background I've had trouble with the platytera, only recently have I begun to understand the significance. I just started started catechism, I'm still learning, so this:

"And in the center, the royal doors (when they are open) form the ikon of Christ in His presence with us today, in the form of His priests who go in and out through this opening..."

was new for me. Makes so much sense. One of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy was that everything has a meaning and purpose, nothing is meaningless decor.

Thank you!

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Yes, brother, when I came to Orthodoxy I was also struck by the fact that there are no meaningless or superfluous details in the temple or in its services. Gradually that led me to understand that 'it is all ikon, in other words, everything, all that exists, is an ikon of intangibles, pointing to their existence, and opening a door (or at least a window) to the experience of other realities. Better yet, of God's Reality.

Ironic it is and has always been, that those to whom much is given often squander it. An old German saying I found inscribed on a local coin of a town in the Rhineland, is translated 'Have much, waste much.' Lord have mercy upon us, who have been granted so great a treasure, that we not only generously share it with others, but make use of it ourselves.