Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Our First-Foremother Eve

"A picture is worth a thousand words," or so they say. It is well-known that the Orthodox are distinct from the rest of Christendom by our icons. These pictures are painted, I mean, written by artists who are fasting and praying and working with God to reveal in paint what God is speaking in His Word, the Bible. That is the standard, though it is not always the case. Many icons are simply painted by artists, who knows whether they're fasting and praying or not. Fortunately, though, as long as these are following the models provided by true writers of icons, their work will not deviate. So, that being said, I just wanted to share with my friends the icon above. If you click on it, it will enlarge and let you see the details. What was handed over to me regarding icons is, if the event didn't happen, the icon would not have been written. To some, this may seem to be putting the cart before the horse, to say that an icon portrays something, therefore it must be true. But that's what we believe. Most icons portray Bible events from Old and New Testaments, or historical events from the first Christian century onwards.

What can we tell from this icon?

Well, first off, Jesus Christ is the one who put Adam to sleep, so that Eve could be taken from his side. Although God the Father is the "Creator of heaven and earth," as we have it in the Symbol of Nicaea, it is "through Him [the Son, the divine Logos or Word of God] that all things were made." That's why you will always see Jesus in icons of the creation, and in the Garden of Eden. As the Bible says, "No one has ever seen God; it is the Only Son, who is nearest to the Father's heart, who has made Him known." (John 1:18, Jerusalem Bible).

In the exact center of the icon sits a naked man, Adam the First-Created. Notice, he looks just like Jesus! This is no coincidence. Adam was, before the fall, perfect Man, an undistorted image of the Father. (Notice the ray of light falling on him from the Father.) Since we have no other picture of what the Father looks like except Jesus (see John 14:9), iconographers (icon-writers) always paint Adam as they paint Jesus, who was and is perfect Man, though He is more than that, He is theánthropos, God-Man. It may seem a trivial detail to some, but to us, seeing Adam portrayed this way reminds us that as God created us, and as He wants us to be when we are restored to Him, is like Jesus. In the left panel of the icon, by the way, Adam is shown naming the creatures.
(Notice the raptor on the far left!)

On the far right sits Jesus Christ on a throne. I hope I don't have to explain that there are imaginative and symbolic elements in icons. I mean, we don't think that there really was a throne that He sat on while He operated on the sleeping Adam. There is much in the Bible that cannot be depicted visually, except by resorting to symbolism. The symbolism, however, cannot contradict the plain words of scripture or the broad view provided by Orthodox theology. An intentional deviation in writing an icon is almost as perverse as intentionally mis-translating or mis-quoting the Bible. Why? Because the Orthodox regard icons as visual scripture. Not exactly of the same authority as the Bible, but (as we might call it) a paraphrase for the eyes. Are there "bad" icons? Well, uh, yes, but I don't want to get into that right now, other than to say, a bad icon is simply not an icon at all.

What about our First-Foremother Eve?

Well, back to the saying "a picture is worth a thousand words." This subject, too, is one which transcends the ability of mankind to visualise factually. We can do no better than the Word of God does, we can only write in an icon what we find written in the Bible, "So YHWH God made the man fall into a deep sleep. And while he slept, He took one of his ribs and enclosed it in flesh." (Genesis 2:21 JB) Admittedly, the iconographer has "smoothed over" the mechanical aspect of the operation, probably because it could not be shown that way. But if not factual, the icon portrays an actual truth—God took woman out of man. Beyond that we have no other knowledge.

This too belongs to the category we call the mystírion. And this is something not to be doubted, but accepted in simplicity. It is by our simple acceptance of the plain words of divine Scripture that we are instructed by the Holy Spirit in those matters that "no tongue can utter." We are allowed into the realm of the mystírion.

"The way into the Holy Scriptures is low and humble, but inside the vault is high and veiled in mysteries." (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Ch. 3)

By the way, where is this icon?

This icon is in Saint Basil's Greek Orthodox Church, Chicago, Illinois. It is literally wrapped around the curved front of the pulpit at the front of the sanctuary.
Saint Basil's is unusual in that it got its start in a synagogue. Built in 1911 as the Anshe Shalom Temple, it was originally a house of worship for Yiddish-speaking Polish Jews. In 1927 that congregation merged with another, and the Greek community purchased the building and consecrated it as an Orthodox Christian church. Though the iconography and furnishings are Orthodox Christian, there remain many reminders of its use as an Orthodox Jewish synagogue—the pews have seats that swing open to store prayer shawls and their ends are carved with replicas of the tablets of the Law, the balcony was constructed for the use of female worshippers (who worship separately from the males, as in some Orthodox Christian churches), and three hand-blown stained glass windows still adorn the balcony and are often visited by Orthodox Jews who want to see them. There are also the faint outlines of Hebrew inscriptions on the entablature below the central pediment. The church building was badly damaged by a fire om March 18, 2013, and is currently in the process of reconstruction. Here is a link to that project. I am not sure if the ikon discussed in my post has survived.

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