He asks us in Romanian, translated by our host, a simple question: What is the point of our learning about key moments in the history of Byzantium or modern Orthodoxy, if we aren’t going to be transformed by these truths ourselves? And we, all of us with Ph.D.s in some aspect of Orthodox history, smile politely, because modern academia does not have an answer to that question, inasmuch as academia is premised upon a tacit agreement never to ask it at all.It is a question that has dogged the halls of university and the study dens of students who approach their subjects with skepticism and who attempt to keep a distance from them lest their hearts and minds be infected by what they read and learn and see. Truly the Enlightenment has increased learning but it has not so much increased faith. There is certainly something wrong with the pursuit of our Christian past, with our approach to Scripture, and with our entrance to worship if we want to sit on the sidelines and watch as interested but disaffected people. Yet, if we hear the Word of the Lord, the promise of the prophet is that the Word of the Lord will not return to Him empty but will accomplish the purpose for which He sends it. That is our comfort but it does not justify those who choose to ignore the implications of their academic pursuit.
Yet for all of it, it was the title of the article I found most compelling. Truth told I tend to think of icons as ancient things, painted in the past, preserved in the present. I am sad to say that I have trouble conceiving of icons as being currently painted and produced for both present and future generations. Sure, I know that this is true but in my heart the icon is more legacy from the past than painting of the present.
If we think about it, the title of his article is an apt description of the life of the Church. The icons we received are tradition -- the living faith of the dead testified in what they pass on to us in faith and worship. But the Church is always painting new icons to pass on to those yet to come. In this way the painted icon is itself an icon of the faith received, confessed, proclaimed, and passed on. The paint is never dry. The work is never done. In home and church the faithful teach and nurture those new to the faith (children and adults) and so the Spirit is at work always making new to join the pilgrim throng marching to the end God has prepared for those who love Him.
I must admit that this little phrase has opened to me a new sense of both the work of preserving and painting icons and the work of preserving the faithful legacy while gathering new through the Spirit's work in the means of grace. Truly he is correct. The icons aren't yet dry. And they will never be, as God has declared the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church. We will ever be appreciating the icons of those who went before us and every painting new and faithful images of Christ (in word, deed, art and music). It is this aspect that Norman Nagel caught in the lines from his introduction to Lutheran Worship (1982):
We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. Each generation receives from those who went before and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds whata best may serve in its own day --- the living heritage and something new...So whether pastor or people, paint away. In home and church and in neighborhood and across the world, paint away. Paint faithfully and carefully the faith upon the hearts of your children and grandchildren, neighbors and co-workers, citizens and strangers, near and far.
Let us not offer God anything less than our best but let us not wait for the perfect in order to accomplish the good. Let us work where God has placed us without longing to be elsewhere. Let us work with the resources, gifts, and abilities God has supplied us without complaining of what we lack. Let us give full attention to the faith and not treat the things of God as hobby or leisure pursuit. Let us not disdain the material of this material world but neither let us forget that we are in but not of this world. Let us long for the eternal kingdom even as give full energy to this present moment, living in anticipation of what is to come and because we know the outcome already accomplished. Let us give pause for humble confession and let us manifest hope and holy joy both in what God daily and richly supplies and in what God has promised to those who endure. The paint on the icons is not yet dry. Thanks be to God!