Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Where the icons aren't yet dry. . .

Matthew J. Milliner, writing in First Things, described a visit to Romania and to Orthodox churches and a monastery there in glowing terms.  One of the poignant paragraphs offers the simple but profound challenge to academia and to the pursuit of things theoretical but not practical:
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!


John Joseph Flanagan said...

A painted icon may be historical and beautiful to view, but God has rather explicitly and bluntly instructed us to avoid creating images of Him, and to avoid incorporating them into our worship and visual perception of Him, but I guess many people hold on to them anyway. I do not suggest we destroy the historical icons created centuries ago, but I wish we could stop making caricatures and cartoons of Jesus today. It is willful and intentional disobedience to God's direct commandment.

Paul said...

There were evangelical catholic icons in the 15th century. Why did they die out and how may they be resurrected? Good Shepherd Institute 2015 focused on visual arts. Let us not be iconoclasts!

Janis Williams said...

John, as a person with a Fine Arts degree and a former Calvinist, I understand where you are coming from. Really. However, if we treat icons as "cartoons" and "caricatures" it looks a bit like we are beginning down the road (though I doubt we would go so far) as Islam's attitude toward pictures of Mohammed. I know Mohammed was only human, and Christ was God and Man. I understand it's highly unlikely Jesus had blonde hair or blue eyes (or even looked like a Byzantine). We have no idea what He looked like. Painters are not trying to reproduce what Christ looked like. Painters are trying to represent Him.

The commandments demand we do not make IDOLS, not that we refrain from painting pictures. Idolatry is FAR more present in theChurch in the form of money, sex and power, in whatever form you may imagine. The idols of Moses' day were wood and brass. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament shows how prone Israel was to idolatry. We are idol factories today. Icons are pictorial "books" meant for teaching. Even the kissing of a crucifix is not idolatry unless the person doing the kissing is worshipping the crucifix, and not the Christ.

I think we have, as FR. Peters says, an Enlightenment attitude toward our forebears in the Church. Because we have iPads, smart phones, and lots of Science and Theology on our side, those poor misgiuided monks and early centuries of Christians were a little on the stupid side.

Yes, as History, we should preserve early icons, statues, etc. We should not cease doing our best work in painting icons today.. There are many painters of icons today, not just in Romania, and not just in a monastery. The majority of artists today are pagan, or at least hostile to Christianity. The Church has failed as a support for the Arts. As an artist who doesn't paint icons, but landscapes, I understand in my vocation I am called to "do my best work" for my neighbor. As a Christian artist, I am not compelled to paint only evangelical pictures. Those artists who do (paint icons) are not painting idols anymore than I believe I am painting an idol for someone who worships nature (including Christians on the golf course on Sunday)

I am not trying to be snarky. Please forgive me if it sounded like it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, those felt banners abounding in Lutheran worship spaces are not cartoonish and caricatures??