Friday, April 25, 2014

Icons - Liturgics

(An old school assignment of mine... posted to answer some questions for a good friend.)

Icons.  Immediately, you think of one of two definitions - either the two dimensional Saints in history textbooks, or simply an image which is familiar to you.  Taking the second definition, we can say icons are all around us;  the likeness of a celebrity plastered on a wall; the swoosh of the Nike symbol.  But, what about the first definition?  The gold-inlaid icons of old Christian Saints are unfamiliar to many.  For many, especially in America, they rarely appear in daily life. Why should we bother with them, then? They are just pictures, right?

They are not just pictures.  Their range of influence goes beyond the age of the Early Church, directly into modern Christianity.  The ancient purpose of icons still applies today - to act as windows and reflections of what they depict.  As Christians, our stance on icons is important to many aspects of the theology we hold.  It is a tell-tale to not only our stance on the material world, but also a direct reflection of our view on the Incarnation. In this case, it is especially beneficial for you to press out and explore the realm of icons and their uses.  Whether you choose to support icons or not, understanding the original purpose of them will be helpful in personal clarification.

Icons have caused and still do cause controversy among Christians.  The many views on icons can be summarized as simply the iconoclastic position (being against icons) and the pro-icon position (in other words, those who regard icons for spiritual use). 

Iconoclasm is usually associated with Reformed and Protestant branches of the church, although it is originally rooted in Nestorianism.  However, Calvin is most recognized for his contributions to iconoclasm.  In his Institutes he says: 

Hence it is perfectly clear that those who try to defend images of God and the saints with the example of those cherubim are raving madmen. What, indeed, I beg you, did those paltry little images mean? Solely that images are not suited to represent God's mysteries (Institutes 1.11.3). 

A majority of the modern Protestant church is much less extreme than Calvin.  So, much divide exists within Protestant branches on how icons should be used, their purpose, and their biblical standing.  Some groups say icons are wonderful pictures to depict bible stories, but their use and value ends there.  Others are against having any icons in their church walls, in their worship, or in their bibles period.  Also, an enormous amount of Western/Protestant Churches contain stain-glass windows, which are innately icons themselves. 

On the contrary, Eastern Orthodox are in support of the use of icons.  Although Eastern Orthodox Christianity did experience two iconoclastic movements in both 730 and 814 A.D., it has since never swayed from the traditions of icons and supports them vigorously.  Mount Athos, a mountain in Greece, is covered with only monasteries and contains a sum of 20,000 icons in its vaults for liturgical use. This is just one example that icons are a vital and unquestionable part of Orthodox worship.  The Second Council of Nicea gives a brief summary of the past, present and future Orthodox views on icons:

        For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.

In addition to what was said there, the Council of Nicea also said that icons themselves represent an Incarnation, they should be given reverence, but not worship, and they honor and represent the image they depict.  

Christ’s incarnation and the act of communion (in the sense of  both fellowship and the sacraments) are two vital parts of Orthodox theology.  In fact, they are also the original basis for the Early Christians and they considered these two sources as things which grew them in faith. So, I propose that the use of icons is nurturing in spiritual growth.

I come from a Calvinist background, and as my family and I began our transition into Orthodoxy, icons were a great confusion to me.  They were lovely pictures, but I didn’t understand why they were given such reverence and honor.  It made me uncomfortable that a material thing could hold so much spiritual meaning.  One day, as I was roaming throughout the church, I stopped in front of an icon of the Mother of Christ.  It was a peculiar image - she had her arms outstretched in a position of worship and in the place of her bosom was a ornately decorated circle with an image of the Christ child inside.   Around him were stars of different sizes, resembling the night sky on a clear summer’s night.  Fr. Barnabas found me staring at this icon.  Mary’s position represented her saying, “ it unto me according to thy word.”  The reason the Christ child was depicted in a circle of stars, was to communicate that He is the ruler of the universe - uncontainable.  And, the reason this cosmic scene was placed in Mary’s bosom was because she “contained” the “uncontainable.”  In that icon, she represented what a true Christian should do - take Christ into their heart. Or, like the icon, “contain” the “uncontainable.” After less than ten minutes of him talking with me, I understood more about Christ’s nature, the role of Christians, and the importance of Mary in the Church - just through an icon. 

That is just one thousands of icons which hold the same meaning and importance.  Icons properly     represent and communicate the Incarnation of Christ and just by their very nature, reveal the incarnation as a truth to us.   Icons are physical things, but they communicate things which are transcendent to us - like Christ - He was 100% man, and 100% physical, but at the same time, He was still the uncontainable and 100% God.   As St. John of Damascus said, “I do not adore the creation rather than the Creator, but I adore the one who became a creature, who was formed as I was, who clothed Himself in creation . . .”

Also, icons support communion and fellowship.  At the very least, icons are are form of epideictic rhetoric - trying to portray and communicate that which cannot fully be communicated.  They are messages and windows.  Using or showing honor to an icon does not stop at the icon itself - it goes beyond that - it has deeper meaning, a connection to the person/scene being represented.  This seems like a complex theological topic, but it is actually something we experience daily.  

Do you have a framed picture near you?  A photo of your family, or sweetheart in your wallet?  Look at it - it represents a reality to you.  In and of itself, it is not the real person, but it connects you to someone who is or was very real.   One time a priest was speaking to a group of teenagers about icons - in the middle of the conversation, he removed a picture of his little girl from his wallet.  He kissed it and whispered, “I love you, sweetie.”  The class smiled and awed at the act of fatherly love.  Then he ripped the picture up.  They stared at him indignantly - full of righteous anger.  Then he said to them, “My children, icons are no different than that photo.  You were horrified upon seeing that photo ripped up.  Like that photo, icons also connect us to something special, something real, and something that we cannot comprehend hurting.”

Icons used in the traditional liturgical services of Eastern Orthodoxy may not be familiar to many, but icons themselves are not unfamiliar to the Christian world - in any branch of the church.  Stained glass windows, picture Bible’s, even small films - all those, although not Traditional, are icons.  Windows to the past, teachers of theology, and communicators of the Divine.  

Icons are a source of nurturing and growth for the spiritual life because they properly represent the  vital theology of the Incarnation and support and participate in a fellowship and communion with past and present Christians. 

Imagine yourself in the catacombs of Rome.  You are a young child, and since you can first remember this has been your home.  You quietly walk down a narrow hallway towards the main cave, in which a Liturgy is secretly about to begin.  Among many others on the stone walls is a crude icon of Christ.  Mother has always taught you that Christ really did become a man and He had a real face and real hands, but at the same time He was God.  And, this icon was really the only portrayal of Christ you’d ever seen in your life, the only evidence you had ever been given that He was both man and God.  The icon was your teacher, it was precious to you, and through it, you understood Christ and had a connection with Him.  That icon was a prayer.  You never prayed to it, of course.  That’s idolatry.  But, you prayed through it.

There will always be conflict, especially in Christianity, about how much is too much in regards to the material world and Divinity.  But as C.S. Lewis once said, “God likes matter. He invented it.” And icons represent, and will continue to represent that balance - that incarnation - that reflection of the Creator, through His creation. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Music as Medicine - Liturgics

Music as Medicine - Liturgics 

In class today, after listening to Bach’s 2-3 hour “Matthäus-Passion” (, the topic of “church music” and its various implications, categorizations, and applications became the center of discussion. This, of course, can become a heated topic in the context of both Western and Eastern Christianity.  From old southern spirituals to the youth pastor’s jazzy rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” the realm of Western Christian music spans an enormous range of genres, theologies, and preferences--all serving different purposes. Eastern Christianity, on the other hand, stands strongly in musical tradition, maintaining the original “church music” with impressive consistency, for the most part. 

After addressing the basic categories of past and present church music and providing a vague definition of music as “that which expresses the inexpressible” we began to consider:  Which one is more “correct?” Is there a “correct” church music or utilization of it at all? What is the purpose of church music? What are the criteria to fulfill this purpose? 

With these questions came even more diverse answers, spanning from “No, no musical or theological standard exists in church music” to “There should be no church music at all.” In the end, though, we all agreed that church music, as a whole, fulfills these three basic purposes: 

-To include all the senses (the entire body) in worship, through the use of sound. 
-To unite the church in the participation of worship
-To unite the church theologically

Within this, though, the subtleties of opinions rise: what theology do you use? What kind of music do you use? Does one person lead the music or is it congregational? And so on... 

And then, someone played the devil’s advocate... he added a secondary purpose for church music: evangelism and sharing the gospel. In essence, the purpose of church music was simply to evangelize. 

This, of course, is too simple a purpose--the music is meant just as much for the congregation as it is for those outside of it. However, his point was fascinating. Can one of the purposes of church music be evangelical?

If so, then it seems to support the idea that church music itself must conform, or sympathize with the modern culture’s fluctuations in musical preference in order to make Christianity more “appealing” and “inviting,” thus seemingly strengthening evangelism. 

However, this is far from the case. It is true that one purpose of church music is evangelical, but that does not justify cultural conformity nor sympathy. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul states: 

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Our spiritual service of worship (and thus our music) is instructed not to be of this world’s aimless desires. What does this look like? It looks like music which is not only solemn, but consistent in its technicalities and theology, while allowing for the participation and interaction of the congregation. Liturgical music fits this bill perfectly. After all, what does “liturgy” mean? It means the “work of the people.”

And yet, with this, how do we reconcile liturgical music and the presented evangelical purpose of it? In a world full of hundreds of musical genres and preferences, wouldn’t traditional music be a “turn off?” Wouldn’t contemporary music be more inviting and thus successful? 

No, in fact, traditional/liturgical music is the most effective form of evangelism. For, Christ refers to himself as the physician: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Mt. 9:12) And since the church is His bride, she is also His hospital. This is something the Early Church Fathers emphasized greatly: the Church is a hospital.

If this is the case and if her (the Church’s) music is meant to be evangelical, then it must be assumed that her music is medicinal. Thus, her music cannot conform to the world, which is saturated in passions and carnal desires. For a medicine is meant to heal, it is not meant to promote sickness. A hospital and its medicine restores physical normality and consistency to a person’s life. In the same way, the Church’s music ought to restore spiritual normality and consistency to a person’s life. 

Liturgical music, specifically the Byzantine tradition of Church music, fulfills this characteristic of theological and spiritual consistency. Of course, the modern world in its pomp and glory may not find such staunchness attractive and such tradition appealing, but when it comes to Church music, “a spoonful of sugar” does not help the medicine go down. The Physician’s medicine requires no sweetener or supplement, it is, in its purest form, literal “music” to His patient’s ears.