Monday, March 24, 2008

Ancient Iconography Honors Colorful 'Windows into Heaven"

Ancient Iconography Honors Colorful ‘Windows into Heaven”

By Rev. John-Brian Paprock

For Capital Newspapers ~ Easter Worship Directory

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Worship of God has always been intentionally multi-sensory, multi-dimensional. In most of the world’s religions devotion and practice has been the driving force of sacred architecture, music, and art. These reflect the stories and symbols of spiritual teachings. This is apparent in Christianity.

Although written words have been around for thousands of years, literacy of a majority is relatively new - only a few hundred years in only a few places on earth. Yet, Christianity is 2,000 years old. The other factor was dissemination of books. Until the printing press (circa 1500 AD), copies of books, especially sacred texts, were hand written by scribes on parchment and kept in monasteries and libraries for the use of the privileged. Today’s ability to publish millions of pages and make them available is astonishing. And yet, even this is not the culmination of written words. Computers and the internet have created a cyber-space for a new multi-sensory, multidimensional life that can be shared instantaneously around the world.

In the early Christian experience, that reached so many, the main manner of communicating the spiritual teachings was experiential, reaching all levels of human experience. The church was a place and time to be surrounded by divinity through chanted hymns, scripture read aloud, architecture and religious art, especially icons.

Icons are not just antiques or historic art. They continue to enrich Orthodox Christian worship and have been growing in popularity with Catholics and Protestants as well.

The main uses of icons are devotional and instructional. Icon is from the Greek, ‘eikon,’ which means ‘a likeness, image, or picture.’ In the Middle Ages, ‘holy eikon’ meant an image used for Christian purposes. The holy images, holy pictures, with layers of symbols and depth of teaching are intended to tell sacred stories of Christianity. The stories may be historic events or parable or explaining theology. Since icons are telling stories, sometimes the painting of these holy images is called “writing an icon” and looking at them, “reading an icon.” So, one could “read” a chapel or church in similar manner.

The tradition of icons continues in the Orthodox Christian Churches and come in a variety of styles and from every ethnic community that has been Orthodox Christian. In America, the Byzantine-style is the most common. They adorn the walls of altars and churches, as well as homes, cars and offices of the faithful. Candles are lit and incense burned in front of them and prayers are said, hymns sung. In this way icons are aides in focusing and worshipping God. They are not worshipped, but venerated or given reverence as instruments of divine interaction with humanity and windows into heaven.

In Eastern Christianity, it is not common to see the body of the dying or dead Jesus on the cross. The exception is during Good Friday when the story of the crucifixion is experientially incorporated into the cycle of devotion in preparation for the holiest event of the year - the resurrection of Christ. On Good Friday eve, the crucifixion icon is seen, but during that evening service, the “body” is removed from the cross and placed on a “winding sheet” (Greek = epitaphios) which is used for a ritual burial. In all Orthodox Christian churches this is re-enacted. To tell this story, there are icons of crucifixion and removing the body as well as the burial and entombment.

The icons of the Resurrection tell the stories of the women coming to anoint the body according to tradition and seeing the empty tomb or encountering an angel in white. The teachings of Christ’s “descent into hell to free the captives there” (from Orthodox hymnology) is depicted in one the favorite icons of Jesus trampling on the doors of hell (usually under His feet, with blackness and bones under that) and pulling up Adam and Eve with His hands. Often the scriptural reference how many of the dead arose is also depicted as crowds in the background.

With these sacred images, candles lit and incense wafting through the church, Orthodox sing loudly with bells ringing, as they have been for centuries, “Christ is risen from the dead trampling on death by death and on those in tombs bestowing life.”

This year Orthodox Easter will be celebrated on April 27 due to a difference in interpreting calendars that is centuries old. The author encourages non-Orthodox to use this opportunity to visit an Orthodox church during that Holy Week.

[published with three full color icons of resurrection]

Thanks to St. Isaac of Syria Skete, Boscobel, for providing images of the icons.

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