(Icon and photo by Luiz Coelho; click on the photo to enlarge)
Christ is the icon of the invisible God; all things were created through him and for him.
The Word became flesh:
And dwelt among us.
Let us pray. (Silence)
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior manifested your glory in his flesh, and sanctified the outward and visible to be a means to perceive realities unseen: Accept, we pray, this representation of Mary and Jesus; and grant that as we look upon it, our hearts may be drawn to things which can be seen only by the eye of faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord(+).
Here the priest may sprinkle holy water on the holy icon. The priest may then say the collect most appropriate to the icon being blessed.
--Blessing for Pictures and Statues, Book of Occasional Services, p. 207
Ok, I have to show off the newest addition to my "prayer corner."
(Well, when I actually have a prayer corner again. The house project has sort of crowded that corner out, but it's okay, since we are well into my "sitting by the chiminea" season. I probably won't need my prayer corner that much until late fall.)
Many of you know I have a huge fascination for the ancient traditions of Christian faith, and melding the ancient and the modern. The use of icons certainly is one of the older ones. People not from a liturgical tradition don't really "get" icons (or statues) as tools for personal devotion and worship. Notice I said "for," not "of." Well that's the first thing most evangelical Protestant folk don't get.
Now, I'll admit, on a superficial level, I understand where their confusion is. When one sees someone using a relic for personal devotion, at first glance, it may appear that the person using the icon or statue is "worshiping it." I understand why this would evoke unease, because, after all, we're told worshiping graven images is a bad thing. One has to get behind the superficial appearance to understand what is actually happening.
So let's talk a little about icons.
First of all, before we get to icons, we have to talk about "the sacred image."
Our first and foremost problem with understanding God is summed up in John 1:18--No one really knows "what God physically looks like." No living person in all of history has ever really seen God. The closest we get is Moses, who gets a passing glimpse of God's butt.
In some ways, we know God more by what God is not, than by what God is--and we often use sentiment or emotion or metaphor when we do. Yet, I believe, our minds work to needing a human form to understand this relationship. Why else would we talk about things like the hand of God, or wanting to touch the face of God?
In short, our brains carry a reflection of a figure we attribute to God, but there is not a lot with which to hook it. That image is the root of the sacred image of God. Very real things that make up an image that is not a physical body. Since the Genesis story says that humanity is created in God's image, our human bodies carry a reflection of this image.
The purpose of an icon is not to worship the picture of the subject of the icon, but to worship the sacred image of God we see through the icon (like a window) rather than to the subject of the icon as an object of worship. In a way, because the person in the icon has attributes of the sacred image, it gives us a physical "stand-in" for that unseen sacred image.
The history of iconography goes back to St. Luke, who actually did see Jesus and Mary (the two most common subjects of icons) in physical form. The tradition is that icons have certain characteristics and physical appearance, and this has been carried down all this time. So an icon written in, say, 1100, has many characteristics exactly as one written in 2011. Churches who use icons have rubrics for how they are to be written, right down to the materials used.
Obviously, different human artists have different variations in style, but the underlying principle is that an icon is simply not an artistic rendering, but a witness to the truth of Scripture, more like a "scribal copy," rather than a painting. This is why we say icons are "written," not "painted." Probably the Byzantine style of iconography is the one most studied, used, and the one which people are most familar. Different segments of the Eastern and Roman churches have slightly different rules.
For iconographers, the act of writing an icon is an act of prayer itself. There are prayers for beginning and finishing icons. Silence is kept in the process. Iconographers are taught to see the joy in the process, to pray during the process, and to let the subject of the icon reveal truths to them.
Several months ago, I got to reading about the history and theology behind icons. What began to strike me is that many of the icons show a city, rendered more or less at the time the original icon was written, in the backdrop of the subject of the icon. I got to thinking about the time-bending aspect of that. Take, for instance, an icon with the city of Constantinople in it. We see Constantinople frozen in time, in our modern time. I liked the idea of me being hooked to an ancient space in modern time through the image of God, reflected in Jesus, Mary, or a saint of the early Church.
What I came to realize is I wanted an icon with features of Kirksville in it. Many of you realize much of the deepest parts of my spirituality comes from hooking with things that many people would find very mundane, and very local. I desired this "holy window" that connects me to my surroundings and simultaneously, to the Kingdom of God. I wanted to see what that window might look like.
Enter Luiz Coelho.
Luiz has been a blogging and Facebook friend of mine for some time, and is a wonderful iconographer because he can write icons both in rock stock solid ancient tradition and create some wonderful modern renditions, as well. I have long admired how he can take the ancient and the modern, and make it all "fit." I sensed he was the person who could do this best.
So as we talked, I suggested he look around a lot on my Facebook photos. Luiz has never been to Kirksville. He lives in Brazil. He's been to the States, but not in my part of the world. Seeing my world through his eyes has been a fascinating experience in itself. He knew how much I love the night sky, sitting out by my chiminea. He knew how much I love the green fields and pastures and farm critters. He knew how much I love my parish.
As it turned out, he's created a wonderful mixture of ancient and modern in his work. If you click on the larger version of this, you will see power lines, pastures, cattle, and sheep. At Mary's feet is Trinity-Kirksville. Most wonderful of all is the tiny image of The Blessed Red Truck traveling US 63, towards Mary, towards Jesus--me on a journey. I love how the Blessed Red Truck is, in a way, "the sacred image of me." It's how Luiz sees my world, how I see my world, and how I desire to see God's world in symbolic form.
Sure, I paid money for this. But what Luiz has rendered--what he has written as a view of the sacred image of God--has a worth far beyond money. When I had it blessed, my priest blessed both it and me--that I would be able to have a deeper relationship with God through the use of this icon.
Thank you, Luiz. I look forward to seeing what is beyond this window!
(Icon and photo by Luiz Coelho; click on the photo to enlarge)