Each Sunday morning Deacon Joe will share a reflection or an idea from the many different Christian disciples of prayer, contemplation, meditation, and more! These Sunday morning reflections were designed to be informal discussions on spiritual practices and disciplines. The hope is for the topics covered will provide kernels of Christian spiritual practice to reflect on throughout the week ahead.
We will work to capture this time and then share them here for those who are worshiping virtually with us. We will be using this blog space for similar and other types of material.
Our recording of the first session on September 19th, 2021 did not come out as well as we had hoped. However, we will still share it with those that are interested in the opening conversation. The good news is that the reflections from one week are not dependent on another week, each weekly gathering is unique and independent. We had much better results with the second week's recording on September 26th, 2021. So with no further adieu, here are the first two Praying with Icons.....
Praying with Icons – Part 1
He [Jesus Christ] is the image [in Greek, ikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. – Colossians 1:15
(From the great hymn in Colossians which draws on the Wisdom tradition and the history of Jesus in equal measure.)
Icons are never portraits, attempts to give you an accurate representation of some human situation or some human face as you normally see it. They are – like all our efforts in Christian living – human actions that seek to be open to God’s action. It sounds a bit strange to call a picture an ‘action’ in this way; but creating an icon is after all something ‘performed’ in a fixed way, with the proper preparation of fasting and prayers, in the hope not that you will produce a striking visual image but that you will open a gateway for God. Just as God works through the human person or event you are painting, you, responding prayerfully to that earlier working by God, seek to allow it to continue in and through your response.
Icons are treated with reverence – not because the icons are seen as magical objects but because in their presence you become aware that you are present to God and that God is working on you by his grace, as he does in the lives and words of holy people, supremely in the words of Scripture and the person of Jesus.
Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light, p. xvi.-xvii, xix.
Praying in Body and Soul
One of the most important roles played by icons in Christian history has been to proclaim the physical reality of Jesus Christ, God incarnate. He had and has a face. He had and has a body. In icons of Mary holding her son, we always see his bare feet, a reminder that he walked on earth. He was born, lived, died, and rose from the dead, breaking bread with disciples in Emmaus, eating fish with them in Galilee, inviting Thomas to feel the wound in his side. Nearly all the miracles Jesus performed were physical healings. So important is the human body that most questions to be asked of us at the Last Judgment have to do with our merciful response to the physical needs of others: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you gave me shelter, I was sick and you cared for me . . . “ (Matthew 25:34-37). It is through the protective care for creation, most of all care for each other, that we most clearly manifest our love of God.
One of the odd things that has happened to prayer in much of Western Christianity – in some churches with the Reformation, in others more recently – has been the dramatic erosion of the physical dimension of spiritual life. Prayer has become mainly an activity of the head. Many of us have become like birds trying to fly with one wing. Icons can help us grow back the missing wing, the physical aspect of prayer.
Do you pray with your eyes closed? Because icons are physical objects, they serve as invitations to keep our eyes open when we pray. While prayer may often be, in Thomas Merton’s words, “like a face-to-face meeting in the dark,” cutting a major link with the physical world by closing your eyes is not a precondition of prayer. Icons help solve a very simple problem: If I am to pray with open eyes, what should I be looking at? It doesn’t have to be icons, but icons are a good and helpful choice. They serve as bridges to Christ, as links with the saints, as reminders of pivotal events in the history of salvation.
Jim Forest, Praying with Icons, pp. 40-41.
Praying with Icons – Part 2
It helps to explain why Eastern Christians are so unhappy about statues in church – which they do indeed think of as incompatible with the Commandments. A statue is very clearly an object that takes up a three-dimensional space; you can walk around it. An icon is a surface: you can’t walk around it but only look at it, and, hopefully, through it. It insists that you don’t treat it as an object with which you share a bit of space. In the icon, what you see is human beings and situations as they are in the light of God’s action. When you draw a diagram or even a map, you have to pick out the elements of the view that you need in order to convey what this drawing is for; it is a bit like that with an icon. It doesn’t seek for photographic realism; like the lines of a diagram, the lines of an icon tell you what it is in the subject matter that is significant, that conveys God’s working. And you need to look and pray with that in mind, to look patiently and not analytically, and allow yourself to be “worked on” – perhaps we should say, allow yourself to be looked at by God, rather than just looking at something yourself. –
Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light, p. xvii.-xviii.
Our Lady of the Sign (The Mother of God of the Sign)
One of the most ancient icons is Our Lady of the Sign, the earliest known example of which is found in the Roman Catacombs. The icon reminds us of the words of St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20).
In this icon, Mary is seen praying. On her breast is a circular medallion with an inset of the child Jesus. Mother and child are portrayed frontally. Their faces are compassionate and serious, marked by deep calmness and contemplation. It is not the intimacy between mother and child which is primary here, the focus of attention is Mary, who has been given the honorable title of “Theotokos” (The Birth-giver of God), and who is presenting the child to us as the Son of God. Another name for Mary is “Platytera” (Spacious, Wider than). The notion is that God, who could not be contained by the universe, found a place in Mary’s body during her pregnancy. Thus no other human has been close to God as Mary.
The title “Our Lady of the Sign” has its reference in a text from the prophet Isaiah 7:14 – “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” And as Christ came down to earth, God’s promise that was mediated through Isaiah was fulfilled.
The initials above the shoulders of the child Jesus, IC-XC, are the first and last letters in the Greek spelling of Jesus Christ and are a fixed attribute on all icons of Christ. Likewise, the inscription above Mary, MHP-OV, is an abbreviation for the Mother of God. The stars on Mary’s shoulders and her headdress symbolize her virginity before, during, and after the birth and underline her unique position as the mother of a child with a divine origin.
This is the theological crux of the icon; with the mystery of the Incarnation, God voluntarily let himself be confined within time and space when becoming man through Jesus Christ. As a minor, he was already filled with divine insight. The icon does not primarily express the likeness of a portrait and thus associates the motif with a certain epoch and a certain place. The stylized facial expression, gesture, and fall of the robes contribute to making the icon universal. The icon has its origin in a historic event, in this instance the Birth of Jesus, but the content is meant to have universal relevance for all time.
A quotation from St. Augustine sums up the existential meaning thus: “Of what help is it that Jesus was born, if he is not born within me?”
Source: The Mystical Language of Icons.
“Praying with Icons”, Deacon Joe Dzugan, St. Francis Episcopal Church, 2021.
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