Living like an icon...

I have long been moved by certain icons. I particularly like the contemporary
icons born of the Orthodox Church in America as well as those from the Roman Catholic artist Robert Lentz for their clarity and vibrancy. Perhaps my two favorites, however are the Theotokos of Vladimir and the Theotokos of the Hagia Sophia - with the Virgin of Guadalupe a very close second. In this love of iconography I am a bad Protestant.

Diana Butler Bass writes in her Christianity for the Rest of Us that in in 600 CE Bishop Serenus of Marseilles "destroyed all the pictures in every church in his city. Apparently the bishop felt that the images somehow cheapened the sacred words of Scripture... in 723 CE, the Eastern Emperor Leo III outlawed the use of icons and "ordered their destruction... and mass rioting broke out across the empire."  The first wave of iconoclasts were elitists "whose piety was based on words and the Roman love of rhetoric. (They) wanted to eliminate icons for fear that illiterate masses might take over the church." (pp. 101-103)

John of Damascus, however, articulated a strong defense for the power and value of icons.  "Every image is a revelation and representation of something hidden... Humans have limited knowledge; therefore images aid in our capacity to experience what is beyond time and space: the image was devised for greater knowledge, and for the manifestation and popularizing of secret things ... Icons are not idols but symbols. We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross... for Christ himself is an image, his human nature a reflection of the invisible nature." Bass notes that with the rise of the Reformed tradition in the 1500s a new wave of iconoclasts arose as "Protestants rejected the medieval heritage and returned to the Roman emphasis on rhetoric alone."

Carol Howard Merritt recently noted that she, too, comes from iconoclast stock as a Reformed follower of Jesus Christ.  She writes:

I come from a history of iconoclasts. I often wonder about the person who stood before the icon, seeing the face of Christ, knowing that each brushstroke was painted with a breath of prayer—and defaced it. It was, of course, a theological act, as the iconoclasts defied idolatry.

Yet, as I observe the outcome, I worry that our iconoclast history was more of an act of conquest than it was an undertaking with enduring theological gumption. We know the many rituals of conquest: force military might, imprison the charismatic leaders, scatter the intellectual base, rape the women, enslave the children, and defile the sacred images. 

As Protestant people, the trajectory of the treatment of our images has twisted into something terrible. Where is that iconoclast spirit? We yawn as cheaper, mass-marketed pictures take the place of icons. Jesus smiles from our bumper stickers and T-shirts. Now we trade in Rublev for Sallman, without much protest. If we're going to give up our iconoclast ideals, shouldn't we do it for the sake of decent art? It's not just our divine images. We exchanged our magnificent architecture for concrete blocks.

Tomorrow I will go to lead worship in a Sanctuary that is the polar opposite of a utilitarian concrete block. Ours is a stone, neo-Gothic structure born of a theology of glory that is magnificent in every way: there are a host of rich and vibrant stained glass windows, there is a gold gilded Chancel, intricately carved wood filled with symbolism as well as a striking marble Celtic cross. We are in the process of designing and creating a sculpture for Lent that will be filled with candles. And we have reclaimed an almost medieval understanding of how to use this sacred space to evoke awe in the pursuit of God's grace and Christ's compassion.  In seven years we have gone from just 40 people in worship to 80+ with the fastest growing group exploring participation among those 35-50 years old.

Don't get me wrong, we have not experienced the parousia and we are far from where God wants us to be as a community. But as I reflect on our 250 years of history I am struck by the fact that this congregation had to go through a near death experience before it was able to risk living like a fool for Christ in this generation. I know that was true for me as a pastoral leader - I had to hit bottom before I was empty enough for God to find room in my life - and I think the same is true for our once mainstream congregations, too. Ours was once the "country club at prayer." Our Sanctuary, as majestic as any in the Northeast, was at least as much about our own power and status as it was the gospel of Jesus Christ. And such an identity dies hard - within and among us - and it still sometimes plagues us with hubris and prejudice.

But renewal would never have happened without our fall from grace. St. Paul speaks to this in II Corinthians 12: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. 

And while I would never discount the role of leadership - lay or ordained - in church renewal, I am certain that without our near death experience the heart of the congregation wouldn't have been empty enough to trust God's grace alone. In I Corinthians 4 Paul puts it like this: We are fools for the sake of Christ... To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. 

That is one of the challenges congregations in New England face - we're too proud of our habits and heritage to become empty fools for Christ - and it will keep us from working for Merritt's call for an iconoclast reversal. Steve McSwain in the Huffington Post spoke to this in an article from October 2013:  Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. (http://www huffington why-nobody-wants-to-go-to_b_4086016.html) He carefully observes that everything from the crisis of leadership in our major religious institutions to demographics, our fear of technology and competition for value in a busy life has diminished our culture's interest in religion. In a word, pride and habit make it very hard for most congregations to break free from their past.

And that's why I have come to see that in addition to all the work we've done with our space - and all the creative experiments we have explored with truly artistic liturgy - one of our biggest commitments for the next five years of renewal will be learning to LIVE like an icon. Letting our lives show something of the grace of God that is within us to those beyond the church community. Like Henri Nouwen said over and over again towards the close of his life: all we can do is be present with another and share something of the love God has already shared with us.  New England Protestants are great at being practical - and we have a deep passion for compassion and justice - but we are horrible at talking about it.  And not always so good at doing it in public. 

I haven't quite figured out everything I mean by living like an icon but I know it has something to do with letting the light shine through us so that we give both shape and form to the mystery of God's love. If you get the chance, go to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC where they have recently installed Xu Bing's Phoenix display in their Sanctuary. It will blow your mind and help you grasp what living like an icon might mean. Bing constructed this work of art from the cast-off debris of China's great industrial drive of this decade. In a mind-expanding way, he took what had become garbage to make something of great beauty. (read the full story here:  http://www. 2014/02/15/arts/design/xu-bing-installs-his-sculptures-at-st-john-the-divine.html?_r=0)


Peter said…
Having been in close to a dozen Greek Orthodox church sanctuaries in the last 3 months, I can say that a balance is needed, between Protestantism's apophasis and Orthodoxy's cataphasis. I resonate with both sides, but found the Orthodox experience sensually overwhelming. I suggest that an ikon truly has value to the viewer if it is alone, and not in a crowd of ikons, as it were.
RJ said…
That rings true to me, too Peter. I like a few - a select few - and prefer that balance. What I'm trying to figure out is how living like an icon might work. Maybe the idea/metaphor is too goofy but I am attracted to it. So, we'll see...

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