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Religious icons make the divine present for believers

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  • Rev Fr John Brian
    http://www.norwichbulletin.com/lifestyles/spirituality/x497776758/Religious- icons-make-the-divine-present-for-believers Religious icons make the divine
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 5, 2009

      Religious icons make the divine present for believers
      By Gary Panetta
      GateHouse News Service
      Posted Jan 04, 2009 @ 04:51 PM

      The image is at once tender, intimate and deeply mystical.

      The infant Jesus reaches around the neck of his mother, pulling her close.
      The Virgin Mary bows her head toward her son, the two meeting cheek to

      The son gazes up intensely into the face of his mother. But Mary does not
      look at him. Nor does she look at the viewer. Her gaze is distant, sad and
      yet serene and beautiful: There is a great mystery in that gaze, a mystery
      that is heightened by the stylized flatness of both of the figures, their
      lack of weight and volume, the highly patterned presentation of line and
      color that is like nothing visible on earth, that seems to lift them above
      the earth.

      And yet these figures belong to our world even as they seem to transcend it
      - tangible reminders of that which is intangible, a bit of eternity
      perceptible to the finite eye.

      The impulse that led an anonymous 12th century Greek artist to create this
      icon, known sometimes as "Our Lady of Tenderness," is a very old one. It
      stretches back at least to the days of Constantine the Great, when
      Christians used images, statues and icons as ways to honor martyrs, saints,
      the Virgin Mary and Christ.

      The practice has been sometimes deeply and violently controversial: Many
      feared that the practice represented a resurgent idoltry. But Christianity,
      at least in its Catholic Western and Eastern Orthodox forms, has affirmed
      the appropriateness of using images, including icons, as a part of worship.
      And among the Eastern Orthodox churches, iconography has been raised to a
      high level of art - an art still practiced today - that resonates deeply
      with believers whether or not they adhere to the Eastern tradition.

      "I no longer see icons as a matter of art but rather an invitation to
      experience the divine presence," said Joseph Piccione, a Roman Catholic and
      corporate ethicist for OSF Healthcare Systems in Peoria, Ill. "They make the
      divine accessible. Now from a Western perspective, I think this is a great
      gift to us. Ever since the Enlightenment, there is a sense that God is an
      abstraction, and the 'really real' is measurable. Yet in classical
      Christianity there was a sense that the cosmic order was now permeated with
      grace, that the Holy Spirit is now present through all of creation since

      "With icons, I think, their methodology is precisely intended to make that
      divine present. ... (They bring out) what needs to be at the center, to have
      a response of thanksgiving and adoration of God - not a God who is an
      abstraction, but a God who is present to me."

      For believers, icons are not art for art's sake; they are art for God's
      sake, and by extension, for humanity's sake. Hence they belong not in
      museums but woven into the rhythms of liturgical and daily life.

      Enter the narthex of All Saints Greek Orthodox Church in Peoria, and your
      eye will fall to two images placed on either side of the doors opening to
      the main body of the church: On the right, an icon of Jesus and, on the
      left, a beautifully wrought, silvery icon depicting a vast crowd of saints.

      The placement is traditional in Orthodox churches, said the Rev. John
      Sardis, who leads All Saints. The image on the left is associated with the
      name of the church. The image on the right signifies the person to whom the
      church ultimately belongs, namely Jesus Christ. Before entering the main
      body of the church, it is customary to offer a kiss of greeting to the icon
      of Jesus.

      "Who's house is it? Jesus Christ's," Sardis said. "And usually with family,
      a friend, you don't just walk in, you greet them - either with a handshake,
      a hug, a kiss. So we make the sign of the cross. And we venerate the icon.
      We kiss the icon. Now, we're not kissing the glass or the paper or the paint
      or the wood. We are kissing the individual that this icon represents."

      Icons grace the left and the right walls of the sanctuary leading up to the
      altar. They are rendered in both Western and Eastern styles: Figures in the
      Western style are more realistic; those in the Eastern tradition have more
      stylized features.

      No matter what the style, the intention is the same: They are visual
      sermons, pictorial representations of both biblical stories and heroes of
      Christian history. One icon, for instance, depicts the risen lord appearing
      to the doubting Thomas; the wounds in Christ's hands, feet and side are
      visible. Another depicts St. George, a Roman soldier executed by
      decapitation on April 23, 303, for refusing to worship Emperor Diocletian.

      At the far side of the church stands the altar, where there are more icons,
      unfolding against a wall known as an iconostasis. On either side of a
      curtain with a cross are an image of Christ (on the right) and an image of
      Mary, holding the infant Christ (on the left). Beyond the curtain lies the
      Holy Eucharist, which adherents of the Western Roman Catholic and Eastern
      Orthodox traditions believe is the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

      "Liturgy - as the public worship of the church - is really meant to be a
      re-enactment of heaven on earth," said John Evancho, a Byzantine Catholic
      who also is chief compliance officer for OSF Healthcare. "That would be
      heaven in all of its beauty, all of its transcendence. Icons play an
      integral role in that creating heaven on earth."

      Yet icons also find a place outside the walls of church in the homes of the
      faithful - in dining rooms, in living rooms, in kitchens, in bedrooms. Their
      very presence can subtly alter moods and habits.

      "Not only do you have an icon, you have a votive light," Sardis said. "When
      you light your votive light in the morning or the evening by the icon, you
      say your prayers. That's something you wouldn't do if you didn't have the
      icon. You might say, 'Oh, there is a football game, a baseball game, I've
      got to run. ...' This gives you the opportunity to stop and spend some time
      for yourself and for others in prayer that you would not do otherwise."

      In his study, "Abundance of Love: The Incarnation and Byzantine Tradition,"
      the late Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop Joseph Raya sees icons as an
      extension of the incarnation. As God became manifest in the flesh-and-blood
      Jesus of Nazareth, divine reality becomes manifest in a different way in the
      icon itself, in its symbolism, in its harmonious proportions and colors.

      "It's a way we recapture the sense that Christ's incarnation, his taking on
      flesh, his taking on matter, has sanctified all of that," Evancho said.
      "What do we think of matter? Of flesh, of our bodies? Christianity has
      struggled at times with that - because we lost the sense of the power of the
      incarnation. That's a principle part of the power of the icon. It is a
      tangible reminder of that fundamental belief: God become man."

      Gary Panetta can be reached at <mailto:gpanetta@...>

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