Posted by: Shawn Ragan | October 21, 2008

What Icons Say About Creation and Pride in Faith

There were many in my former pastorate who felt very strongly about creation.  It was a Seventh-Day Sabbath congregation, and interestingly the Sabbath has a lot to do with Creation.  It is ironic to say this, but that was not something I understood for most of my time in that church or in the pastorate.  It was only after I began my journey into Orthodoxy that I started to see what the Sabbath really represented and what its proper place is.

Having a proper understanding of the world is an important part of living the Christian Faith, precisely because the Faith is not individualistic.  This is a simple truth that has been lost far too often.  Too often, and often to great spiritual harm, people live like it is just “me and Jesus.”  This individualistic view of faith – which is the polar opposite of Christianity – has driven many people away from the any interest in Christ.  Sadly, though, I have seen too often where one sees this error, and “corrects” another’s indiividualstic view by just starting their own individualistic view ~ hence over 34,000 denominations.

For many years, this was my problem as well.  My pride led me to believe that my ideas were better than others, and if everybody would just be a Christian my way, then all would be fine.  Was it?  No.  My ego was killing my own faith.  But the Lord had mercy, and allowed me a glimpse into something far bigger and far greater ~ a journey into a Faith that is millenia old, and is not dependent upon what I think of it.  Orthodoxy does not try to mold itself to my version of Christianity – I have to mold myself to it – I have to submit to something much greater ~ the Faith of the Apostles, the Prophets, the Martyrs, and thousands of years of Christian Saints.  Most of the areas I still struggle in this journey are because of that ego, though.  Submitting to this Faith can be difficult, after all, don’t I know better on such-n-such topic.  Sure, I must know better than the Apostles and the men and women who were their disciples – who lived in the Churches the Apostles started, who spoke the language, who grew in Faith and showed great love to those they met, who prayed often and with real tears of repentance, many of whom even died for their Lord.  Yeah, I know better – I live in Western culture (not the Eastern culture of Christ), I can read some ancient Greek, but nothing like a native speaker, my Faith is taking baby steps, I often show much more jealousy, anger, and bitterness than love, I struggle to pray, and seldom shed tears of repentance for my many sins, and I think if a college teacher says something negative about Christianity I should be thankful for the persecution – Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.  I am certainly in the place to know better than thousands of years of Christian Faith lived and breathed and experiences in Christ’s Holy Orthodox Church.  Lord, have mercy.

Boy, have I digressed.  The Christian Faith is primarily a Faith of Communion – which is to say, a Faith of Love.  That love is not “me and Jesus” and in fact one could easily argue that isn’t love at all – after all, Holy Scriptures declare one can not love God if he does not love his neighbor.  Fr. Stephen Freeman, in a post some time ago – I do not know which and am not going to try to find it now – said something to the effect that one only knows God to the extent that one love’s his enemies.  The Faith is about living a life of love with others and with Creation.  I have heard the saying, I do not know its origination, but it is something like: We go to heaven together, one goes to hell alone.

Anyways, I was reading some stuff online, and I came across some comments by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His All-Holiness, Bartholomew I.  He was speaking about the Word of God, and he had three points:  1) Hearing and Speaking the Word through Scriptures; 2) Seeing the Word of God – The Beauty of Icons and Nature; 3) Touching and Sharing the Word of God – The Communion of Saints and the Sacraments of Life.

Below I have posted #2 of his talk, I really enjoyed what he had to say, and I think it spoke to the Truth of the Christian Faith.  As a side note, for those who are reading this that are not Orthodox, the Patriarch of Constantinople is called the Ecumenical Patriarch.  This is not a position like the Pope of Rome, Orthodoxy has no universal pope over all others who dictates the Faith.  The Ecumenical Patriarch is the Bishop of Constantinople and that bishop, and four others, were given a special place of honor in the early Church Councils (around 1600 years ago).  This was a position of honor, not authority, and this understanding represents a major difference between Eastern and Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations) approaches to the Faith.

“2. Seeing the Word of God — The Beauty of Icons and Nature

Nowhere is the invisible rendered more visible than in the beauty of iconography and the wonder of creation. In the words of the champion of sacred images, St. John of Damascus: “As maker of heaven and earth, God the Word was Himself the first to paint and portray icons.” Every stroke of an iconographer’s paintbrush – like every word of a theological definition, every musical note chanted in psalmody, and every carved stone of a tiny chapel or magnificent cathedral – articulates the divine Word in creation, which praises God in every living being and every living thing. (cf. Ps. 150.6)

In affirming sacred images, the Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea was not concerned with religious art; it was the continuation and confirmation of earlier definitions about the fullness of the humanity of God’s Word. Icons are a visible reminder of our heavenly vocation; they are invitations to rise beyond our trivial concerns and menial reductions of the world. They encourage us to seek the extraordinary in the very ordinary, to be filled with the same wonder that characterized the divine marvel in Genesis: “God saw everything that He made; and, indeed, it was very good.” (Gn. 1.30-31) The Greek (Septuagint) word for “goodness” is κάλλος, which implies — etymologically and symbolically — a sense of “calling.” Icons underline the Church’s fundamental mission to recognize that all people and all things are created and called to be “good” and “beautiful.”

Indeed, icons remind us of another way of seeing things, another way of experiencing realities, another way of resolving conflicts. We are asked to assume what the hymnology of Easter Sunday calls “another way of living.” For we have behaved arrogantly and dismissively toward the natural creation. We have refused to behold God’s Word in the oceans of our planet, in the trees of our continents, and in the animals of our earth. We have denied our very own nature, which calls us to stoop low enough to hear God’s Word in creation if we wish to “become participants of divine nature.” (2 Pet 1.4) How could we ignore the wider implications of the divine Word assuming flesh? Why do we fail to perceive created nature as the extended Body of Christ?

Eastern Christian theologians always emphasized the cosmic proportions of divine incarnation. The incarnate Word is intrinsic to creation, which came to be through divine utterance. St. Maximus the Confessor insists on the presence of God’s Word in all things (cf. Col. 3.11); the divine Logos stands at the center of the world, mysteriously revealing its original principle and ultimate purpose (cf. 1 Pet 1.20). This mystery is described by St. Athanasius of Alexandria:

As the Logos [he writes], he is not contained by anything and yet contains everything; He is in everything and yet outside of everything … the first-born of the whole world in its every aspect.

The entire world is a prologue to the Gospel of John. And when the Church fails to recognize the broader, cosmic dimensions of God’s Word, narrowing its concerns to purely spiritual matters, then it neglects its mission to implore God for the transformation — always and everywhere, “in all places of His dominion” — of the whole polluted cosmos. It is no wonder that on Easter Sunday, as the Paschal celebration reaches its climax, Orthodox Christians sing:

Now everything is filled with divine light: heaven and earth, and all things beneath the earth. So let all creation rejoice.

All genuine “deep ecology” is, therefore, inextricably linked with deep theology:

“Even a stone,” writes Basil the Great, “bears the mark of God’s Word. This is true of an ant, a bee and a mosquito, the smallest of creatures. For He spread the wide heavens and laid the immense seas; and He created the tiny hollow shaft of the bee’s sting.”

Recalling our minuteness in God’s wide and wonderful creation only underlines our central role in God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world.”

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