There is a legend which has passed down for nearly 2000 years and describes the first icon. At the time when Christ was traveling to Jerusalem where He would experience the trial and crucifixion, King Abgar of Edessa sent for Jesus. Christ could not go to the King, so instead He sent a linen cloth on which He had dried His face. The story continues that the cloth carried to the King had an impression of Christ’s face on it. The King’s illness was healed when the cloth was taken to him. This first icon, “not made by human hands”, began a tradition of portraying Christ and the saints in pictorial fashion. (Benz, 1963). The entire town of Edessa treasured this first icon - the linen cloth with Christ’s face imprinted on it. It was widely acknowledged throughout out the East and was still written about in the eighth century (Ouspensky, 1978).
So what is an icon? Webster defines an icon as an image. “Icon” is simply the Greek word used for any image or picture but what makes an icon holy? A picture is described as holy because of what or who the picture depicts, and because of the source of that depiction. In other words, an Icon is holy if it depicts Jesus Christ, or other Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Angels, the Holy People (Saints), or other Holy things (e.g. the Cross). The creation of an icon is defined by tradition. It is understood that a person who saw them in the flesh painted the first icon of an individual and each subsequent iconographer will use the original icon as a guide. . St. Luke is accredited with painting the first icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
If you haven’t already noticed, on the altar you will see 2 icons. The one of St. Mark hangs on the wall outside our office. The other icon is the result of an icon workshop that I took a week ago run by Regan O’Callaghan an Episcopal priest from London, England who was an artist before he became a priest and has a passionate interest in iconography. A couple of friends who happen to be Anglican nuns had taken the course with Regan a year ago while they were in England. Now icons had never appealed to me – they were flat, the saints they depicted seemed very severe and not very good looking at all and there didn’t seem anything to like or get excited about. I looked at the icons that my friends had done and decided that if they could achieve something that looked so good, then maybe I could as well, and I decided to join them for this course. It was something new, something different and there was a spiritual aspect about it that intrigued me. We had been asked to choose a picture of a Greek or Roman orthodox icon and email it to him before the course. I have to admit that none of the icons I looked at on line were particularly appealing to me until I came across one of a woman who seemed a bit more human than the male saints.
Kyriaki was born in 268 A.D. to wealthy but childless Greek parents who were devout Christians and had for some time, prayed unceasingly for a child. She was born on a Sunday and therefore was given the name Kyriaki which is the Greek word for Sunday. Her feast day is July 7 which is what motivated me to share this story with you today. From her childhood she consecrated herself to God and turned down many marriage proposals saying that she wished to die as a virgin, as she had dedicated herself to Jesus Christ. All was well until a powerful government official decided that because she came from a wealthy family she should marry his son and when she refused, he denounced her as a Christian and ordered her to be whipped. The soldiers who assumed the flogging had to be replaced three times as they eventually became tired. She would not recant her faith, so she was suspended by her hair for several hours, while soldiers burned her body with torches until she was finally taken down and thrown into prison. During the night, Jesus appeared to her and healed her wounds. Seeing the miraculous recovery, many pagans converted to Christianity but they were later beheaded. She was then thrown into a fire, but the flames were extinguished, and then thrown among wild beasts, but they became tame and gentle. Eventually she was sentenced to death from beheading by the sword. When she was given time to pray, she asked God to receive her soul and to remember those who honored her martyrdom. When the executioner came for her she was already dead. She was 21 years old. Certainly an inspiration of faithfulness. She is the patron saint of Servia, a town in Western Macedonia, Greece and there is a church name after her in Istanbul, Turkey. During the course and while working on the icon of St. Kyriaki I developed a greater appreciation of the art and its importance in the Orthodox church.
The rules regarding the creation of an icon are rigorous. First, one does not paint an icon, one “writes” it. The iconographer must prepare himself for the task of writing an icon by following a strict discipline of fasting and prayer. He must quiet his spirit and submit himself to God. The icon he creates will not be signed. He will not expect accolades or applause when the icon is completed. The icon will be created to inspire and lead others into worship. The icon will be painted using the prescribed regimen and style that has been passed down through the centuries. Everything from the facial expressions to the colors used is predetermined.
For us, the rules were not quite as rigorous. There was no fasting but we did spend 5 hours a day for 5 days to study and learn how to paint our icons. It was intense, it was fascinating, it was spiritual. We did begin and ended our sessions in prayer and at the end our icons were blessed. In the Orthodox Church an icon is a sacred image, a window into heaven. An image of another reality, of a person, time and place that is more real than here and now. More than art, icons have an important spiritual role. Michel Quenot says an icon is “theology in imagery, it expresses through color what the Gospel proclaims in words”.
That icons serve to instruct the faithful is a point which is duly emphasized by the Greek Church Fathers. Thus, St. John Damascene remarks, that since not everyone is literate, nor has leisure for reading, the Fathers agreed that such things as the Incarnation of our Lord, His association with men, His miracles, His Crucifixion, His Resurrection, and so on, should be represented on icons. And St. Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople, says: "Just as speech is transmitted by hearing, so a form through sight is imprinted upon the tablets of the soul.”
The primary purpose of the icon is to aid in worship. It is designed for that purpose. Icons are not created to force an emotional response. When portraying historical scenes the faces don’t show emotions but instead portray virtues such as purity, patience in suffering, forgiveness, compassion and love. Neither is the icon a sentimental picture. Christ is always shown as God. Even the icons of Christ seated on His mother’s lap show Him with an adult face, revealing that even though Christ lived as a child among us He was also God
Icons depict silence. There are no actions displayed, no open mouths. The icon invites the Christian to enter into contemplation, prayer, and silence (Ware,1979). Space is not defined as three-dimensional and time is insignificant. The story told by the icon precludes time and space. There are never shadows in icons. This shows us that the saint portrayed is “glorified” having completed the race and entered into heaven (Quenot,1991).
Symbolism is used in icons and details are used minimally. Colors are also symbolic. Blue reveals heaven and mystery. Green is youth, fertility and the earth’s vegetation. Red, the color of blood, suggests life, vitality and beauty. White is purity, the divine world and innocence. Gold indicates sanctity, splendor, and the glory of God and life in the heavenly kingdom. Purple reveals wealth, power and authority.
Orthodox Christians believe that surrounding themselves with icons help them to acknowledge the constant presence of Christ and the saints in their lives. Michel Quenot, a recent convert to the Orthodox Christian faith didn’t take long to realize that the Orthodox Christian utilizes all of their senses and being in their worship. Incense floats through the air representing the prayers ascending into heaven. A bell is rung during the call to worship and at other key times in the worship. Altar boys, deacons and the priest serve in the altar area, chanting prayers and hymns, bowing, performing prostration, acknowledging the heavenly hosts of saints and angels whose worship they are entering into.
The Orthodox believes heaven is a place where worship doesn’t cease, that those who have gone before and have been faithful are worshiping the Holy Trinity continuously. When earthly Christians join together to worship we join the heavenly throng and begin participating in that worship. For that reason the walls and ceilings of the church are decorated with icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints and angels. Parishioners only need to look around to see the saints surrounding them. In this way the icon is a reminder of a larger reality. It reminds them that they have stepped out of one world and into another. It reminds them that though they struggle on a daily basis to remain faithful to their beliefs and to God there are many who have finished this life successfully and now dwell in a place where there is no more sorrow. They are encouraged to persevere, to set their eyes on the finish line, to continue to live a life that is pleasing to God.
An icon is not an end in itself; it is not merely an aesthetic object to be enjoyed for whatever artistic merits it possesses, but is essentially a symbol, carrying one beyond itself. It is designed to lead one from the physical and psychophysical to the spiritual realm.
Living as we do in a society that demands that our lives be lived at a fast pace and with very little quiet time an icon could beckons to us to slow down. The stillness of the icon could draw us into the quiet so that we can lay aside the cares of this world and meditate on the splendor of the next.
Regan told us at the beginning of the course that writing an icon it is like walking into a cave. In the beginning everything is dark and difficult to see. As you become accustomed to your surroundings various things begin to appear and things become clearer. We painted in layers and began with dark colours. Out of a dark swath, as we added lighter colours and highlights, our saint became clearer and began to have life.
I have a new appreciation of icons and a better understanding of them as well. Hopefully you now do too. As Matthew reports in his gospel, Jesus says that no one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Perhaps icons are another way of moving out of what may be spiritual darkness into the heavenly realm and getting to know the Father and the Son in a deeper and more spiritual way.
The story is toldl about a concert held in Philadelphia, PA. One of the pieces played by the orchestra featured a flute solo which was to be played offstage so that it would sound as if coming from a great distance. The conductor had instructed the flutist to count the measures precisely in order to come in at the exact time. After all, with the flutist offstage, there could be no visual contact between the two of them. On the night of the performance, when the time came for the flute solo, the flutist counted perfectly and came in precisely at the right time. The light, lilting notes floated out beautifully across the theater. Suddenly, however, there was a terrible shrieking noise and then the soloist went silent. The conductor was outraged. At the end of the piece he rushed off stage to find the poor flutist. “Maestro,” he said, “Before you say anything let me tell you exactly what happened. As you are aware I came in precisely on time and everything was going beautifully. Then suddenly--this enormous stage hand ran up and grabbed away my flute. Then he pushed me back and snapped at me. “Shut up, you idiot!” he said, “Don’t you know there’s a concert going on out there?”I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life when I thought I was doing all the right things and then suddenly life takes a sharp turn and I have been as startled as that flutist. At such times I have been tempted to ask, “What in the world am I doing here? What am I supposed to be doing?” How much does God really demand out of me?”
When I was ministering in Hagersville, I was on the edge of the New Credit and Six Nations reserve. There were natives in my congregation but even though some lived on the reserve, they were basically assimilated into Canadian culture. Everything was normal, everything was lovely, everyone got along. It wasn’t until I began at the church in Caledonia that I caught a glimpse of the anger and frustration that many natives lived with. And then when I moved to Guelph and began drumming with a native women’s drumming group, I started, over time, to hear their stories and many of them brought me to tears and anger and frustration on their behalf. And the question of what God required of me became prominent in my thinking.The answers to those three questions can be found in all of today’s readings: In the gospel, Jesus tells the people in the synagogue in Nazareth that “The spirit of the Lord is upon him, because he has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free. As followers of Jesus, should we not be led by that same spirit! In his letter to the Philippians, Paul exhorts them to be honourable, to be pure and keep on doing the things that they have learned from and seen in him the passion and persistence he brings to his journey with Christ. And of course, few verses in the Old Testament or the New are better known than Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah is one of the Minor Prophets, a contemporary of Isaiah, Amos and Hosea in the 8th century. He spoke out for the downtrodden and exploited people of Judean society.”
Let’s begin with the call to love kindness. Here is the most basic, the most minimal requirement of all religion--that we should treat other people as we would like to be treated. We may not be able to agree on everything. Indeed, we may have some areas of our lives in which we are in sharp conflict with one another, but we can at least treat each other with civility, with simple human kindness. Kindness is among the most basic requirements for Christians even though sometimes our acts of kindness are met with only cold ingratitude from the recipients of those acts. That’s all right. That’s on them. Kindness is the first business of a follower of Jesus. We are also to do justice. Justice is a much larger and more complicated concept than kindness. Kindness is an individual act. I see a person in need and, like the Good Samaritan, I try to help. That is kindness. Justice, on the other hand, is the passion that followers of Jesus have for making certain that every person on earth has a decent opportunity for a healthy, wholesome, rewarding life. No concept is more Christian than is the demand for justice. Wherever there are people who are oppressed--whether it be political oppression, economic oppression, racial oppression, or whatever form that oppression may take, we must raise our voices.
A Lutheran pastor Ed Markquart gives one of the best examples of the difference between kindness and justice that I know of. He reminds us of a story from Charles Dicken’s England some two hundred years ago. At that time, many twelve year old boys were working in coal mines, down in the dangerous mine shafts. Their life was miserable but that was what was expected of twelve year old boys in poor families in England at that time: a lifetime of hard work in the coal mines beginning when they were only children. The church tried to be kind to these poor boys. They would offer presents at Christmas time. Their families would receive charity and holiday turkeys. The church would offer prayers for the little boys working away in those coal mines. However, one day some determined leaders in that island nation passed a much-needed law. The law said that little boys could no longer work in coal mines. The law also insisted that these boys go to school instead of go to the coal mines to work.That is the difference between acts of kindness and doing justice. Kindness is giving Christmas presents to disadvantaged boys in coal mines; kindness is giving their families turkeys during the holiday season, and kindness is praying for them. Doing justice is working to change the laws so that it is illegal for little boys to work in the coal mines in the first place. (1)Kindness is sending quilts and care packages to remote tribes up north, kindness is praying that they will make it through the winter. Kindness is praying for those young indigenous children who have committed or are contemplating suicide, kindness is sending money to Attawapascat hoping it will help get them back on track. Justice is pressuring the government to ante up the promised money to arrange for mental health workers; justice is lobbying for clean water to be available to all Canadians and especially to those on reserves who have been dealing with water alerts for many years now.
At the beginning of our service we gave a territorial acknowledgment. Acknowledging territory shows recognition of and respect for Aboriginal peoples. It is recognition of their presence both in the past and the present. Recognition and respect are essential elements of establishing healthy, reciprocal relations which are key to reconciliation, a process to which we all should justly be committed. However, acknowledging territory is only the beginning of cultivating strong relationships with Canada’s First Peoples. We need to educate ourselves on the issues so we can be proactive and speak out against the injustices that have occurred and unfortunately are still occurring against our indigenous brothers and sisters. Have you read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? The Primate called for all 46 of them to be read out in our congregations on Aboriginal Sunday. The first 2 articles were an eye opener for me. That they even have to be spelled out for us, I find disturbing. Article 1 - Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law. Article 2 - Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity Have you read the Truth and Reconciliation Final Report which would enable you to decide on the actions you might wish to take to do justice
Often we in the church are content to be kind. Kindness is great. It is the first step in following Jesus, but it is only the beginning of that journey. It is the bare minimum. We are to love kindness, but we are also to do justice. Whether it be in Syria or the Sudan or here at home. Where there are people who are being treated cruelly, we have a mission. Doing justice is much more complicated than loving kindness--but it is equally a part of Christian witness. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Few characteristics are as appealing in a person as is genuine humility. However, here Micah is talking about a special kind of humility and Jesus was not talking about the shy, timid mouse of a person who is content to serve as the world’s doormat. Rather he was talking about people who are so committed to serving God and serving other people that they have an astounding impact on our world. That kind of humility or meekness leads to tremendous power and effectiveness in life. So, what in the world are we doing here? Well, whatever else we are involved in, I hope we are engaged in these three simple but courageous activities: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.
You may or may not remember but 17 years ago, prior to the beginning of the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia, a decision was made to take the Olympic torch under water in far northern Queensland. Ordinarily this would be an impossible task as - we all know - water extinguishes fire. Many people laughed at the idea. Yet with the development of a special fuel it worked perfectly and the flame stayed alight under water.
We who have lived in these early years of the new millennium have witnessed many more unusual and improbable examples of change than our ancestors every imagined. We know that scientists constantly discover new information that colours the way we were brought up and challenges the way we think about things. Jesus, by becoming incarnate, challenges us by offering a new way of being in relationship with God. In today’s readings we are invited/challenged to suspend our doubts and risk new ways by which we live our faith.
In the O.T. reading, we heard a story of Abraham and Sarah. At the hottest part of the day when it was usual for middle-eastern people to be taking a siesta, three strangers arrived at the entrance to their tent. Abraham immediately offers freshly baked cakes, freshly killed meat and some milk. The three visitors turn out to be messengers from God. They bring the news that Sarah and Abraham will have a child. Now the probability of Sarah and Abraham having a child seemed amazing - so amazing as a matter of fact that Sarah bursts out laughing in denial. Nine months later a baby is born and is named Isaac, which means laughter. This child symbolized hope and possibility against the greatest odds.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans we again have a story of God’s word of new life spoken in the midst of human barrenness and hopelessness. Paul can live at peace in the midst of trouble and hardship because of the hope that nourishes him. This hope arises from his relationship with the risen Christ who inspires and leads him to act and live creatively and consciously in God’s presence.
And in the gospel, Matthew talks about Jesus sending men and women on missions to be his body in the world. He has declared that he needs assistance and chooses these folk, instructing them on how to act when they reach Galilee. The disciples are asked to go out and be in places and roles that they are not familiar with. They are setting out on a daunting mission and the possibility of succeeding is against great odds but their hope as well lies in their faith in Jesus Christ.
If you read further along in chapter 10, you will see how Jesus instructs them not to allow the issues they meet to weigh heavily on them. They are to shake the dust from their feet - a direction given by Jesus to help them keep their priorities. There is no point complaining about those who do not listen, but rather they should bless them, leave them and move on. Hard times will certainly come but they need not worry, for God is at work in them. And finally there is no sense in attaching themselves to money, extra clothes or other aids to make the journey easier. Just get on with the job and trust that God will keep them in his care.
Like Sarah and the disciples we are all learners, risking new ways of sharing God’s ministry. You may have heard this story about a little boy named Alex who was staring up at the large plaque in the foyer of the church. It was covered with names, and small Canadian flags were mounted on either side of it. The seven-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the rector walked up, stood beside the little boy, and said quietly, “Good morning, Alex”. Good morning, replied the young fellow, still focused on the plaque. “Father, what is this?” “Well, son, it’s a memorial to all the young men and women who died while in the service.” Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Then little Alex, his voice barely audible asked, “Which service, the 8, 9:30 or 11?”
So you see for some even coming to church may be a risky way to respond to God’s call to ministry. Abraham and Sarah were called to leave behind all that was familiar to them and move to a new unfamiliar place. They were called to start a new nation even when having a family seemed impossible to them. Daunting and risky but with God’s help, all things are possible.
The apostle Paul set out on many journeys to spread the gospel in unfamiliar places to strange and sometimes hostile people. He endured many hardships but never lost his vision of what he believed God had called him to do. So many times he wrote about how his faith in Christ kept him going.
The disciples that Jesus sent forth also ventured into unknown and unfamiliar territory. They endured many hardships and most of them ended up being put to death by those who did not want to hear their message. They put their trust in God and placed their hope in the vision that Jesus had for the possibilities for God’s creation.
Way back when I was still ministering in Hagersville, I remember when Ralph became our bishop and in the days immediately following how he shared with the clergy the unexpected challenges that kept being placed in front of him - the financial crisis the diocese found itself in, the lawsuits that the diocese was faced with and of course all the other interesting and exhausting little problems that come with dealing in an imperfect institution made up of imperfect people in an imperfect world. He looked at the possibilities, took risks, and put his trust in a God who understands our humanity and the Diocese survived and thrived
We are not asked to take such risks as Abraham and Sarah or St. Paul or the early disciples or even Bishop Ralph but in light of the examples set by them, we need to determine what ministry God has called us to and how much risk we are willing to take in the ways that we live out our faith.