The Orthodox Church nourishes a great respect for the Bible as God's word. In fact, the Holy Fathers viewed the Bible as an icon full of grace. Yet the Orthodox Church does not believe that every word in the Bible was dictated by God verbatim and written down word for word by the person who wrote each book. Such an approach would accuse God of using men as tape recorders — a notion that both dishonors God and destroys man. Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos, Professor of New Testament at Holy Cross School of Theology, asks us to look upon the Bible as a record of truth and not truth itself. He writes, "... there emerged in Orthodox tradition the position that the Bible is the record of truth, not the truth itself. . . According to the Church Fathers, the truth itself is God alone." Such an approach to the Bible according to Fr. Stylianopoulos leaves room for "other records of the experience of God, such as the writings of the Church Fathers, the liturgical forms and texts, and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. It rescues the Church from an exclusive focus on the Bible . . . and thus guards Orthodox life from the error of idolatrous veneration of the text of Scripture (bibliolatry)." 6 In other words, God kept on talking even after His Book had gone to press. This is what Sacred Tradition is all about. Even though the Orthodox Church distinguishes between record and truth, and esteems also other records of the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, "the Bible still remains the primary record in the theological tradition and worship of the Church. . . The main source of patristic theology is Holy Scripture. . . No other treasure in the tradition of the Church equals the accessibility, value and authority of the Bible. . . The Orthodox Church does not have a fundamentalist but it does have a fundamental view of the sanctity and authority of the Bible."
I share with you two illustrations that may help us understand the Eastern Orthodox view of the Bible as the word of God.
A person asked a friend, "Does your wife wear a diamond ring?"
"Yes, a very big diamond," was the reply.
"What does the rest of the ring look like?" he was asked.
"It's a simple gold band," was the reply.
"Jesus is the diamond in Christianity," the friend continued. "The Bible is simply the gold band whose sole purpose is to hold forth that diamond in all its sparkling brilliance."
A second illustration that may help us understand the Orthodox view of sacred Scriptures is the following. Someone asked the famous theologian, Dr. Tillich, "What do you believe about the Bible?" He replied, "The Bible doesn't concern me at all. All I'm interested in is Christ."
"What do you mean?" he was asked. Dr. Tillich replied, "I'm interested in the Bible only because it is the ship which brings Christ to me. You're running around the ship looking for leaks. Christ will say to you when He comes, 'O man of little faith.' "
The Bible is the wedding band holding the Pearl of Great Price; the ship that brings Christ to us. We do not worship the band or the ship but Christ alone. He alone is the Way, the Truth, the Life. The Bible is treasured only as the instrument that leads us to Jesus "in whom are hid all treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (St. Paul).
The recurring theme of the fundamentalists on what the Bible says gives way to the Orthodox emphasis on what the Bible means. For the Bible does not stand by itself. It needs interpretation.
The Bible needs to be interpreted properly. When Philip asked the Ethiopian who was reading Isaiah, "Do you understand what you are reading?" he answered, "How can I unless some one guides me?" (Acts 8:30-31). Who can help us understand God's word?
Since the Bible was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit abiding in the Church Who is the Proper Interpreter of the Bible. The Church, in other words, is the custodian, the caretaker, the interpreter of the Bible. It is the Holy Spirit abiding in the Church Who has guided, and continues to guide, the Church through the centuries to the proper interpretation of the Scriptures.
As the founding fathers of the United States established the Supreme Court as the authorized body to interpret the Constitution, so God established the Church as the Body of Christ to interpret the Scriptures authoritatively. Imagine what chaos we would have if everyone began interpreting the Constitution for himself! The Apostle Peter writes, "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:20,21).
As custodian of the Bible, it was the Church which established conclusively under the guidance of the Holy Spirit exactly which of the many books in circulation at the time were to be regarded as genuinely inspired by God. Thus it was the Church that determined the composition of the Bible and guarantees it to be God's authentic revelation. Tertullian argued that the Scriptures belonged to the Church. The heretics appeal to them was unlawful. They had no right to foreign property.
Orthodoxy teaches that complete infallibility in the interpretation of God's word has been granted not to individuals but to the entire Body of Christ, i.e., the Church, which is indwelt by the Spirit of Truth. Thus, when the early Apostles held a meeting (Acts 15), they announced their decision with the words, "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. . ." The successors of the Apostles, the bishops, have continued to hold such meetings, known as Ecumenical Councils. The articles of faith formulated at such Councils are authoritative and serve to elucidate and explain the true meaning of Scripture. St. Irenaeus insists that we read the Bible with the presbyters of the Church who are in possession of the apostolic doctrine.
Sacred Tradition plays an important role in the interpretation of Scripture. By Sacred Tradition we mean, "the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church" (Vladimir Lossky). The Holy Spirit has been abiding in the Church since Pentecost guiding it to all truth, i.e., to the proper interpretation of Scripture. The Orthodox Church does not ignore what the Spirit has taught in the past regarding Scripture. On the contrary, it treasures this revelation which comes to us through the Church Fathers and the Councils of the Church. Thus Scripture and Tradition belong together. Both came from the same source: the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Because of this, we believe that the Bible needs Sacred Tradition as the living interpreter of God's word, just as Sacred Tradition needs the Bible as its anchor and foundation.
Those who deny Sacred Tradition replace the entire 2000 year period of the life and work of the Holy Spirit in the Church with one person's interpretation of Scripture, whether that person be Mary Baker Eddy or Brigham Young. According to Brigham Young, by the way, Jesus was married to Mary and Martha. He was also married to Mary Magdalene. And it was His own wedding He was attending at Cana.8 These are some of the strange and profane "traditions" we get when we deny the life of the Spirit in the Church through the centuries guiding it to the proper interpretation of the Word of God.
We read the Bible not as individuals but as members of God's Church. The whole Church reads it with us and we read it with the whole Church.
Fr. Kallistos Ware writes,
". . . we do not read the Bible as isolated individuals, interpreting it solely by the light of our private understanding. . . We read it as members of the Church, in communion with all the other members throughout the ages. The final criterion for our interpretation of Scripture is the mind of the Church. And this means keeping constantly in view how the meaning of Scripture is explained and applied in Holy Tradition: that is to say, how the Bible is understood by the Fathers and the saints, and how it is used in liturgical worship." 9
THE BIBLE IN THE LITURGY
We read in the book, "Orthodox Spirituality":
"The word of God present in the holy and divinely inspired Scriptures remains the foundation of the whole of Orthodox spirituality. 'Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth' (John 17:17). In Orthodox churches the book of the Gospels always lies in the middle of the altar, and, while no mark of worship is paid to the reserved Eucharistic elements . . . each priest approaching the holy Table kisses the Gospel first. The Holy Scripture is the very substance of the dogmas and liturgies of the Orthodox Church and, through them, impregnates the piety of Orthodox souls. . ."
It is interesting that while in non-Orthodox churches the Gospel book is usually kept on the lectern, in the Orthodox Church it is kept enthroned on the holy Table.
The very liturgy itself begins with the elevation of the Gospel book above the altar. The priest holds it aloft and makes the sign of the cross with it.
In the small entrance the Gospel book is carried out before the people and elevated again as the priest says, "Wisdom, let us attend." He is saying in effect "God is about to share His wisdom with us through this book, let us pay special attention." What is this but a new epiphany, a new theophany, a new appearance of God. Christ is about to come to us again in the liturgy to reveal Himself to us, to speak to us His words of everlasting life This advent, this coming, is acted out by the priest to prepare God's people for His coming. The instrument through which His appearance is signaled is the elevation of the Gospel book.
In the Orthodox service of Matins the Gospel book is carried out to the people, that they may kiss the Resurrected Christ engraved on its cover. The Resurrected Christ has appeared to the worshippers through one of the eleven Gospel lessons describing His post-resurrection appearances, one of which is read every Sunday during Matins. The Biblical appearance of the Risen Christ through the Gospel reading is so real that the worshippers come forward to kiss the figure of the Resurrected Christ engraved on the cover of the Gospel book. The Risen Christ is truly present in their midst through His Word.
The Bible is above all a theophany – an extension of the theophany of Christ – "the Word (Who) became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). He continues to be present among us to speak to us through His word.
St. John Chrysostom urges Christians to read the Sunday Gospel lesson at home on Saturday evening and meditate on it. This is how they are to prepare themselves in advance for the reading of the Gospel in the Sunday liturgy. When the liturgy is over, they are not to leave but to stay and discuss it.
It is significant that in the Orthodox Church the two things that are especially necessary for life are kept on the Holy Table: food and light. The Sacred Body and Blood of our Lord for the nourishment of the soul and the Gospel book which is a lamp unto our feet and provides light for us as we journey through this world to our true home in heaven.
It is interesting that the historian Harnack who usually criticized the Orthodox Church, praised its emphasis on the Gospel. He wrote: "Jesus' words . . . take the first place in this Church, too, and the quiet mission which they pursue is not suppressed. . . They are read in private and in public, and no superstition avails to destroy their power".
Nothing has so shaken our security these days as the philosophy of relativism, the so-called "New Morality" – the theory that holds ultimate truth to be a mirage; the theory that no values are fixed, that each person decides existen-tially in each situation what is right and what is wrong. Against this spineless fluidity the Bible says, "Thus saith the Lord." God has spoken. He has given us goalposts. He has given us stars to steer by. He has given us principles and values and truths that are valid not for a few generations but forever. "Heaven and earth shall pass away but my words shall not pass away," saith the Lord. Jesus said, "I am the truth." Apart from Jesus the lie becomes the truth.
INFORMS, REFORMS, TRANSFORMS
"Most books inform, a few reform, the Bible alone fransforms" someone said. The truth is that the Bible does all three. It informs us about Jesus the Son of God Whom to know is eternal life. It reforms us for in it we find the ideal and the standard by which we ought to live. It transforms us because in it we are brought face to face with the grace and power of Christ by which all things are made new. We look to other books for information but we look to the Bible not only for information but also for reformation and transformation. It has all three.
In the great Russian spiritual classic "The Way of A Pilgrim" we read of a Russian officer whose career was almost completely destroyed by the passion of drink until he came into contact with the power of God's word in the Bible. It transformed his life.
Solzhenitsyn writes of a person he met in one of the Soviet concentration camps. He could not understand how in such a place there could be a person who remained serene, cheerful, brotherly. Solzhenitsyn observed that in the evenings, when this man lay down in his bunk, he would pull out of his pockets pieces of paper on which were scribbled verses from the Bible. These words had transformed this man from a broken, sour, bitter prisoner into a loving, kind, peaceful human being!
HE STEPS OUT OF THE BIBLE
"Jesus Christ seemed to come right out of the Bible," said one of the teenagers from downtown New York who had been a drug addict. He had been saved through the magnificent ministry of the Rev. David Wilkerson. "He (Jesus) became a living person who wanted to stand with me through my problems." The power of God for salvation – that is what the Gospel is. God's power steps out of the Bible right into your life and mine!
Archbishop Anthony Bloom testifies that his life was transformed by an incident that happened during his student days. "While I was reading the beginning of Mark's Gospel ... I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning point (in my life)". Jesus stepped out of the Bible into Anthony Bloom's life and transformed it.
"IT FINDS ME"
One of the finest tributes ever paid to the Bible was that of Coleridge, the poet. He said simply, "It finds me." It finds me in my wrongdoing and convicts me of sin. It finds me in my loneliness and brings to me the companionship of God. It finds me in my need and brings the divine answer to that need. Are we giving the word of God a chance to find us? How often do we open the door to God's presence?
WHAT SCRIPTURE SAYS ABOUT ITSELF
Let us examine briefly what some of the many authors God used to write Scripture say about it.
St. Paul writes,
"But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:14-17).
The Apostle John writes,
". . . these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31).
St. Paul writes,
"For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we may have hope".
The two disciples who had been walking with the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus did not know it was Jesus. They thought He was a stranger until the end when He revealed Himself to them in the breaking of the bread. Then, looking back on the experience they said, "Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?" (Luke 24:32). If we walk with the risen Christ today and let Him open the Scriptures to us, our hearts and minds too will burn with new light, new understanding, new power, joy and hope.
WHAT THE CHURCH FATHERS SAY ABOUT SCRIPTURE
"Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss" (Desert Fathers).
"Reading Scripture is a fortification of the spirit"(St. Isaac the Syrian).
"For those who have chosen to major in holiness, there is special training in the word" (St. Clement of Alexandria).
"As in Paradise, God walks in the Holy Scriptures, seeking man" (St. Ambrose of Milan).
"Studying the holy and sacred Gospel, I found in it many and different teachings which are all pearls, diamonds, treasures, riches, joy, gladness – eternal life" (St. Cos mas Aitolos).
"And I, humble Seraphim . . . go through the Gospel daily. On Monday I read St. Matthew, from beginning to end; on Tuesday, St. Mark; on Wednesday, St. Luke; on Thursday, St. John; the other days I divide between the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of the Apostles. And I do not for a single day neglect to read the daily Epistle and Gospel, and also the readings to the saints. Through this not only my soul, but even my body rejoices and is vivified, because I converse with the Lord. I hold in my mind His Life and Suffering, and day and night I glorify and give thanks to my Redeemer for all His mercies that are shed upon mankind and upon me, the unworthy one'' (St. Seraphim of Sarov).
"Listen, those of you are living in the world (that is, not clergy or monks) and have a wife and children; how to you also St. Paul commits especially the readings of Scripture (when he says, 'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom' Colossians 3:16); and that not to be done lightly, nor in any sort of way, but with much earnestness. Listen, I entreat you, all that are careful for the Christian life and procure books that will be medicines for the soul. If you will not get any others, get at least the New Testament, the Epistles, the Acts, the Gospels for your constant teachers. If grief befalls you, dive into them as into a chest of medicine, and take comfort from them in your troubles, be it loss, or death, or bereavement . . . or rather do not just dive into them, but take them wholly into yourself, keep them in your mind. For this is the cause of all evils: not knowing the Scriptures" (Homily IX on Colossians by St. Chrysostom)
"The old men used to say; God demands nothing from Christians except that they shall hearken to the Holy Scriptures, and carry into effect the things that are said in them" (Desert Fathers).
"From his first entry into the monastery a monk should devote all possible care and attention to the reading of the Holy Gospel. He should study the Gospel so closely that it is always present in his memory. At every moral decision he takes, for every act, for every thought, he should always have ready in his memory the teaching of the Gospel . . . keep on studying the Gospel until the end of your life. Never stop. Do not think that you know it enough, even if you know it all by heart" (Bishop Ignati Brianchaninov).
"Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (St. Jerome).
"He (Jesus) entered the womb (of Mary) through the ear (at the Annunciation)" (St. Effrem the Syrian).
We greatly admire the early Fathers in the Orthodox Church. We have great reverence and respect for them. They are a part of our great tradition. But we need to ask ourselves: what made the Church Fathers so great? Was it not the fact that they drank heavily from the well of Scripture? St. John Chrysostom used to read the epistles of Paul "twice every week, and often three or four times." For many years he held Bible classes two or three times a week to instruct his flock. If we lose ourselves one-hundredth as much in reading the Word, we will reach depths of knowledge and experience that we can reach in no other way. The Word of God must become for us the other "food" of which Jesus spoke, "I have food to eat of which you do not know" (John 3:32).
"CRAMMING FOR FINALS"
A person asked a boy one day, "Why does your Grandma read the Bible so much?" The boy replied, "I think she's cramming for finals."
There is a far better way than "cramming," for one never knows if one will live long enough to be able to "cram." The better way is to walk with Jesus every day, to let Him give us daily His guidance and strength.
One of the ways by which we walk with Him is by letting Him speak to us daily through His Word.
The Bible is God's book. Make a friend of it and it will make you a friend of God.
Some books are to be tasted; some swallowed; some chewed and digested. The Bible is a book that should be tasted, chewed, swallowed and digested. For it is the living, active, incisive, life-giving word of God. In Rev. 10:8-11 we are told to literally "eat" the word of God: "Go, take the little roll which lies open in the hand of the angel . . . Take it and eat it. . .
When the gushing spring of water flows into the desert sand, the water is swallowed up but palm trees appear instead. The water is translated into trees and fruit. So in our lives the daily watering of our souls with God's word produces the fruit of patience, peace, love, self control, hope and joy. (Is. 55:10-11).
HOW TO READ THE BIBLE
Orthodox Christians have great respect for the Bible. We bind it in gold and keep it enthroned upon the holy table. We kiss it in veneration. We carry it in pompous processions. We burn incense before it. We lift it up before the congregation in the small entrance of the liturgy and proclaim it to be the wisdom of God. We honor the Bible in all these ways. But do we honor it in the most important way? Do we open it to read its treasures? Do we proclaim its glorious good news from the roof tops?
NO TIME OR NO LOVE?
Many persons complain that they have no time to read the word of God each day. But it is not really a question of time as it is of love. We always find time to do the things we like to do. For example, there was once a girl who just did not care to read a certain book. Later, however, she fell in love with the author of the book. All of a sudden her whole attitude changed, She read the book over and over again, very, very eagerly. When we fall in love with the author (Jesus) it will not be a chore to read His personal letter to us. It will be pure delight. It has been said that the two people who read the Bible most carefully are the atheist and the saint. The atheist because he hates; the saint because he loves. Father Florovsky has written,
"No one profits from the Gospels unless he is first in love with Christ. For Christ is not a text but a living Person, and He abides in His body, the Church".
The highest form of Bible reading comes to those who love Jesus so much that to read His word is sheer enjoyment. They savor the sweetness of being with Him through His word.
We must not expect God always to be giving us great insights when we read His word. Reading God's word is also a way of being with God, basking in His presence, practicing His presence. A father goes fishing with his child not just to catch fish but also just to be with his child.
The Bible is our door to God's kingdom. In America alone, more than eight million such "doors" were purchased in one year. But a door, unless it is opened, is just another part of the wall. We need to ask ourselves: how often do we open our door to the kingdom? How often do we open it to find God and to let God find us?
The Bible is the Word of God but it will not become the Word of God for us unless we take it off the shelf and make it part of our mind and heart.
A serious investor would not think of not reading the "Wall Street Journal" every day. Could it be that the children of this world are still wiser, as Jesus said, than the children of the kingdom?
When a rich member of a family died, all the relatives were called together by the lawyer for the reading of the will. As it was being read, each person listened intently, expectantly, eagerly, waiting to hear his/her name mentioned. One older person, who had difficulty hearing, brought along an old hearing horn and placed it in his ear so that he might not miss a single word.
This is a picture of how expectantly we should be listening when God speaks. Everything He says is directed personally to us. We stand to inherit a kingdom. Everything He promises has our name on it.
READ IT PERSONALLY
Dr. Paul Tournier writes, ". . . it is above all through the Bible, the book of the Word revealed and incarnate, that God speaks, and personal contact with Him is established. And when it is established, Bible-reading is no longer an irksome effort to solve an enigma. . . It becomes a personal dialogue which . . . touches us personally." We become truly human to the degree that we allow God to speak to us.
"Whenever you read the Gospel," says St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, "Christ Himself is speaking to you. And while you read, you are praying and talking with Him."
Whenever St. John of the Ladder heard the Scriptures read in church, he literally trembled in awe as if Christ Himself were speaking directly to him.
READ IT PRAYERFULLY
Just before reading the Gospel in the Divine Liturgy the priest offers a prayer which reads:
"Merciful Master, shine in our hearts the pure light of your knowledge and open the eyes of our mind to perceive the message of your Gospel teachings."
Every Orthodox Christian should offer a similar prayer before reading God's word. It is only with the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we can come to understand God's words.
Fr. Peter Chamberas, a New Testament scholar, wrote, "the place where the study of the Bible takes place should be before the holy icons, with the vigil light glowing and the fragrant incense burning. . . Every effort must be made to make our study of the Bible a liturgical experience, a true communion with our Lord and His Holy Spirit." 15
TAKE A PROMISE WITH YOU
Never put the Bible away with memorizing at least one verse each day. Take it with you. Make it the controlling thought of the day. Return to it. Cling to it. Live with it all day. Chew on it as a cow chews her cud. Fall asleep with it at night. It is possible to carry the Bible around in your heart. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly" (Col, 3:16). We can keep our minds well stocked with beautiful thoughts from God's word. They can become our daily companions, bringing us strength, comfort and inspiration when we need it. Those divine promises will come to our assistance when we need them. They will serve as life preservers when we find ourselves adrift and shipwrecked on the sea of life. St. Jerome advised that a passage of Scripture be learned by heart each day, and two or three times a night one should rise to go over the Scriptures which one had memorized.
"But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). She feasted her mind and heart on the marvelous promises of God. "Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee" (Psalm 119:11). The Psalmist stored God's word in his heart where in a moment of need it brought him strength.
We must not just read the Bible; we must possess it. There is something indestructible about these treasures of the mind. Nothing can take them away; no wind, no weather, no storm can destroy them. When life puts us to the test, we remember their sweep, their rise, their power. They challenge, they warn, they encourage, they inspire, they hold our hearts fast. Palladius says of Pachomius' monks: "They all learn the holy Scriptures by heart."
In Pachomian monasticism the law was abundantly clear: "There shall be absolutely no one in the monastery who… does not at least know (by heart) the New Testament and the psalter''.
A special task of novices, according to St. Basil, is the study of Scripture. Cassian speaks of the repetition of memorized texts so that the mind is formed in the image of Christ. Caesarius, in his statutes for nuns, spoke of one sister reading aloud, while the others work so that "they do not cease meditating the word of God and prayer of the heart." We see from these ancient practices how important Scripture reading was – and is – for spiritual growth.
In order to possess the Bible, we must not gallop through it. We should read slowly and look around. What do motorists see of wayside flowers when they go speeding along? We must let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, says St. Paul. We must never leave a passage of God's word until it has left its mark on us.
"Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God", said Jesus. We are what we eat. We are what we feed our minds on. We are what we fix our hearts on. The human mind is like a computer. We get out of it only what we feed into it. If we feed garbage into it, we will get garbage out of it. If we feed the word of God into it, we will get the word of God out of it.
The Bible has been called "God's pharmacy". Within its covers may be found prescriptions to meet every need in life from loneliness to depression to forgiveness. For the Bible is not merely a history of the past, or an object of study, but "the power of God unto salvation for everyone who has faith" (Romans 1:16).
FROM HEARING TO APPLICATION
Fr. Elchaninov writes:
"In our understanding of the Word of God one may distinguish the following stages: hearing, understanding, the acceptance in the heart of what we hear and, finally, its application to our life. Examine yourself – at which of these stages are you at present? Do you always go even so far as to listen to God's word? Do you often read it? Hearing or reading it, do you take the trouble to penetrate its meaning, in order to understand it? Does it reach your conscience, your heart? Does it stir them? If so, has it yielded fruit, does it move you to action, breaking up the apathy of our normal, self-contented life? Examine yourself – and slowly, persistently, begin to ascend these steps."
St. Mark the Monk wrote, "He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads the Holy Scriptures will apply everything to himself and not to someone else". God's word is addressed not to everyone in general but personally and directly to us. What we read must be applied to ourselves. God is holding up a mirror before us to enable us to see what we are and what we can become by His grace.
HARD TO UNDERSTAND?
If you think the Bible is hard to understand, says John Chrysostom, just remember that parts of it were written by simple fishermen. Do not be discouraged. The Bible was not written by philosophers for intellectuals. Simple peasants understood Jesus and followed Him!
A theological student came to a professor one day, greatly concerned that he could not grasp the meaning of certain verses in the Bible. The noted preacher replied kindly but firmly, "Young man, allow me to give you this word of advice. Give the Lord credit for knowing things you do not understand!"
There are indeed parts of the Bible that are difficult to understand but there are so many more that we do understand. Let us choose to concentrate on these. And the more we read, the more we shall understand. The Bible explains the Bible. One passage explains another, with the result that in a year or two we shall find ourselves quite at home in Scripture.
Mark Twain said once, "Most people are bothered by the passages of Scripture they do not understand, but I have always noticed that the passages that bother me are those I do understand."
When asked about those difficult passages in the Bible another person said, "I treat them like bones. I find plenty of meat in the Bible; when I come across a bone I cannot handle, I just lay it aside."
The Bible may be obscure at times but it is not unintelligible. John Ciardi of "The Saturday Review" said once, "Obscurity is what happens when a writer undertakes a theme for which the reader is not sufficiently prepared." What the writer says is intelligible and meaningful to the prepared mind, but not to the unprepared mind. In that sense, the message of the Bible is obscure to those who do not prepare themselves through prayer but not to those who live in the Church and receive its constant guidance in the proper understanding of God's word. Just as heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people so the Bible is a prepared book for a prepared people. "The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (I Cor. 2:14).
God will use some parts of the Bible more effectively than others. We cannot expect the long genealogies in Numbers to capture us as much as the 23rd Psalm or the Gospel of John. But in every one of the books of the Bible there will be something that will stir our mind and heart and send our spirit soaring in hope. We always urge those who have not read the Bible to begin by reading the four Gospels since they are the key to the understanding of the entire Bible. Since the Bible is supremely a book about Christ, it is important to begin with those sections which tell what He did and said when He was among us, i.e., the four Gospels.
We recommend a good translation of the Bible such as the RSV translation with the Apocrypha, i.e., "The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha" by Oxford University Press. The ten so-called Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament are included in the Orthodox canon of the Bible. According to Orthodox teaching, they may be read for personal edification but are not authoritative for doctrine. They are preserved in the Orthodox Bible because they were included in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) which was in use at the time of Jesus. Roman Catholics accept only seven of these Deuterocanonical books, Protestants none. Thus there are 39 books in the Protestant Old Testament, 49 in the Orthodox and 46 in the Roman Catholic. All three accept the same 27 books of the New Testament.
THE HEARTBEAT OF GOD
A large hospital in New York City made a very simple but unusual discovery. They were having a problem in the nursery. The crying of some little ones disturbed other little ones. What could they do to give these newborn babies a sense of security and peace?
They tried soft music but it didn't work. Then someone suggested that the heartbeat of a mother be recorded and played over the sound system. It was like a miracle. The little ones who were restless grew still and went peacefully to sleep. The mother's heartbeat was a familiar sound to them. They had listened to it even before they were born. It was the sound of security and love.
What we have coming to us from the Bible is the sound of the heartbeat of God. Amid all the disturbing noises of this world, it is the only sound that can bring us the peace of God's presence and love. For, it is the sound – the voice – of the Creator's love.
The key phrase in the Apophthegmata (Sayings of the Desert Fathers) is "Speak a word, Father." This recurs again and again. The "word" that was sought was not a theological explanation, nor was it "counseling"; it was a word which would give life to the disciple if it were received.
When a monk came to Basil of Caesarea once and said, "Speak a word, Father," Basil replied, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart," and the monk went away at once. Twenty years later he came back and said, "Father, I have struggled to keep your word; now speak another word to me"; and St. Basil said, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." The monk then returned to his cell to keep that also.
How beautiful it is for us to come to our Abba, our Father in heaven, each day and to say to Him as we pick up the Bible, "Speak a word, Father, for your servant is listening." He will speak that word to us. And it will be a word that will give life!
WHAT HE TELLS US
In the Bible God is telling us:
"I created you; I created the universe. I know all about you – what your thoughts are going to be even before you think them. I love you and am concerned about you. And I'm going to let you in on a secret. 'To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God' (Luke 8:10). I'm going to let you in on the nature of the universe I created. I'm going to let you in on the secret of who you are and why you were created. And I'm going to let you in on the kind of relationships that work between husbands and wives, between parents and children, and between you and Me, how you can begin to grow toward your rightful destiny – becoming the person I created you to be; becoming partakers of My nature."
Truly the Bible is the unique book of God's self-revelation. It possesses sacramental power, transmitting God's grace, truth and power to the faithful reader. It can bring each one of us to a personal encounter with the living God. For the Word of God becomes the living, incisive, powerful Word through the power of the Holy Spirit.
GOD'S DIALOGUE WITH HIS PEOPLE
The Bible is not God's monologue but rather God's dialogue with His people. Fr. George Florovsky brought this out beautifully when he wrote:
"We hear in the Bible not only the voice of God, but also the voice of man answering Him – in words of prayer, thanksgiving and adoration, awe and love, sorrow and contrition, exultation, hope or despair. There are, as it were, two partners in the Covenant, God, and man, and both belong together, in the mystery of the true divine-human encounter, which is described and recorded in the story of the Covenant. Human response is integrated into the mystery of the Word of God. It is not a divine monologue, it is rather a dialogue, and both are speaking, God and man. But prayers and invocations of the worshipping psalmist are nevertheless 'the Word of God.' God wants, and expects, and demands this answer and response of man. It is for this that he reveals himself to man and speaks to him. He is, as it were, waiting for man to converse with him. He establishes his Covenant with the sons of men. Yet, all this intimacy does not compromise divine sovereignty and transcendence. God is 'dwelling in light unapproachable' (I Tim. 6:16). This light, however, lighteth every man that cometh into the world' (John 1:9). This constitutes the mystery, or the 'paradox' of the revelation".
Thus God's word demands a response from each one of us: the response of obedience to His holy will, the response of an ongoing personal dialogue with Him through prayer.
1. God is not an absent God or a God who hides. He has revealed Himself and is forever waiting to be found.
2. He waits to reveal Himself to us through His written word in the Bible which is like a blueprint for life, a cradle in which we find Christ, a love letter from God to us containing a proposal for marriage with an R.S.V.P.
3. The purpose of the Scriptures is stated in John 20:31, "These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name."
4. The purpose of the Bible is to teach not science but spiritual truths about God and man. Since the Bible is a library of books containing many literary forms, i.e., poetry, parables, historical narration etc., it must not always be interpreted literally.
5. Although the Orthodox Church views the Bible as an icon full of grace, it does not venerate the text of Scripture in an idolatrous way as if every word of the Bible were dictated verbatim by God.
6. The Church is the divinely inspired Interpreter of the Bible. The Holy Spirit has been abiding in the Church since Pentecost guiding it to all truth.
7. As illustrated in the Small Entrance of the liturgy, the Bible is a theophany – an appearance of Christ in our midst today – as He continues to speak to us through His Word.
8. The Bible gives us the eternally valid truth of God. It informs, reforms, and transforms those who accept it with faith.
9. As a door to God's kingdom, the Bible is to be read lovingly, expectantly, personally, prayerfully, faithfully, allowing the word of Christ to dwell in us richly. It is a prepared book for a prepared people.
10. The Bible is not God's monologue but His dialogue with us. Included in
the Bible is the vitally important response of man to God's offer of salvation.
What We Believe About Icons
It is impossible to visit Italy, Greece, Germany, Yugoslavia, Romania, Russia, Bulgaria, the Middle East without becoming acquainted with a form of religious art called the icon. Used extensively in churches and homes in these countries, it has now become quite popular in the West where such art is being used for decorative purposes. Eastern Christians consider this a blasphemous distortion of the original intent of the icon. Not a few tourists today pay expensively for what they believe to be 16th or 17th century icons but which unfortunately turn out to be antiqued lithographs beautifully decoupaged.
The word icon comes from the Greek word "Eikon" which means image. A famous German camera Zeis Ikon uses this word as a trade name. St. Paul speaks of Christ as the Icon of God; that is what the phrase is in Greek. (Christ is the Icon/ of God, and the whole New Testament is written on the basis that if you want to know what the Eternal God is like, you look at Jesus and see.
In the West religious art was placed on the windows of a church or cathedral. In the East the windows were left quite plain and the walls were covered with religious art.
The purpose of icons is three-fold: 1. to create reverence in worship; 2. to instruct those who are unable to read; 3. to serve as an existential link between the worshipper and God.
The Hebrew had as his form of icon the written word. He objected vehemently to any kind of picture, never realizing that a combination of letters conveying an idea was just as much an icon as any other form of portrayal. In dealing with other people, i.e., Greeks, Egyptians, Latins, the Church was faced with the need of expressing to them the idea of Christ embodied. He had already been embodied in the written word and in song. Now He had to be embodied in picture in order to appeal to the pope of the senses: the eyes.
The Church calendar sets aside the first Sunday of Lent as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. It marks the day on which the use of icons was reinstated after a period of opposition. It commemorates the triumph of Orthodoxy against the iconoclasts whose purpose it was to remove forcibly all icons from churches and destroy them as instruments of idolatry.
Since the icon is one of the most distinctive features of Orthodoxy, we shall consider briefly what it signifies, why it is used, its practical value as well as its doctrinal significance.
First, let us consider the charge of idolatry. Orthodox Christians do not worship icons; they merely reverence or venerate them as symbols. Leontius of Neapolis wrote in the seventh century:
"We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and make obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross. . . . When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who on the cross was crucified, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them."
GOD: INVISIBLE OR VISIBLE?
The iconoclasts (those who sought to remove all images from churches) held that God cannot be painted because He is eternal and invisible. "No man has seen God at any time" (John 1:18). But the Orthodox insisted that God can be painted because He became man. In the Old Testament any image of God would be a "graven image," an idol, because no image of God could exist. Nobody had ever seen God. But this changed the moment God became man in Christ. Because of this it is now lawful to make a picture of Him. Those who were denying the icon of Christ were denying the truth that He had become man. In other words, they were denying the very basis of our salvation: God become man in Christ. Thus, what we really commemorate on the first Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church is not a controversy about religious art, but about the Incarnation of Christ and the salvation of man.
St. John of Damascus expressed this well when he said, "Of old, God was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen, clothed in flesh and conversing with man, I make an image of God, of the God whom I can see. I do not worship matter. I worship the God of matter who became matter for my sake ... to work out my salvation through matter".
It would be theologically accurate to say that God Himself was the first icon maker by visibly reproducing Himself in the likeness of His Son. The iconoclast controversy was not simply a controversy over religious art, but over the entire meaning and implication of the incarnation. God took a material body, thereby proving that matter can be redeemed. "The Word made flesh has deified the flesh," said John of Damascus. The materials employed in the icons are but another expression of Eastern Christianity's appreciation of the material world. This has much to say to us today in the area of ecology: that matter is sacred and should not be abused or contaminated.
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was negative to icons. For Luther they were permissible as illustrations. Calvin could accept nothing more than historical scenes with more than one person depicted, so that it would not make the faithful stumble into idolatry.
Puritans in England and America took a dim view of religious art. They despised and prohibited all religious paintings. In a way they were probably right. Most "religious art" is offensive because it makes is hard to believe that the only begotten Son of God became man. The picture of the Christ as a bearded lady, sometimes with a bleeding valentine heart showing through a transparent chest, if taken seriously, denies that he was made man. Such pictures give the idea that he became a phantom, neither male nor female.
Eric Newton writes,
"But from the moment when God sent his only begotten Son to dwell on earth, born of a mortal woman, to preach, to perform miracles, to suffer death at the hands of the Jews, and to be resurrected, the situation for the artist changed, for the new religion contained within itself the fact of the invisible made visible, the Deity made human, the supernatural made physically manifest. At last there was no reason to forbid imagery, for if God Himself became incarnate there could be no possibility of the artist's image of Him leading to idolatry." 2
WHAT IS AN ICON?
The tendency among some of the early Christians was not to use a realistic image of Jesus. Instead they used abstract signs – letters that would stand for Jesus, such as Chi-Rho, the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, or IHS, the first letters for the name Jesus in Greek. They also used figures as the fish, which was a secret sign for Christ, or a sheep, standing for the lamb of God.
The Trullan Synod, held in Constantinople in 692 A.D., stated that it was wrong for the church to depict Christ in signs and symbols any longer. The Synod specifically decreed that it would be wrong to portray Christ as a sheep (lamb of God). If He really became man, the Synod said, then He must be portrayed as a human being – not as an animal or as a symbol.
The church fathers felt that the divine nature of Christ should be brought out in the images as well as His human nature. They said, in the same directive, that images of Him should not be "too carnal". The Seventh Ecumenical Council stated that the Church, even though she may depict the Lord through art in His human form not separate in the representation Christ flesh from His divinity. Christ had to be represented in Orthodox art as God-Man. As such, it would be outright impious to represent Christ according to the natural beauty of some ordinary human model. This was not true in the West where "good-looking" and visionary young men became actual models for paintings of Christ. These humanly "beautiful" Christs of Western art were unacceptable to the Eastern Christians in view of the fact that they expressed the idea of only the human nature of our Lord. So, Orthodox art was faced with the special task of finding some iconographic type which would lead the spectator directly to the thought that in the represented person "the whole fullness of the divinity dwells bodily" (St. Paul). Moreover Theodore Studites said, "If we say that Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, by the same manner His representation must be said to be the power and the wisdom of God".
For this reason, Orthodox art created for Christ an idealized type unlike any purely human model, with supranatural characteristics such as large eyes, nose and hands. Thus the Orthodox iconographer attempts to express the supra-natural, supra-rational and supra-conceptual elements of our Lord through hyperbole, exaggeration, excess, and even deformation of natural reality.
Thus, while the West has traditionally emphasized the human nature of Christ through the use of statues and human models of Jesus, the East has placed more emphasis on the divine nature of Jesus through the icon that lends itself very effectively to. the expression of the divine, transfigured state of Jesus through the use of stylization.
THREE WAYS OF PORTRAYAL
There are three possible ways of "portraying" someone: the photograph, the portrait and the icon. The photograph records the features as they are. A successful portrait reproduces a person's features in a way that is true to life and recognizable; but at the same time it brings out his character and gives expression to his inner nature. An icon is not a photograph but more like a portrait. Yet it is more even than a portrait. It aims at giving a true likeness of the person, and at the same time it attempts to bring out in a person what he or she has become through the power of the Holy Spirit. An icon then is more than a photograph, more even than a portrait. Iconography portrays what happens to people after God touches them. They become new persons. By omitting everything irrelevant to the spiritual figure, the figure becomes stylized, spiritualized, not unrealistic but supra-realistic. The icon is thus set aside from all other forms of pictorial art. It offers an external expression of the transfigured state of man, of a body so filled with the Holy Spirit, so trained in good, that it has become like the spiritual body which we shall receive at the Second Coming of Christ.
There are some who, believe that abstractionism, the reduction of a figure to its pures^essence, originated with the iconographers.
Icons have been called prayers, hymns, sermons in form and color. They are the visual Gospel. In reality, the Eastern Church has two Gospels: the verbal and the visual to appeal to the whole man. As St. Basil said, "What the word transmits through the gar, that painting silently shows through the image, and by these two means, mutually accompanying one another ... we receive knowledge of one and the same thing." One has but to enter an Orthodox Church to see unfolded before him on the walls all the mysteries of the Christian religion. "If a pagan asks you to show him your faith." said John of Damascus, "take him into church and place him before the icons."
Through the icon the Orthodox Church appeals to the eye which, as we have said, is the pope of the senses. We remember much more easily what we see than what we hear. The Old Testament prophets, for example, often used the method of dramatic and symbolic action. Men might refuse to listen, but they could hardly fail to see. Jeremiah, for example, forewarned the people of the slavery that was to fall upon them by making yokes and wearing them on his neck. The current practice in Communist countries of hanging pictures of their leaders everywhere was borrowed by the Russian Marxists from the use of icons in the Russian Orthodox Church. The pictures are, in effect, icons of the new gods intended to stimulate a kind of worship and absolute obedience.
The icon is more even than a means of instruction. It is in effect a sacrament. For, an icon is not fully an icon until it has been blessed by the priest in church.
Then it becomes a link between the human and the divine. It provides an existential encounter between men and God. It becomes the place of an appearance of Christ, provided one stands before it with the right disposition of heart and mind. It becomes a place of prayer. An icon participates in the event it depicts and is almost a re-creation of that event existentially for the believer. As S. Bulgakov said, "By the blessing of the icon of Christ, a mystical meeting of the faithful and Christ is made possible". Many icons are regarded as ''wonder-working''. These are considered to be the icons par excellence.
Standing in an Orthodox Church whose walls and ceiling are covered with icons of Christ and the saints, the worshipper does not feel alone. He experiences the communion of saints. He experiences a fellowship with Christ and the saints. He is made to feel that he is a member of the family of God. Cecil Stewart describes this well when he writes, "The pictures seem to be arranged in a way which instills a feeling of direct relationship between the viewer and the pictures . . . each personality is represented facing one, so that one stands, as it were, within the congregation of saints. Byzantine art, in fact, puts one in the picture. ... He (the viewer) observes and is observed".
EGYPTIAN ART INFLUENCE
One of the forerunners of the icon is the Egyptian funeral portrait. It was the desire on the part of the deceased not to be forgotten that led the Egyptians to paint a picture of the deceased person's face on the mummy. The distinguishing feature of the Egyptian funeral portrait was the large eyes, wide-open and storing at the one who beholds them, as if to say, "Here I am. You may think I am gone and forgotten, but as I look at you with these eyes, I dare you to forget me".
The early Christian icons followed the same pattern. The saints whom they represented had huge eyes that looked straight into the eves of their beholders, as if to say, "Here I am. I may seem dead to you, but I am very much alive in the presence of God".
This is one of the principles that were incorporated into icon painting. The sensory organs (eyes, nose, ears) are not rendered according to true anatomy because each of them has been changed by divine Grace and has ceased to be the usual sensory organ of biological man. The eyes are painted large and animated to express physical intensity. Having been opened to God, they have seen great things. "Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation." The ears are painted large as a symbolic projection of the ears of the soul that have heard and still hear the good news of Christ. The nose also is often .larger than its natural length and thin, to denote that it is not meant to smell the things of this world but the fragrance of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The mouth, on the other hand, is shaped small to express that the represented saint "takes no thought of his life, what he shall eat and what he shall drink," but seeks first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
Western religious art has relied on the crown of light or halo to denote the "holiness" of the represented person. Usually this was so because the sacred person is so worldly in appearance that the halo is required to signify that a saint is being represented. In the icon, however, one does not depend on the halo alone to understand that the represented person is a saint. Holiness is indicated by the entire form and style of the icon. This is why the halo is missing from some of the older icons as well as in the wall-paintings of the catacombs where Christ and the martyrs are represented without bales.
PRACTICAL USE OF ICONS
A Japanese girl in an American college was invited to spend the Christmas holidays with a classmate. Afterwards she was asked how she enjoyed the holidays. "Very well," she replied, "but I missed God in. the home. I have seen you worship God in your church. In my country we have a god-shelf so we can worship our gods in our homes. Do not Americans worship their God in their homes?"
It has been traditional for Orthodox homes to have such a "God-shelf in the form of an icon with a votive light burning before it. This serves as a reminder of God's presence in the home and as a center for family prayer. In old Russia, for example, every house – from the great winter palace of the Czar to the thatched' hut of the peasant—had an icon of Christ or the Virgin Mother. At that time no Russian home was a home until it was consecrated by the icon.
Helene Iswolsky writes in her book "Christ in Russia,"
"In the old days ... a Russian entering his home or visiting a friend would first of all bow low before the icons and make the sign of the cross before greeting his family or host. The icons symbolized God's presence; they were a constant reminder of the supernatural life, and appealed to morality and conscience. It is difficult to lie, to cheat, to be brutal in front of an icon. The communists in Russia did all they could to tear away the icons from men's homes, to deprive them of the image of their God, and to stifle the conscience of the people".
In fact, if the Church in Russia has survived under Communism these past many years despite lack of any facilities for instructing children in the Christian faith either at school or at church, it is due (humanly speaking) to the Christian family. Throughout Orthodox Christendom the family has been regarded as a "house church" with its own "altar" where prayers are offered before the icons.
The icon was never intended to hang on a wall as an aesthetic object. If it is used as an attractive piece of decoration, it ceases to function as an icon. For an icon can only exist within the particular framework of belief and worship to which it belongs. Divorced from this framework, it loses its functions as an icon.
In a fragment of a "Life of St. John Chrysostom" preserved in a work by St. John of Damascus (675-749), we are told that Chrysostom had an icon of the Apostle Paul before himself as he studied Paul's epistles. When he looked up from the text, the icon seemed to come to life and speak to him.
Icons in the home consecrate the profane; they transform a neutral dwelling-place into a "domestic church" and the life of the faithful into an unceasing liturgy.
Jesus said, "When you pray, go into room" (Matthew 6:6). Archbishop Paul of Finland adds, "But even so we are not alone. The icon in the corner of the room where we pray is a window into the kingdom of God and a bond with its members."
One of the Patriarchs of the Russian Church said: "If in hospitals, which treat the diseases of the body, everything is arranged to make the surroundings conducive to the patient's return to health, what great care must be taken to order everything in a spiritual hospital, a church of God". We can apply this also to the Christian home which should include reminders of God's strengthening and healing presence.
It has been said that love is the great interpreter. It is the conductor of an orchestra who is in love with the music of a composer who can best interpret and express it. A young artist once brought a picture of Jesus which he had painted to a great painter for his verdict. The artist studied it for quite some time and finally said, "You don't love Him, or you would paint Him better".
This great truth is practiced among Orthodox icon painters who are usually monks. Such iconographers are not considered to be religious artists but rather as persons who have a religious vocation. They are missionaries preaching visual theology. The icon, like the Word, is a revelation, not a decoration or illustration. It is theology in color. More important than being a good artist is the fact that the icon painter be a sincere Christian who prepares himself for his work through fasting, prayer, Confession, Communion and has the feeling that he is but an instrument through whom the Holy Spirit expresses Himself. It is important to know Jesus better if one is to paint Him better. In the West, the theologian has instructed and even limited the artist, whereas in the East the iconographer is a charismatic who contemplates the liturgical mysteries and the theologian.
GOD'S BEST ICON
Since we are talking about icons we would be remiss if we neglected to say that by far the best icon of God is man who was made in God’s own image. This is the reason the Orthodox priest during the liturgy turns and censes the congregation after having censed the icons. Each person in the congregation is a living icon of God. Through censing we pay respect to the image of God in man which resides in all persons regardless of the color of skin or class. To pay respect to the icons in Church and to show disrespect to the living icons of God – our fellow humans – is hypocrisy of the worst sort. It is interesting to note here that in the Abyssinian Church Jesus and Mary are pictured as black people. All people – regardless of color – are living images or icons of God.
A Sunday school teacher once said to her first-grade class, "You know how you feel when you draw a picture. You want everybody to see it and admire it because you made it. That's how Jesus feels about you. You're the picture He draws."
A little boy asked, "Is everybody Jesus' picture?" "That's right," said the teacher. "Even Annie?" "Yes".
Suddenly a scrap of brown paper fluttered into the teacher's wastebasket. "I was going to put flypaper in Annie's milk", he said sadly, "only Jesus drew her so I better not.''
That little boy captured a great truth. The most precious icon of God is man and woman. As we treat each living icon, so we treat God.
ICONS EXPRESS OUR GOAL IN LIFE
Our goal in life according to Orthodox theology is THEOSIS. Simply put, this means that we are to become like God. This starts in baptism when the restored image is given to us. Our purpose is to proceed from the restored image of God to the likeness of God! The likeness of God is not given to us; we have to strive for it always by God's grace. The restored image is the gift we receive from God at baptism. But likeness to God is the task of personal holiness that we have to achieve as a fruit of our own spiritual life through God's grace. St. Seraphim of Sarov said: "The purpose of the Christian life is the acquiring of the Holy Spirit''. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to acquire the likeness of God. There can be no likeness of God within us without the Holy Spirit.
This is what the icon shows us. Through the icon we represent Him, Who through His incarnation restored God's image in man. Or we represent the saints who through their constant openness to the Holy Spirit have acquired the true likeness of God and have become living icons. Our purpose as Orthodox Christians therefore, is to develop the gift we receive in baptism: to proceed from image to likeness by God's grace and thus become living icons of Christ in the world today.
A STUDY OF INDIVIDUAL ICONS
ICON OF NATIVITY
One of the most famous icons is that of the Nativity. Its symbolism is that of the Creator of the Universe entering history as a newborn babe. The little helpless figure in swaddling clothes represents the complete submission of Christ to the physical conditions governing the human race. Yet he remains Lord of Creation. The angels sing praises. The Magi and the shepherds bring their gifts. The sky salutes Him with a star. The earth provides Him with a cave. The animals watch Him in silent wonder and we humans offer Him one of us, the Virgin Mother.
The lower scenes underline the scandal of the Incarnation. The right-hand scene shows the washing of the infant by the midwife and her assistant. It tells that Christ was born like any other child. The scene on the left portrays Joseph, who, having observed the washing of the infant, is once again assailed by doubts as to the virginity of his spouse. He is tempted by the devil, who suggests that if the infant were truly divine He would not have been born in the human way. The Mother Mary is in the center, and from her reclining position looks at Joseph as if trying to overcome his doubts and temptations.
ICON OF CRUCIFIXION (Daphni or Osios Loukas)
Crucifixion paintings of Western art present a tragic drama of a man undergoing the ultimate agony of suffering. They depict the opened mouth of the Crucified-One in its final death spasm. They encircle the head with an excessively large crown whose sharp thorns pierce the forehead, dripping clots of blood. With the picture of the horror of the human corpse, they seek the creation of "sympathy" in the spectator.
How different the icon of the crucifixion! As Photios Kontoglou writes, "Here there is nothing from the world of corruption. The forms and colors do not impart the frigid breath of death, but the sweet hope of immortality. Christ is depicted as standing on the Cross, not hanging on it. His body is of flesh, but flesh of another nature, flesh whose nature has been changed through the grace of the Holy Spirit. The expression on His face is full of heavenly tranquility; the affliction which has befallen Him is full of gentleness and forgiveness, exempt from agonized contractions on the face. It is the suffering redeemer, He Who has undone the pangs of death, Who has granted the peace of the life to come. This crucified body is not that of just anyone, but is the very body of the God-Man Himself. ... It radiates the hope of the Resurrection. The Lord does not hang on the Cross like some miserable tatter, but it is He, rather, who appears to be supporting the Cross. His hands are not cramped, being nailed to the Wood; rather He spreads them out serenely in the attitude of supplication. ... I repeat: the forms and colors of the liturgical icon do not express the brute horror of death, but have the nobility and gentleness of eternal life. It is illuminated by the light of hope in Christ. It is full of the grace of the Paraclete".
In some icons of the crucifixion the sun and the moon are placed in such a manner as to make it appear that the outstretched arms of the Savior are supporting them.
ICON OF CHRIST PANTOCRATOR
The typical Byzantine icon of Christ is that of the Pantocrator, the Lord Omnipotent. It is the image of the glorified Christ regnant on his heavenly throne.
We are not even sure that it is not an image of the eternal God rather than that of Christ. But, as the Son is the image of the Father, so through the face of the Son we see the Father as well. Thus, the Pantocrator is really the icon of both Father and Son: the Godhead in all His glory and majesty. It is in reality an icon of the almighty and transcendent God.
In the catacombs Christ was depicted as the Good Shepherd who tended His flock and won their allegiance. In an age where the Huns, the Vandals, and the Mohammedan infidels threatened the very fabric of the newly established Church, the Christians needed an emphasis on the Almighty God Who sat enthroned as Emperor, Monarch, Ruler, surrounded by His heavenly court of saints and angels and dominated His flock. It is somewhat of the emphasis we find in the hymn:
"This is my Father's world: Though the wrong seems oft' so strong, He is the ruler yet."
It may be noted that the term "Pantocrator" and the idea behind it appear in the book of Revelation. Thus in 1:8 it is said, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, saith the Lord Who is, and Who was, and Who is to come, the Pantocrator" (Almighty). The use of the multicolored band around Him is based on Rev. 4:3 where the iris or rainbow is said to surround the throne of God.
Normally, the icon of Christ Pantocrator is the most remote of all the conventional poses, Christ distant with the presence of the law. Yet in Serbia we find an icon of the Pantocrator with dancing eyes. His face is sharp, his mouth tiny with the effort of suppressing a grin, his fingers thin and dancing, too, where they hold the book. The book is closed; but He knows what is inside: the glee of goodness, the good news of God's love.
ICON OF THE THEOTOKOS
In Orthodox hymnology the Theotokos is reverently said to be "surrounded with divine grace, shining with holiness, beautiful among women, who amazed the archangel with the brilliance of purity." As such no human model could possibly be found for her. Thus, as for Christ, an idealized type was created for her to express the above-mentioned qualities. This is in contrast to many Western painters who used sensuously beautiful women as models for Mary.
As one studies an icon of the Theotokos, one sees how the expression of the soul is concentrated on the face. The interest of the onlooker is withdrawn from the body and focused on the face and especially the eyes. Here are expressed the virtues of meekness, humility, purity, spiritual love and wisdom.
The icon of the Virgin with Child is an image of the Incarnation. If one looks attentively at the icon, one will see that the Mother of God holding the child never looks at the child. She looks neither at the viewer nor into the distance but her open eyes look deep inside her. She is contemplating the mystery of the God who became man in her. Her tenderness is expressed by the shyness of her hands. She holds the Child without hugging him. She holds the Child as one would hold something sacred. All the tenderness, all the human love is expressed by the Child not the Mother. She remains the Mother of God and she treats the Child, not as the baby Jesus, but as the Incarnate Son of God. He in turn expresses to her all the love and tenderness of man and God to a person who is both His mother and His creature.
THE ICON OF THE DORMITION
Another famous icon is that of the Dormition or the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin. Here is represented the Virgin's body asleep in the Lord. Behind her stands Jesus holding in His arms, right up against His breast, a tiny infant which is the Blessed Virgin's soul – newly born to eternal life. In front of the Virgin's body, in some icons, there is a strange little pagan character who tries to upset our Lady's bier, and an angel comes to smite him. The point involved here is the argument, decided at the Council of Ephesus, about the Theotokos, and the attempt at that time to upset the Church's faith that she was indeed the mother of God (Theotokos) and not just the mother of the man Jesus (Christotokos). All this is shown by this one little, silly figure trying to upset the bier on which the Virgin's body rests.
I. The icon is theology in color. It acknowledges the Incarnation: God become man in Jesus. To deny the icon is to deny this very basis of our salvation.
2. The icon attempts to portray the two natures of Jesus: human and divine – not just the human. Icons of the saints portray also the transfigured state of the saint who has been sanctified by the Trinity.
3. An icon is more like a portrait than a photograph in that it portrays what happens to people after God touches them. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the physical body is transformed and becomes like the spiritual body which we shall receive at the Second Coming of Jesus.
4. The icon, blessed by the priest, becomes like a sacrament. It participates in the event it depicts and becomes, as it were, a making present again of that event existentially for the believer.
5. The icon is the distinguishing feature of every true Orthodox home. It transforms each home into a "church" where God abides and where prayers are offered daily.
6. Icon painters (iconographers) have traditionally been monks who prepared themselves for the painting of each icon through fasting, prayer and Holy Communion. It was believed that to paint Jesus better one must truly know Him better. Today, however, many iconographers are specially trained lay people.
7. The best icon of God is men and women who are made in God's own image. This is why the Orthodox priest during the liturgy turns and censes the living icons of God in the congregation (the worshippers) after having censed the icons on the icon screen and walls.
8. The whole Bible is about this image (icon) of God in man: how the image was marred by sin and how Jesus came to restore the image of God in each one of us. Through the icon we represent Him who through His incarnation restored God's image in us. Or, we represent the saints who through their constant openness to the Holy Spirit have acquired the true likeness of God and have become living icons. Our purpose as Orthodox Christians is to develop the gift we received in baptism: to proceed from image of God to likeness of God and thus become living icons of Christ in the world today.