Christmas Letter

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (4c)

Depending on how big the iconostasis is, there may be rows of different kinds of saints, but again, the placement is not arbitrary but follows some plan. Very often the icon of Christ Almighty is found in the dome of the church. An icon of the Mother of God with Christ is in the Altar area. Directly behind the Altar table itself there is often an icon of Christ in glory, or Christ with the chalice giving Holy Communion.

Something must be said about the iconostasis. Sometimes it’s said that the iconostasis divides the church between the “holy area” for the clergy and the worldly area for the laity. This is a grave error. The whole church is holy  and all the people present are also holy, despite individual weakness.

The iconostasis is rather a window into heaven. We see Christ, His mother and his saints, as they are in heaven. Generally speaking, all the icons are visions of heaven. We have to understand something about icons. They are not photographs, so to speak, or portraits of the person depicted. Rather, they are painted in a symbolic way, to show humanity as it looks when glorified by God. Icons show us the holiness that is often invisible to the naked eye.

There is a great difference between Western religious art and icons. If one looks at a painting of a religious person and scene done in the Renaissance, we see how realistic the picture is. We can see every detail of the person’s face, clothing and so on. Renaissance religious art are almost contemporary scenes of Renaissance Italy. Some artists used their girlfriend or even prostitutes for portraits of the Mother of God. This is unthinkable for Orthodox. It is true that in recent centuries Orthodox icons have sometimes adapted the realism of the West, but this is a kind of decadence. True Orthodox iconography has its own renaissance or beginning in the latter half of the 19th century and continues until today. Orthodox iconography has spread beyond Orthodox Churches; many Protestants can see how icons express the truth of the faith in a unique way.

Just to finish with one example of the difference between Western religious art and Orthodox icons, no doubt we have seen paintings or sculptures of Christ on the cross, often the works of art have our Lord as a victim of suffering. There can be blood everywhere, chunks of skin cut out etc. So the emphasis is on the suffering Christ.

Of course, Christ did suffer horribly on the cross and Orthodox icons of Christ on the cross also portray His suffering. But the emphasis is not on gory detail. Sometimes Christ even appears to be at peace. That is because Christ on the cross is not simply a passive victim but actually does battle with and conquers death and the devil. In other words, even on the cross Christ is victorious and this is depicted in Orthodox icons.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (4b)

The important thing to realize is that in the Old Testament it made sense to forbid the making of images of God. After all, God was invisible so any image of God would be an idol, a product of human fantasy. And we know the Jewish people were tempted to worship to idols. But this changed radically in the New Testament because God (in the person of Jesus) became visible.

The council said that icons are not simply religious art, which can be used or not used as a matter of taste, but rather that they make the point that “…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (Jn 1:14) and that Jesus Christ is Himself an icon

“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation…” (Col 1:15)

However, in New Testament times, strictly speaking, making icons of God the Father was forbidden because the Father remains invisible. It is true that we do see icons with the Father as an old man in a white beard sitting on a throne. These icons are fairly common, but many theologians think that such icons are not in the best tradition of the Church.

The placing of icons in the church is not simply a matter of whim. The icons on either side of the Royal Doors are the Mother of God with the baby Jesus on the left side and Christ in glory on the right. This shows us that the history of the church takes place between Christ’s two comings, as a baby and at the end of days in glory. In other words, Christ’s first coming was as a small, vulnerable infant, completely dependent on his parents. Even the circumstance of his birth was quite humble. As St. Luke’s Gospel says

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. his was the first enrollment, when Quirin’i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Lk 2:1-7)

On the other hand, Christ’s second coming in glory is referred to in many places in the New Testament

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.” (I Thes 4:16-17)

“For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.” (Mt 16:27)

“For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.: (Mt 24:27)

The icons on the Royal Doors depict the four Evangelists, the writers of the Gospels.  We have to remember the actual meaning of the word “evangelist”. The Greek word for Gospel is “evangelion”. It literally means “good news” which is what our English word “Gospel” also means. The Greek word for the feast of the Annunciation is “Evangelismos”. The feast celebrates the coming of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she would be the Mother of the Savior. Good news, indeed. So, an evangelist is one who writes down the Good News (the Gospel).

Over the Royal Doors is often the image of the Last Supper. This is because the Last Supper is the foreshadowing of the Divine Liturgy. On the doors on the right and left the Royal Doors of the iconostasis are angels. These doors are the ones where the deacons enter and exit the sanctuary and are often referred to as the “deacon’s doors” because the deacon and altar servers go through these doors, the Royal Doors being reserved for bishops and priests.  Deacons are often considered messengers because they proclaim the Gospel at the Divine Liturgy. To the right of the deacon’s door is traditionally the icon of the patron saint of the church. For example, a church named after St. Seraphim of Sarov will have that icon painted on the right side of the iconostas.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (4a)

One of the first things that visitors, especially non-Orthodox, notice in Orthodox Churches is the abundance of icons. Icons are everywhere. They hang on the walls and lie on stands. There may be frescos or mosaics. Believers light candles, kiss them and pray before them. They are an integral part of Orthodox life.

But some Christians, some Protestants, are very much against the veneration of icons. They accuse Orthodox of worshipping idols. We have to understand the difference between worship and veneration. We worship only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we can venerate, that is show respect, honor and love to other people and things. For example, no doubt  we have photographs of our loved ones. In our homes, they are placed in places of honor. What is more natural than to keep a photograph of our mother and kiss it, if she has passed away. This is veneration. Or when the national flag is raised, we remove our hats and place our hands on our hearts. This is another form of veneration. We should also remember how many schools and public buildings have portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They too are hung in places of honor and honor is shown to them. All of these are forms of veneration, and are in a sense, secular icons. Considering that, what is more natural than have and to venerate icons of Jesus Christ, His mother and the saints.

We also have to remember that we are not venerating the paint and wood of the icon. Rather, the veneration given to the icon passes right  through, so to speak, to the person depicted in the icon. To look at in another way, a father of the church said that if he see a cross made out of two simple pieces of wood he venerates this as the cross of Christ. However, if later to the cross is broken into parts, for him they are now simple pieces of wood.

Those who oppose icons base their opposition on the Ten Commandments which say

“ And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me…” (Ex 20:1-5)

What is surprising is that opposition to icons even arose in the Orthodox Church. In the 8th century AD the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) emperors began a campaign against icons. They ordered icons to be taken out of public places, church and even private homes. Many Orthodox believers, clergy, monastics and lay people, suffered in defense of icons. No one is sure why the emperor began this movement of “iconoclasm” (literally meaning the smashing of icons). After all, icons had been used in the Orthodox Church for many centuries. There is even a tradition which says that St. Luke painted the first icon of the Mother of God. Some suggest that the Emperor began this campaign against icons under the influence of Islam, which is very much against icons. This campaign disturbed the church and a council was called in 787 AD to proclaim the importance, the necessity of icons.

Even in the Old Testament itself, God orders the making of images for the Ark of the Covenant. This is the holy box that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the manna and Aron’s staff that budded. This was the holiest thing in Judaism, the locus of God’s presence. God told the Jews to put Cherubim (angels) on the Ark

“…And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you.” (Ex 25:18-21)

So we can see that even in Old Testament times God ordered images to be made.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (3)

If we look at the altar table in the sanctuary from the nave with the Royal Doors open, what do we see? There are candles, of course. We will see the tabernacle, shaped like a small church, in which the reserved sacrament, meaning the consecrated body of Christ, is kept for the communion of the sick and infirm. One can also see the chalice, the cup from which Holy Communion is given. If we look carefully one can also see the discos, a round, metal plate on a stand, on which the consecrated Body of Christ is kept before it’s put into the Chalice for Communion. And, of course, there is the spoon with which Holy Communion is given.

None of this surprises us. But there is one thing on the altar table whch we cannot see from the nave which is necessary to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. This s the antimension, or antimins. This is a cloth with a picture of Christ lying in the tomb. On it is also the bishop’s signature. This is to show that each individual parish is not an isolated entity but is in communion with and under the authority of the bishop. Antimension literally means “instead of the table”. In other words, instead of celebrating the Liturgy on the altar table of the bishop we are celebrating on the table of the parish.

What is important to realize is that there is a relic of a saint, often a martyr sewn into the antimension. At our Church of Our Lady of Kazan, there is a relic of Hieromartyr Hilarion Troitskii, a bishop killed by the Communists during the Russian Revolution. There is also a relic in the altar table itself.

The presence of these relics takes us back to the very early days of the Church, bbefore Christians had actual church buildings. The Divine Liturgy was celebrated on the toms of the martyrs. This shows that the Church is built on the blood of the martyrs. An early church writer wrote “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

For Orthodox and Catholics and some Anglicans, the veneration of relics [not worship since worship is given to God alone] is an important part of church life. A relic can be the entire body of a saint or a part of the body. It can also be something the saint wore or used.

The veneration of relics goes back to the earliest days of the Church as noted above. But some Christians, mostly protestant, say this is idolatry, something forbidden by the Bible.

But there is a fundamental mistake here. Human beings are not simply spirits stuck in the body which goes to live in heaven with God after death. This is a pagan view. Rather we are union of body and soul, and Christ came to raise the entire human person, body and soul, into heaven. The veneration of the relics of the saints reminds us that our bodies, too, will be raised by Christ at the end of time when He comes again.

Fr. John

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