Sunday, November 20, 2011

Icon Makers

I’ll admit it: I like icons. No, I’m not talking about the little pictures on my computer screen. It’s the stylistic paintings of the Orthodox Christian tradition that grab my attention--like those at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, NY.

I find Orthodox icons often to be exquisite works of art. Even the simplest are captivating in their bold artistic expression. There is a beauty in design and artistry in the choice and blend of color. Now this may be a matter of personal taste, but to many, these representations of holy people of the past are art of the highest order. Icons are often referred to as “the Bible in art” or “theology in color.”

Icons, however, are much more than beautiful illustration. In the Orthodox tradition they are often described as “windows into heaven” as they depict the heroes and heroines of Christian history, first and foremost of whom is Jesus Christ. Iconography is, in fact, founded on the theological understanding of the Incarnation: God has come among us as a real human being, one to be seen, heard and touched.

Icons are not worshipped, of course, but they do prompt us to remember those of the past who have been God’s representatives “in the flesh”. They are our spiritual ancestors, and in a sense, icons become a family album of remembrance.

For many of us in the Reformed Tradition, this is foreign territory. Yet, at the same time, in a very real sense, we become icon makers—especially when it comes to planning and preparing for Lord’s Day worship. What we do in creating the worship experience will provide real-life human expressions of God’s love that came to us once in the real person of Jesus Christ, and is with us yet.

For example:

Putting the sermon together, at least for clergy, is one of the first (and last) things we worry about. Early on in my ministry I remember someone saying that my responsibility in preaching is “to introduce Jesus and then get out of the way.” Now the sermon may be a work of art in itself, eloquent, even elegant—but that’s not the reason sermons are preached. The preacher may be gifted and attractive, but it’s not the preacher’s show. The preacher is to fashion an “icon” to show Jesus Christ to be real and present. The sermon is crafted with words, but it is the Word that is spoken and heard.

In the same way, choral music for worship can be “a window into heaven”. The choir prepares pieces, not for a concert for the people in the pews, but as praise to God with the people in the pews. Music from different periods of history reminds us of our spiritual heritage. Choral and instrumental music will open the windows of our hearts so we can get more than just a glimpse of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ.

The prayers of worship are also “icons” to be fashioned with humble and artistic care. Ultimately all prayers are the “prayers of the people” and should be written with those specific people in mind. That is why we use “contemporary language” in liturgy—it’s their work, and should be in language they recognize. More than that, however, prayers in worship point like arrows to the One to whom they are spoken, the Christ in whose name they are offered, the Spirit who empowers each prayer to issue in acts of faith.

The space in which we worship is itself an “icon”. How we prepared that room is important, therefore, so as to create an appropriate atmosphere, appealing to the senses. What we see, hear, touch, smell on entering the service is critical if a “window into heaven” is to be opened. What we taste at the table is a further sensible consideration. Banners, flowers, furniture arrangement, colors of pulpit, lectern and table cloths, music being played, and so forth, set the mood and lead us into the Divine presence.

Sermons, anthems, prayers and the room we’re in, are all “icons”. Their value is not in themselves. It’s not the “great sermon” or the “beautiful song the choir sings” or the “poetic prayer” or even the “lovely church sanctuary”—what really counts is how well they lead us to the Risen Christ.

So how do we accomplish this? It isn’t easy. We can, however, learn from our Orthodox sister and brother icon makers. For them, painting an icon is in and of itself a spiritual discipline. A lot of prayer and meditation goes into the design and craft of such a spiritual work. A lot.

Similarly, prayer is the foundation of preaching. The key to church music is that it is rehearsed in prayer. Even the prayers for Sunday morning rise out of the meditation and prayers of the pastor and worship leaders. Those who clean the space and set the flowers and decorations for worship perform their tasks prayerfully.

In a way, most everything we do to arrange, set up, and prepare for worship is making icons, creating works of art that will open people’s hearts and minds to the presence of God.

Do you find prayer a necessary component in preparation for worship in your church?

1 comment:

  1. There is another extension of this: we are modeling and teaching our people to be "icon makers," iconic thinkers, those who see beyond the immediate to the larger picture. We must teach our people that that same incarnational Christian theology of God taking on fleshly form, reveals God to us. It urges us to see God daily, moment by moment. It means that we should constantly, consciously, endeavor to “see through” to the mystery of God, of the Spirit presence, of the Son’s nearness in everything in the service and then to extend that out into life, that we might live sacramentally, seeing God by faith behind and beneath everything visible.


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