25 February 2018

(You gotta) fight for your right (to prostrate)

Empress Theodōra venerating icons with her daughters

Today is the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (and, coincidentally, the Russian Men’s Olympic hockey team). Unfortunately this year, I’ve come down with the flu for the second time this season, so I kind of went through the procession in a bit of a haze. Last year I brought my icon of Father Alexis (Tovt) of Wilkes-Barre; this year my icon of New Hieromartyr Gorazd (Pavlík) of Prague. I am sensing something of a pattern here; I seem to have a preference for politically-active broadly-Czechoslovak saints.

But why the emphasis on iconography in the first place? Why did the Orthodox Christians from Emperor Leōn III’s time down to Saint Theodōra’s (the wife of Emperor Theophilos, not the wife of Emperor Ioustinianos) believe that the veneration of icons was a hill worth dying on? This was, after all, a question over which iconoclast Emperors were willing to inflict executions and other forms of ritual public degradation on iconodules, and over which iconodules were willing to riot. With apologies to the Beastie Boys (though I really prefer the Holy Moses cover), ‘you gotta fight for your right to prostrate’.

Icons are not merely optional. They’re not just decorations. They aren’t only ‘ritual trappings’, though there’s something to be said for valuing ritual trappings in their own right, as bulwarks of humanity and justice. They are personal reminders that Heaven is near to us – that the boundary between the temporal and the æternal is not nearly so hard-and-fast as we can be lulled into thinking. The icons show us the face of the ultimate Truth, who is also a person: Christ. If we lose these kinds of reminders that Christ was a person – a flesh-and-blood human being who could weep, become angry, bleed and die – then we run the risk of forgetting the personality of Christ. And if we forget the personality of Christ our God, the ‘religion’ we claim for ourselves becomes simply one more ‘values’ system among the rest – or else it thins into a kind of fluffy sentimentalism, if it doesn’t evaporate altogether. As Orthodox philosopher Davor Džalto puts it:
In Christ’s person, God became visible, as a concrete human being, so painting Christ is necessary as a proof that God truly, not seemingly, became man. The fact that one can depict Christ witnesses God’s incarnation.
This is an important point. The icon’s primary justification is not merely symbolic but Christological – and moreover, it’s one which witnesses solidly to the depth at which the Incarnation of Christ itself was ‘unto the Greeks foolishness’: the degree to which the Eastern, Persian-Arabic civilisational principles had penetrated into Greek society with the coming of Christianity. To the classical Greeks from Herodotos on, the practice of proskynēsis was considered a foreign, Persian thing – and kneeling down to any man was considered unworthy of a manly Greek. But what is a Greek to do before Christ, who is both ‘flesh and blood’ man and ‘awesome God’? (I’ll be honest – I don’t think it’s an accident that one of the most vehement defenders of the use of icons during the iconoclast controversies was an Arab Christian.) Blessedly, the Eastern civilisational principle – and with it the correct Christology which holds Christ to be fully God and fully man – carried the day with the iconodules. After much ado, proskynēsis and the use of icons in veneration became accepted practice in the Church.

Coming into the Church from Episcopalianism, the practice of bowing before icons, prostrating myself before them, kissing them – all made me feel quite silly and awkward at first. I never really got the knack of it, or had the right attitude toward it, until I returned to Saint Mary’s Antiochian Church in Pawtucket. My Syrian, Lebanese, Armenian and Ethiopian fellows in that church possessed a kind of intimacy with each other (and with me) which I had some trouble accepting at first. It was a bit of a shock to me and my Anglo sensibilities to be hugged on sight and kissed once on each cheek – at first. But there’s really nothing quite like the warmth of an Arab greeting in Church! I soon came to realise it was a gesture of the hospitality and love that Christ had meant for us to exhibit to each other, and I got quite good at reciprocating it. Kissing the icons is a natural answer to that same kind of hospitality and love which Christ and His Mother extend to us – not just once every week, but every living, breathing moment of our lives.

Earnestly loving each other in such a way, though – that’s a right well worth fighting for.

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