A Brief History of Icons

“Compared to metal and mosaic icons, the painted wooden icon is perhaps the longest lived subcategory of the Byzantine artistic medium of portable devotional icons. The earliest collection of wooden painted icons is found at St. Catherine Monastery in Sinai: some twenty-seven pieces dated to the sixth through seventh centuries. They are all painted in encaustic (pigment and wax) and tempera (pigment and egg yolk).

In terms of style, the portable icons follow the Late Antique commemorative portraits and imperial lavrata. Thematically, they employ scenes and figures from the Old and New Testaments. These icons were introduced into church as votive donations and remained in use for extra liturgical or individual devotional purposes.

During the tenth and eleventh centuries, when art was well linked to a more standardized liturgy, the portable icons begin to reflect the new trend by depicting various subjects of liturgical feasts. The liturgical appropriation of the portable icons may be detected in their moving from being stored in the aisles unto the emerging templon (the screen separating the altar from the nave) and the proskynetarion (the icon stand in front of the templon). The eleventh through twelfth century portable icons are characterized by a high degree of creativity within the liturgical framework. The climactic point for the proliferation of portable icons occurred in the fourteenth century during the Palaeologan period. This is the time when the templon becomes the high iconostasis found in most Eastern Orthodox Churches today.

(Eugen J. Pentiuc, The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, pp. 282-283)

Teachings from the Didache

One of the earliest Christian writings which despite its ancient origins did not get included in the Christian Scripture is the writing  known as The Didache.  It was written probably in the late 1st Century, shortly after the other New Testament books were written.  In it we see some of the focus of early Christians and their thinking on how to live the Christian life in world which was often hostile to the Christians.  Here is a brief excerpt from The Didache:

   There are two ways; the one is that of life and the other is that of death. There is a great difference between the two ways. The Way of Life is this: first, you shall love the God Who made you; second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Everything that you do not wish to be done to you, do not do to another!

Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies. Fast for those who persecute you, for what grace would you receive if you love only those who love you back? Even the heathen do that. Love those who hate you, and you will have no enemies. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also, and you will be perfect.

You shall not be rapacious and always want to have more, or be deceitful, or malicious, or imagine yourself to be great. You shall not plot evil schemes against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man. You shall admonish people, you shall pray for people, and you shall love man more than your own life.

Do not grumble, for this leads to blasphemy; do not be self-willed or evil-minded, for all these things breed blasphemy. Be gentle-minded, for those of a gentle mind shall possess the earth. Be patient and have a loving heart. Be guileless, quiet and good, trembling in all things at the words you have heard. You shall not exalt yourself or allow your heart to be bold or presumptuous. Your heart shall not cling to the high and mighty on earth but to the good and humble folk. (George Grube, What the Church Fathers Say About…, pp. 137, 138, 139)

Insights from Science

I’m not a scientist and I don’t read science journals, but do enjoy reading the more “popular science” reported in DISCOVER magazine.  In the November 2017 issue there were two articles that had quotes that caught my attention.  These are a bit random, but here goes:

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(Photo by Seth Bobosh)

 Max Tegmark in an article, “Our Next Billion Years: Humanity only just arrived on Earth.  But its future is in the Cosmos” writes:

“Thirteen point eight billion years after its birth, our universe has awoken and become aware of itself. . . .  Although these self-aware stargazers disagree on many things, they tend to agree that these galaxies are beautiful and awe-inspiring.  But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not in the laws of physics.  So before our universe awoke, there was no beauty.  This makes our cosmic awakening all the more wonderful and worthy of celebrating: It transformed our universe from a mindless zombie with no self-awareness into a living ecosystem harboring self-reflection, beauty and hope – and the pursuit of goals, meaning and purpose.  Had our universe never awoken, then it would have been completely pointless – merely a gigantic waste of space.  Should our universe permanently go back to sleep due to some cosmic calamity or self-inflicted mishap, it will become meaningless.”

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The appearance of conscious beings on earth – namely us humans – has impacted the entire universe.  This is not merely the claim of believers, but is now acknowledge in the scientific world as well.  Humans by being not only observers of the universe but conscious and intentional participants in it have altered the universe.  Humans give meaning to the cosmos as well as derive knowledge from it.  We are not merely along for the ride with no ability to affect our destiny.  Humans do not merely observe, but even have taken our own development (our genetics, our evolution) into our hands.  (see also my blog The Antropocene: Are Humans Really in Charge?)  We can and do impact not just human development, but we now affect the entire world and our influence is expanding into space.  The arrival of humans, self-conscious beings, in the universe is awesome, and that awe has led humans to acknowledge their own coming into an already existing cosmos.  We stand in awe before the cosmic reality, but we give it meaning and purpose.  In awe we celebrate creation by worshiping the Creator.  Our self-awareness serves a purpose, allowing us to come to know not just the empirical universe, but the God in whom the universe itself exists.

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Not only are humans self-aware, but they are also very creative and have managed to take items which occurred in nature and reshape them into useful tools, which further advanced human development.  This is the segue into the second article.

2.  Bridget Alex writes in “Stone Cold Science”:

“Because stone tools are a forgotten technology, the purpose behind different styles is not self-evident.  Scholars in the 19th century devised names, like scraper, point and burin, based on shape and assumed function.  But they had no evidence that scrapers scraped or points impaled.  Unsure how stone tools were used, archeologists fared better at determining how they were made.”

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Something I’ve not thought much about in terms of archaeology.  Stone items are discovered which are thousands or tens of thousands of years old.  We look at those items from a 21st Century perspective and try to determine what purpose the item served.  But we are anachronistically reading into the item what its use must have been based on modern tools, methods and assumptions.  We really don’t know what the original intent of the tool was.  Tools might have been invented for one purpose but then through time it is discovered the tool is very good for a purpose totally different than its original intention.  The original purpose is lost in history and all that remains is what purpose the tool served later in history.  We may never know what a stone knife was originally conceived as.  All we can know is how the knife became used at some point in history – a use which was passed down from that point on to our generation.  Thus when looking at archaeological finds, we have to be careful not to overly read our understanding into an early time period. What we might use a tool for today may never have been conceived by the first inventors of the tools.

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Egyptian Deity: Genius

St Abercius, Equal to the Apostles

“In the time of the Emperor Antoninus (138-161), St Abercius was bishop in the city of Hierapolis in Phrygia. The great majority of the town’s inhabitants were pagans, and St Abercius governed his little flock with a heart greatly saddened by the great number of pagans and idolaters, and with fervent prayer to God that He would bring them to the true Light. At the time of a rowdy idolatrous festival, Abercius became inflamed with godly zeal and went into the temple, smashing all the idols. When the furious pagans tried to kill him, three young madmen fell down before the man of God, foaming at the mouth and bellowing. The man of God drove the demons out of them, and they were healed and became calm. Seeing this, the fury of the pagans turned to marveling at Christ’s wonderworker, and five hundred of them were immediately baptized. Little by little, everyone in the city of Hierapolis came to believe in Christ and was baptized. The proconsul of the region, Publius, had a blind mother whose sight Abercius restored by prayer, and both Publius and his mother came to faith in Christ, along with many other people. In old age, Abercius was summoned to Rome, where he healed the Emperor’s mad daughter. The Lord Christ appeared to His faithful follower several times. People from far and near came to him for help in chronic sickness, and the demons not only feared him but were obedient to his commands. At the order of the Lord Himself, he preached the Gospel throughout Syria and Mesopotamia, and went to his beloved Lord in great old age, in the city of Hierapolis at the end of the second century.”  (The Prologue from Ochrid, p. 96)

The Origins of the Apostle’s Fast

Fr. Paul N. Harrilchak notes in his book, The Divine Liturgy of the Great Church (p 211), that the origins of the Apostle’s Fast are rooted in the ancient Christian practice that there was no fasting or penitential kneeling in the Church for the 50 days from Pascha to Pentecost, which for many centuries was treated as one continuous and great Feast in the Church which lasted 7 weeks plus one day.   In the 4th Century according to documents, following this totally fast-free fifty day festal period, plus an additional week of feasting after Pentecost, a one week fast was observed.  That one week fast which began 8 days after Pentecost morphed, under monastic influence in recent centuries, into the Apostle’s Fast which now stretches from the Monday after All Saints Day until the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul on June 29.  Because Pascha and Pentecost are movable feasts, the length of the Apostle’s fast changes each year.

After having celebrated Pentecost, keep a feast for one week, and after that keep a fast for one week [origin of the so-called Apostles’ Fast–Ed.]: for it is right to rejoice over the Gift of God [meaning the Descent of the Holy Spirit–Ed.], and then to keep a fast after the time of relaxation [of Wednesday/Friday fasting during the 50-day Paschal/Pentecost season]. (Apostolic Constitutions, Syria (ca. 380 A.D.).  

The Ecumenical Council in the Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church often claims to be “the Church of the Councils“.  In that claim, Orthodoxy says the Seven Ecumenical Councils are foundational to the very life of the Church.   In the Liturgical life of the Church, these Ecumenical Councils are commemorated on various dates throughout the Church calendar year.  Notably, the 7th Ecumenical Council is commemorated on the 1st Sunday of Great Lent, and the 1st Ecumenical Council is commemorated each year on the 7th Sunday after Pascha a kind of inclusion bookending everything from the beginning of Great Lent to the conclusion of the Paschal season.

There is another factor that occurs as a result of this: the Church in many ways so identifies itself with the Byzantine Empire as to make the Empire and the Church coterminous.   Whatever the Byzantine Emperor and State ruled became law in the Church and vice versa.  The Ecumenical Councils, called as they were by the Emperors, are as much state affairs as they are church affairs.  The Byzantines saw this as a symphony between Church and State.  Fr. Eugen J. Pentiuc notes:

A climax came in 545 during the prolonged conflict over the validity of the Council of Chalcedon (451). In that year Justinian declared that the dogmata of the first four councils carried an authority equal to that of the holy Scriptures. 

Novella 131 issued by emperor Justinian in the year 545 C.E. reads:

‘Therefore We order that the sacred, ecclesiastical rules which were adopted and confirmed by the four Holy Councils, that is to say, that of the three hundred and eighteen bishops held at Nicea, that of the one hundred and fifty bishops held at Constantinople, the first one of Ephesus, where Nestorius was condemned, and the one at Chalcedon, where Eutyches and Nestorius were anathematized, shall be considered as laws. We accept the dogmas of these four Councils as sacred writings, and observe their rules as legally effective.'” (The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, pp. 151-152)

There is a plus and minus in this symphony.  On the one hand, there was cooperation unifying Byzantine society civilly and spiritually.  Justinian is recognized in the Church as both Emperor and saint.  On the other hand, it appears that there is also a belief that the Holy Spirit acted equally in the state as in the Church as there is little difference seen between the two.  The Canons which reflect the work of the Holy Spirit in the ongoing life of the Church in the world, became civil law.  The ability of the Church to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit became enmeshed with the life of the Empire.  This is an enmeshment from which the Church has never fully disentangled itself – and doesn’t seem to have the desire to do so.  The Byzantine Empire came to an end as God ordained, and the Church survived, and yet the laws, assumptions and worldview of the Empire remain embedded in and/or imposed on the Church.  History moved on, leaving the Byzantium behind.  The Church needs to continue to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit and recognize the temporal nature of canon law – “law” which emerged because of particular historical needs but which became fixed, eternal and even ossified, even when history kept changing the conditions in which the Church finds itself.  Canon Law was not intended to freeze the Church in a historical period or to identify the universal Church with a particular worldly empire.  Canon Law emerged as the Church’s living response to contemporary issues and circumstances.  It is considered to be part of how the Church adapts to and responds to the times.  In a sense it is the “open” canon of the Church, subject to the Church’s own discerning and formulating the proper response to new and unfolding changes in history and the world.  Without that ability to formulate a current response to a contemporary issue, the Church becomes petrified, ossified and moribund – frozen in time despite the ongoing and changing nature of history and the world.

Commemorating the Ecumenical Councils is an essential good in the life of the Church – it makes us recognize that the Church throughout its history faced the challenges of its time and place.  Today, we commemorate the Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council who not only showed us the right response to the crises of their day but also how a living Church responds to issues internal and external to the Church in each and every age.   The Church in the past met those challenges by forming new “law” and methods to deal with the changing reality of history.  We need that same Spirit today.

The Three Hierarchs

On January 30, we commemorate in the Orthodox Church The Synaxis of the Ecumenical Teachers and Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.

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One of the Matins hymns for the Feast appealed to me because of my interest in our friendly pollinators, the blessed bees.

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LIKE BEES HOVERING OVER THE MEADOW OF THE SCRIPTURES,

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YOU EMBRACED THE WONDERFUL POLLEN OF THEIR FLOWERS.

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TOGETHER YOU HAVE PRODUCED FOR ALL THE FAITHFUL

THE HONEY OF YOUR TEACHINGS FOR THEIR COMPLETE DELIGHT.

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THEREFORE AS WE EACH ENJOY THIS, WE CRY OUT WITH GLADNESS:

BLESSED ONES, EVEN AFTER DEATH,

BE ADVOCATES FOR US WHO PRAISE YOU!

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A Brief History of the Feast of the Nativity

“The Feast of Christmas on 25th December developed in the West at the beginning of the fourth century. The Christian celebration of the birth of the Sun of Righteousness (cf. Malachi 4:2) soon spread from Rome and was well established in the Eastern empire by the late fourth century, although it was not until the sixth century that the Feast was fully accepted in Palestine. This celebration of the Nativity of the Lord owes much to the fact that major theological questions about the divinity of Christ had been resolved at the Council of Nicea in 325, and the liturgical texts strongly emphasize Christ’s divinity.

In the historical event of Christ’s birthday, the Lord’s humanity is quite obvious, but the Feast is not only about a human birth; it is about the human birth of the second Person of the Holy Trinity and the implications of the Incarnation for the salvation of the world. There is constant interplay in the texts between the visible details of the event and the invisible reality of what is taking place as God the Son, the eternal Word, takes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and is born at Bethlehem.” (John Baggley, Festal Icons of the Christian Year, p 31)

The Present Age

In every period of history since the time of our Lord Jesus Christ, some Christians have found themselves living in perilous times.  St Paul in his epistles describes the endless threats and actual suffering he endured.  Christians suffered persecution from the Roman Empire, from Persians, from Arab Muslims, Turkish Muslims, from Tartars, from communists and at times from other Christians.   Scripture scholar Richard B. Hays says St Paul actually pictured all times on this earth, as long as we await the parousia (the end of history and this world), as being a perilous time for believers.  Despite the appearance of the incarnate God in Jesus the Messiah, we still live in a world which is a spiritual battlefield, in which Satan and evil have not yet been fully defeated.  For St Paul the struggles of Israel in the Scriptures foreshadows the trials Christians face in the world.

Paul regards the present as a time out of joint, an age riddled with anomolies: despite the revelation of the righteousness of God, human beings live in a state of rebellion and sin, and Israel stands skeptical of its appointed Messiah. Under such circumstances, God’s justice is mysteriously hidden and the people of God are exposed to ridicule and suffering, as Israel learned during the period of exile. Paul’s pastoral task thus entails not only formulating theological answers to doubts about God’s righteousness but also interpreting the suffering that the faithful community encounters during this anomalous interlude.  […]  The point is not that ‘righteous people have always suffered like this;, rather, Paul’s point in Rom. 8:35-36 is that Scripture prophesies suffering as the lot of those (i.e. himself and his readers) who live in the eschatological interval between Christ’s resurrection and the ultimate redemption of the world. Thus, in this instance as in many others that we will examine subsequently, Paul discerns in Scripture a foreshadowing of the church.”(Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of St. Paul, pp 57-58)

If we follow the teachings of St Paul, we are given a framework in which to understand the current age.  The present is not more perilous than the past for Christians, it just is our time to face the perils which have always been a threat to Christians.  As Christians living in this world we must always remember that times of prosperity are as dangerous to our spiritual lives as our times of peril.   The world is not made less under Satan’s power by prosperity!

American elections do not usher in the Kingdom of God nor do they thwart God’s Kingdom.   Even in America, we live in this world, a world still under Satan’s influence, a fallen world – no matter who is president, this is our reality.  We live in the same world that all Christians have since the time of Christ: a world created as good by a loving Creator, one which has fallen under the power of sin, death and Satan, and yet which is redeemed by Christ the Savior.  This is why we have hope and joy no matter what is happening in worldly politics.

 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  (Luke 12:32-34)

We Are Christian. So, Who Are We?

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“I begin with praxis. Where did resurrection show up in what the early Christians habitually did? Briefly and broadly, they behaved as if there were in some important senses already living in God’s new creation. They lived as if the covenant had been renewed, as if the kingdom were in a sense already present, though, to be sure, future as well; often their present-kingdom behavior (for instance, readiness to forgive persecutors rather than call down curses on them) comes to the fore precisely in contexts where it is all too obvious that the kingdom has not yet been fully realized. The other elements of early Christian praxis, not least baptism, eucharist and martyrdom, point in the same direction. If challenged about their lifestyle, or their existence as a community, the early Christian responded by telling stories of Jesus, particularly of his triumph over death.  […]

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The worldview questions, when posed to the early Christians, elicit a set of resurrection-shaped answers. Who are we? Resurrection people: a people, that is, formed within the new world which began at Easter and which has embraced us, in the power of the Spirit, in baptism and faith. Where are we? In God’s good creation, which is to be restored; in bodies that will be redeemed, though at present they are prone to suffering and decay and will one day die. What’s wrong? The work is incomplete: the project which began at Easter (the defeat of sin and death) has not yet been finished. What’s the solution? The full and final redemption of the creation, and ourselves with it; this will be accomplished through a fresh act of creative grace when Jesus reappears, and this in turn is anticipated in the present by the work of the Spirit. What time is it? In the overlap of the ages: the ‘age to come’, longed for by Israel, has already begun, but the ‘present age’ still continues.” (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp 578-579 & 581)

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