Friday, November 28, 2008

Lessons from History

I am not a historian by training, so please forgive me for any errors in what I say, and feel free to correct me.

It was the day after the fourth Thursday in the month of November 1AD (or was it 0AD? Also you might want to make that 12 days before the fourth Thursday of the month of November 1AD if you are on the Old Calendar). A group of magi(not the ones from the Gospel, mind you), having eaten too much turkey the night before, embarked on a great quest. You see, they had been doing a little astronomical (not astrological because as Virgos, they were skeptical of the whole astrology thing), and they noticed that God would be born of a virgin in the city of Bethlehem in just a few weeks. This left them with precious little shopping days until Christmas. Now if they had taken their heads out of their science books, they might have noticed all the Christmas Trees, wreaths, and garlands hanging all around the local bazaar, or heard the incessant beat of the little drummer boy and the relentlessly upbeat sounds of Frosty the Snowman and gotten shopping weeks earlier.

But as it turns out, they were lucky not to have started shopping earlier, because this Friday morning in November just after the turn of the century, there were deals to be had in abundance. So they made up a little shopping list for the celebration of the birth of God incarnate. Obviously, they would need to purchase some Gold as it is the safest investment in troubled economic times, and since Herod was not very good with fiscal policy (after all, even the hotel industry was in the crapper) it was important to start of the Christ with a sound investment portfolio based on a stable commodity. For a second gift, these wise men settled on frankincense. Of course none of them knew what frankincense was, but advertisements for it were all over the bazaars, had been branded on the side of horses and camels for months, and the news reports all said that it would be the most coveted gift of the holiday season. For their third gift, these kings (they weren't really kings, but they felt pretty proud of themselves for having picked out some rockin' presents for Jesus, and thought of themselves as real kings among men) chose a nice jar of Myrrh. Again, they weren't entirely sure about Myrrh, but it was on sale for 50% off, and came with 32 GB of storage, upgradeable to 64GB, so it seemed like a good deal. As a stocking stuffer, they chose a Spongebob Squarepants yoyo and some Hershey's Kisses.

So they headed down to the bazaarmart frightfully early in the morning. They were still dressed in their pajamas with a cup of starbucks (yes, they had starbucks even back then, and it was the favorite brand of astronomers) keeping their hands warm and their minds alert. Naturally there was a very long line to get into the bazaarmart, though none of them knew anything about the miraculous birth in Bethlehem. The people were getting anxious waiting for the tents to open up for business, and when they finally did, there was such a rush to begin shopping that several people were trampled, and scuffles broke out throught the bazaarmart, resulting in the injury of hundreds of people, and the death of at least one person. But these were harder times, and nobody expected otherwise.

The gold, as it turns out was not on sale. What had been advertised was actually a gold plated nugget of plastic, and to get the real gold, they had to shell out substantially more than they had planned. The frankincense was in short supply, and one of the magi had to break a woman's nose to get her to let go of it. The Myrrh was the best deal, but you had to subscribe to Myrrhbearer's Magazine to get the sale price. And don't get me started on how much that subscription costs once the trial period ends. Sadly, the magi responsible for procuring the Spongebob yoyo and the Hershey's Kisses was never seen or heard from again. But these are the risks one takes.

In all, the Magi saved a total of $300 on their shopping trip, although they put the purchases on a credit card and ended up paying more than that in interest by the time it was paid off.

With gifts in hand, the Magi set out for Bethlehem. As they drew near to the cave where the star was leading them, they noticed a group of shepherds(not the shepherds from the Gospel, mind you) hanging out having an office Christmas party. They had all had a little too much to drink, and when they saw the Magi approaching, they taunted them for having only gotten the 32GB jar of Myrrh, and pointed out that perhaps clothes would be better for a baby that was soon to be out of swaddling. The Magi thought that the shepherds were pretty rude, but they recognized that heavy drinking and rude jokes were such a big part of how we celebrate Christmas, and so they cut them a break.

Pulling up to the manger, they dismounted from their shiny new camels(and yes, new camels are shiny, plus they have that really great new camel smell) that they had recently acquired because they were on sale for the close of the model year (and with financing so low, why would you want to keep riding that old worn down camel?). They presented these gifts to the newborn baby.

And the God who took flesh, thus sanctifying all flesh, who would teach us to love one another, who would die on the cross, and would trample down death, who ascended to heaven taking our human nature with us, was the first and last child to ever be completely satisfied with the Christmas gifts that he got. He was the first and last child to not ask if they still had the receipts so that he could return them and get what He really wanted. He was the first and last child to not sulk and pout because he really wanted something else.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Spiritual Hibernation

"My soul, my soul, arise! Why are you sleeping? The end is drawing near, and you will be confounded. Awake, then and be watchful, that Christ our God may spare you, Who is everywhere present and fills all things." Kontakion from the Great Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

St. Andrew, who really should be the Patron Saint of people who talk to themselves (like me), gives us these words with which to wake ourselves up the first week of Great Lent, and then again toward the end of Lent. These words have been in my mind for several days now. I seem to be in a spiritual stupor for the last few weeks, and I only wake up from this for small moments in time, and then my soul goes back to its slumber.

So why is my soul sleeping? It seems I am always fighting this battle this time of year. The days get shorter, it gets cold, and I usually have more work than I have time for. And in the midst of this, the Church prescribes a fast for the Nativity of Christ. Great Lent is so much easier for me than the Nativity Fast for a number of reasons. The first is that Thanksgiving is during the Nativity Fast. My birthday is also during the Nativity fast. I usually end up breaking the fast at least a couple times just because of celebrations. The other problem is that there are not nearly as many Church services during the Nativity Fast as there are during Great Lent. The first week of Lent, there is a service every night. This time of year, I feel cold, and tired, and it feels like I am being asked to practice asceticism without a safety net. So I plod along through the Fast in the hopes that it will pass by quickly and I can get on to other things.

I often wish that I could just hibernate through the winter and wake up when the weather gets warm again and the sun comes out. I figure if my soul is gonna take a nap, my body might as well get a nice long sleep as well. But since that is not plausible, I need to pray for my soul to awaken. I need to struggle to make this a period of preparation, because the end is near at hand for all of us, and I should not be wasting my time in sleep anyway.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Pet Peeve

I've grown accustomed over the past few years to hear people opine on various issues in the Orthodox Church, and heard just about every opinion I'm likely to hear. There are a number of issues that seem to come up time and again. I can't tell you how many appeals I have heard from people who want to tear the pews out of their churches because the proper way to worship God is standing up, not relaxing in a pew. The same tactic is suggested for the few churches that have organs. "The human voice is the greatest instrument because it was made by God, and we ought to worship with our voice, not with organs." Or there is the frequent refrain, "Orthodox Christians are not supposed to pray with heretics." So naturally, everything from a prayer before a meal with your Protestant family to the Patriarch of Constantinople saying a prayer with the pope must be wrong. "Orthodox Priests shouldn't dress in Catholic style Clerical clothes, they ought to dress in a cassock."

Now I won't pretend like there aren't good reasons why these rules or traditions exist, but what I find truly astonishing is that when I say that God the Father ought not to be depicted, I will inevitably hear one of these same people say "But I grew up with them in my church, and I like them, and aren't there miracle working icons that have God the Father on them?"

The basis for all iconography is the Incarnation of Christ. In spite of the protestations of iconoclasts, we still adhere to the Second Commandment, and we are not permitted to depict what has not been seen. We can only depict Christ because He became a man, He took on flesh, and He became depictable. To depict God the Father is to undermine the very foundation of iconography. The Orthodox Church puts so much emphasis on preserving proper theological teaching, and yet when it comes to the visual proclamation of the gospel, we have often have such a cavalier attitude.

I rarely see this anywhere else in Orthodoxy, and it seems to me to be completely backwards. I would rather sit in a pew looking at an icon that properly expresses that only the Son of God became incarnate than stand in the presence of an icon that makes a subtle statement that perhaps God the Father did as well. I would rather sing along with an organ(and I really don't like organs in church) in a church where the invisible God is invisible and the Incarnate God is depicted than sing A Capella in a church where both are depicted. Even issues of who we ought or ought not to pray with pale by comparison with what we pray. We try to keep our ears safe from hearing heresy, why do we not want the same for our eyes? We care more about a priest in the wrong clothes offending our eyes than a false image offending our eyes.

And believe it or not, my position is not as harsh as what people suggest for pews. I don't advocate that we tear all these images out immediately. What I advocate is that we listen to what the church in council has suggested, which is that when they are replaced they should be replaced with something proper, and that no new ones should be made. But in order for this to happen, we need to be aware that these images are not correct, which requires someone to say that they aren't correct. Or maybe we can make a deal, I'll get rid of the pew that I like to sit in from time to time, and you get rid of that picture of Christ on an old man's lap with a bird that you like to look at. Deal?

Friday, November 7, 2008

I'm not used to public squeaking, I pispronunciate a lot of my worms

I have been asked to give a talk to a group of artists about iconography. I decided that if I was going to take the time to prepare something, I might as well add it to my blog, so here goes. If anyone has any comments that could help me improve on this, I would be very happy to hear them. I don't know much about the religious background of anyone in the audience, so I have tried not to get really deep into theology, but I can't avoid the issue altogether or none of it will make sense, and I will have missed an opportunity to proclaim the truth. I have tried to address as many subjects as I think might be of interest to a diverse group of people.

The purpose of iconography is not to beautify Churches or homes. Icons are not meant to express the creativity of an iconographer. They are meant to glorify God, and to be a proclamation of the Gospel. This is not to say that icons can't be beautiful, or that creativity is forbidden, but rather that these are secondary to their purpose, and their intended role.

Iconography finds its basis in the Incarnation of Christ. God could not be depicted in the Old Testament because He had not been seen. Now that God has become Man, and has been seen in the flesh conversing with men, it becomes possible to depict God. However, the ability to depict God becomes an imperative as a part of the Gospel. Each icon is a proclamation that God became man, died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven (taking our human nature with Him) and sent the Holy Spirit, and that God lives in us.

This is such an important message, and as such it must be protected from distortion. Just as the Scriptures are carefully copied, and translated into different languages, this visual preaching of the gospel must be carefully copied and translated into different languages. With rare exception, each icon is based on an older prototype. By adhering to these prototypes an iconographer ensures that they are preserving proper teaching. It is important for an iconographer to have enough humility to set aside their urge to innovate, to create from their own imagination. And yet it is inevitable that each iconographer will have their own style. This is how icons are translated for new cultures. One sees a difference between Byzantine icons and Russian icons that reflect differences in their culture. These differences are not the result of conscious effort, but rather filter into the style slowly and subtly. We believe that the Holy Spirit guides the hand of the iconographer to make each icon more than a mere copy, but a fresh translation of tradition for the modern age. True success as an iconographer requires this reliance on the Holy Spirit and on what has been handed down to us. For this reason, if an iconographer signs his/her work, it is to be signed "by the hand of..."

Icons can be made in a variety of different materials. Mosaics are commonly used from the earliest times up to this day for icons. The earliest icons were made in encaustic, a technique of painting with pigments in melted wax. This process has been lost to time. Later icons were painted with egg tempera which mixes pigment with egg yolk as a binder. Larger, monumental icons were most often done in fresco which is painted into wet plaster. Today, many iconographers are painting with acrylic paints. It is a faster, easier process and can be used for both small and monumental icons.

An icon begins with the application of the darkest colors. Layer upon layer of highlights are added to that base. This technique mirrors the way that we are brought from darkness into light in Christ. The highlights are added without reference to an external light source. Because we believe in a God who dwells in us rather than being external to us, each figure is illuminated from within. Each figure is transfigured as Christ was transfigured on Mount Tabor.

The halo is just another sign of this illumination and transfiguration. Gold was chosen for it's reflective properties, and reflects back the light that hits the panel as light from within the figure itself. The facial features of an icon are stylized and transformed to represent a spiritual reality. The Orthodox teaching is that the entire physical world around us is transfigured by God entering His creation. As a result, mountains, trees, and all background elements are transformed from what we normally see to a spiritualized form.

Buildings and architectural elements are presented in reverse perspective where the focal point is moved from within the panel itself to within the viewer. By this we are assured that the person depicted is indeed watching over us. Icons are not something to be looked at, but are a meeting point where the Kingdom of Heaven is the reality, and our world an abstraction.

Marketing icons has proven to be more challenging than I had anticipated. A big part of marketing is in selling yourself in order to sell your product. I should say that I am not a natural salesman by any means, but even if I was, this method of marketing stands at odds with what icons are supposed to be about. With icons, people are not looking for something that is mass produced, but rather is prayed over, and is the work of the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit to work through you, you must empty yourself in humility. If people do not see this in you, it is much more difficult to find work. One can pretend to be humble, and I think we all do that from time to time, but most of us are pretty transparent when we do so. It is hard to try to make yourself the center of attention and appear humble at the same time. For years I struggled with this. I would take an icon to church to have it blessed, but wouldn't want to show it to people because I didn't want to appear prideful. Of course, this in and of itself is a form of pride. I wanted to preserve the image of being a humble person, so I acted a certain way so people might think better of me. What I have found most useful in marketing icons, is in making myself and my work available to people. I try to remember that my real work is in being a servant to others. If someone wants me to speak about icons, I do so. If someone wants to use an icon for their website or business, I only ask that they let people know how to contact me. I have recently started making icon cards and books available (always with my website listed), and I try to sell them for as little as possible so that people are more likely to share them. I have seen a shift in myself from selling an image of myself to customers, to sharing my icons with as many people as possible. In doing so, I have seen my business grow in ways I didn't really expect.

I an hesitant to use the word art to describe icons because of the connotations that the word has taken on. Icons arise not out of a desire to express oneself, but out of an imperative to proclaim the Gospel. They are only innovative within a boundary, and copy rather than create. Icons are not meant to draw attention to the artist, but to deflect attention from this world to the world beyond. It is my belief that this is precisely why God has given us artistic skill. As beings made in the image and likeness of God, we also are creators. But our creation is meant to be a reflection of God, not a reflection of ourselves. The highest use of our artistic skill is in giving back to God through our work, and to allow God to work through our hands so that others may come to know Him.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

See how they love one another?

Four years ago, I followed the Presidential election very closely. In my eagerness to vote, I paid attention to every little bit of news that came along. Polls, sound bytes, and political analysis filled my days.

This year, I have tried to stay away from politics as much as possible. I don't have TV, and have a short attention span for reading things on the internet, and so I kept clear of all but the broad strokes of what was going on. And yet, I knew enough to make my decision on who to vote for.

For the last few months, I have seen otherwise wonderful people turn on each other over this election. I have seen outrageous claims, not just about the candidates, but about those who would vote for one or the other candidate. I have seen a peaceful forum degenerate into bickering. I have seen back-stabbing, snide comments, and idle talk come about as a result of people's obsession with what has become our national sport. And I guess I foolishly thought that this would subside once the election passed. And yet, if anything it has intensified.

Now I won't pretend that the issues at stake are not important. I won't make that it makes no difference who is in office, but what I would suggest is that politics as it stands today stands at odds with Christianity. Despite attempts on the part of some people to associate one party with Christianity, the truth is that both parties are good on some issues and bad on others. Both parties make promises that they don't keep. But more than anything, both parties seek power, influence, and control, none of which are Christian ideals. Whether one party or the other is more closely aligned with Christianity is beside the point. It is beside the point because it sets at odds one Christian with another. I make my decision on who to vote for with my conscience, as do the people that vote for the other guy. As Orthodox Christians, we share the same beliefs on everything. I find it hard to believe that Orthodox Democrats believe that abortion or homosexuality are acceptable. I find it hard to believe that Orthodox Republicans don't care about the poor or the sick. I don't think that Orthodox Democrats are Socialists, and I don't believe that Orthodox Republicans are warmongers. I believe that we fundamentally agree, and the system sets us at odds with one another on how to achieve what we want.

We are not meant to create a perfect world through politics. Democracy holds out the hope that we can vote our way to utopia. This will never happen. As Christians, we are not called to create a perfect world, but to be perfected in a fallen world. The election of Barack Obama will change the world, there is little doubt about that. Whether it will be a better world or a worse world does not change our role in that world. We are still called to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Christ. Had John McCain been elected, our call would be the same. I have heard a lot of speculation about how Christians will be persecuted, but Christ told us that we should always expect to be persecuted as He was, and indeed to rejoice in it. Frankly, it disappoints me to hear Christians lamenting their lot in life, as though it is not an honor to suffer with Christ.

We can affect the world through our actions, and indeed, we should vote as we see fit in order to affect this change. But we should never lose sight of the fact that we will never create a utopian society, we will never be loved and adored by the rest of the world, but what is within our grasp is to love one another as Christ commanded us. We must never forget that anything that sets our hearts against our brothers and sisters is not from God. We must keep a proper perspective, and to be charitable with one another even when we disagree about the workings of our government. In the words of the Liturgy, "let us love one another, that with one accord we may confess: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! The Trinity, one in essence, and undivided." We can't risk getting too wrapped up in the things of this world and forgetting about our unity as believers.

Please forgive me if at any time I have forgotten this in my zeal.