For the children’s message I printed Exodus 34:29b (“The skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God”) on glow-in-the-dark paper. I used a flashlight to show how the paper shone much more brightly when it was near to the light. We talked about how Moses shone from being in God’s presence and prayed that God might use us to share God’s light with other people.
“Gazing on God;” Lenten Practices: Iconography
Today we are starting our Lenten sermon series on Spiritual Practices, which I previewed a bit last week in our sermon on Spiritual Practices as a way to experience God and a way to practice our faith. Lent actually begins this upcoming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, but since the idea of learning these spiritual practices is to give us new ways to encounter God during Lent, I wanted to make sure you were equipped with some spiritual tools before Lent actually begins.
Today we’ll be discussing “iconography.” What do you think of when you hear the word “iconography?
Historic Christian icons are images of the divine, largely coming from Greek Orthodox Christian tradition. The word iconography comes from the Greek: eikon meaning “likeness, image, or portrait,” and graphia “write, express by written characters or description of.” So iconography is the process of exploring or describing an image. Christian icons ask the iconographer to explore the divine aspects of the image, looking at the artwork in order to experience God.
I know when I first heard it I thought it sounded like idolatry. To me, it seemed like it was asking someone to worship an image of God, which seems like worshiping something other than God, which is against the commandment God gave saying, “have no other Gods before me.” At the very least it seemed like a rather stale Christian practice. Staring at a picture doesn’t seem to be very interactive as prayer goes.
But iconography is not a practice of idolatry. Even in the Greek roots the essence of the meaning of iconography is to explore something that is pointing to something else, in the case of iconography, that something else is the divine. Icons are not meant to be divine in and of themselves, but rather they are “windows” to the divine, ways through which we may experience God’s presence.
Our Old Testament passage today speaks of Moses and the Israelite’s experience with God’s presence. Moses interacted with God directly and as it says in verse 29, “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” The passage goes on to say how Moses would veil his face when he was not interacting directly with God or transmitting God’s message. Moses’ face radiated God’s presence. For the Israelites, Moses transmitted God’s commands and reflected God’s will for them. Moses was a window through which they could experience God’s power. This proved to be too intense for them, which is why Moses wore the veil when he was not actively transmitting God’s message. They couldn’t handle always being confronted with the brightness of such truth.
Our New Testament reading is written as a direct response to this story and a reflection as to why this would be. In verse 13 it says that we are called to live a life of boldness, “not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.” Paul continues saying that the this veil is only removed when one turns to Christ, that through Christ we are able to fully experience God’s presence.
Since our intangibly great God came to us in the form of Jesus Christ, by taking on a human form Jesus made it possible for us to look directly at divinity incarnate. Icons of Christ attempt to make God’s presence known to us through showing the only living breathing true incarnation of God.
Author Simon Jenkins wrote:
“The point about icons is that they affirm he teaching, to quote the language of the Creed, that Jesus Christ is ‘the only-begotten Son of God’ who ‘was made man.’ Simply to paint an image of Christ is to confess that Jesus, the Son of God, truly appeared on earth as a human being – ‘sprung from Mary as well as from God,’ in the words of St. Ignatius. It is to confess that ‘the Word made flesh’ could be seen with the eyes. An conversely, to oppose the making of icons is to deny that confession…[I]cons stand on the front line of the faith: they stand or fall on the truth of Christianity itself.”
Legend says that Jesus himself made the first icon, asking Ananias, who we see pictured here, (to the left) to paint a picture of Jesus to go to heal a man with leprosy when Jesus couldn’t go in person. Seeing Ananias struggling to paint a picture in the crowd Jesus pitied him. Jesus washed his face, drying it with a square of linen and leaving an imprint of his image on the cloth. Ananias took this image and it brought to the man with leprosy who was immediately healed.
Throughout early Christianity, much importance was given to the particular history of each icon, each trying to trace the accuracy of these depictions back to someone’s firsthand interaction with Jesus Christ. The idea being, like a big game of historical telephone, the best and most accurate images of Christ would be the ones closest to firsthand experience with Jesus. Since that original icon was able to create healing as an extension of Christ’s power, images that were created the closest to an experience of Christ would be the most powerful.
Contemporary iconography approaches this practice with a much broader view of what can be deemed an “icon.” Since icons are images that provide a window to the divine, give us a glimpse of God’s presence, icons can be anything that makes us think of God. In a few minutes we will watch a video I put together of different images that in my experience, point to God. Some of these images will look quite familiar, some of them will be unfamiliar, but each has been put together with the idea of allowing us to glimpse God in our midst.
As we watch this video, you might see your own image. Our passage today in 2 Corinthians suggests something truly shocking, that we can be bearers of God’s presence. It says in verse 17 and 18
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
There are dangers with iconography. There’s the danger of this practice becoming self-worship or devoting our attention to something man-made, but the idea is not to focus on the image itself or the created thing or person themselves, but rather that through that image, through that creation you seek to witness God’s creative brilliance, God’s gifts of love and grace, God’s overwhelming goodness. This is the difference between “adoration” and “veneration.” Adoration is an act of submission and worship that should only be offered to Almighty God.
Veneration is something very different. Tony Jones writes, “Veneration…is how one uses an icon in prayer – not unlike the Bible, which we venerate and respect, but don’t worship. The Bible brings us closer to God, guides us in prayer, and is considered a gift from God, even though it was written and translated by human hands. Similarly, an icon, painted by human hands, leads us into God’s presence…The bottom line is that we use icons to pray, but we pray through them, not to them.”
In order incorporate praying through iconography into your own devotional life, the first thing to do is to get an icon that you might use to focus your prayers. This image might change from time to time, but choosing one icon for your devotional time will keep your mind from wandering too far. Once you have this icon in hand, find a quiet place where you can be alone. Then, when you are ready, gaze upon the image and look for how God is looking to reveal God’s divinity in this image. What does this image tell you about God? What are the sounds, smells, or senses that this image evokes? How does it make you feel? You can think about all of these things, or if your head will allow you comfort in the stillness, feel free to simply gaze at this image, simply taking it in for however God will have you see it.
Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote:
“Icons… have imprinted themselves so deeply on my inner life that they appear every time I need comfort and consolation. There are many times when I cannot pray, when I am too tired to read the gospels, too restless to have spiritual thoughts, too depressed to find words for God, or too exhausted to do anything. But I can still look at these images so intimately connected with the experience of love.”
It is my hope, that sometime during this week, or at least during Lent, that you would take the time to try this practice. And it is my prayer that God would be revealed in your experience. Amen.
Below is the video shown in worship following the sermon