A quality or functionality of Byzantine iconography is to make visible that which cannot be perceived by the ordinary senses, and to create a way into the realm of transfigured humanity. It is a sacred art of depth that subtlety reveals God’s Grace. The figures, the postures, the members of the body, the coloring, and the scenery all communicate a spiritual truth to those who behold the icon with spiritual eyes.
Our Church and our homes are to be filled with icons. We ornate the spaces in which we worship, we fellowship, we eat, and we sleep with icons. Ideally, these icons aren’t viewed as works of art, but rather as tools, which assist the faithful better commune with Christ, the Mother of God and all the saints, not to mention with the rest of Creation that in its entirety longs for transfiguration in the Risen Christ.
The Feast of Transfiguration is a feast of lights as the Trinity is manifested in the presence of Peter, James and John. The disciples are dazed and bewildered as they bask in the uncreated light of God, as they witness Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, and hear the voice of the Father who bears witness to His Son. It is this light, the radiance of the Holy Spirit that is found not in the wood or in the paint of the icon, but in the person, the very person, who through thoughts, words, and deeds put on Christ and was likewise endowed with a robe of light, which illumines our often dark and dismal world. This is why icons are considered inseparable from the light.
I was rereading a text the other evening, which reminded me that panel or portable icons are to be illumined by a vigil light. A member of the Church militant makes a votive offering to a member of the Church Triumphant, out of respect, piety or supplication. Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki reminds us that: “Icons are made for and by the flickering of candles, they sparkle and come alive. By seeing the saints and their beauty through the light of divine lights [lamps and tapers] our sight becomes bright and holy and we shine with them. What a beautiful thought: as we offer a flickering flame to a saint depicted on an icon, we are given not only the noetic eyes to see their activity as they continue to live in Christ, but also the means to both bask in the light of the Transfiguration, the light spoken of by St. Gregory Palamas, and to have the light radiate forth from us as we become holy.
Although I enjoy the space in which we worship as I also appreciated Suite A1 on North Sunrise, I ever look to the construction of the Sanctuary. Just imagine for a moment, a Program of iconography that begins in the breezeway outside of this hall and advances into the narthex, the nave and the holy of holies. With vigil lights and tapered candles strategically placed, our Lord, His Mother, the saints, and the faithful are aglow. How could a hardened heart not be made soft to proclaim with the envoys of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, “God dwells here amongst men.”
This feeling, for lack of a better word, is to be felt within the home as well. The Television, the computer, newspapers, and or magazines are not the means by which space becomes sacred; it is through the use of the icon. By the second century, an icon is seen as necessary for private devotion. It consecrates space, and is attached to votive offerings. In other words, Christians living approximately 100 years after Christ found it necessary to have both an icon and a vigil light in the home to consecrate the space and to their prayers to God.
In the second quarter of the third century, Origen elaborates on the subject when he speaks of a kind of consecrated prayer corner in the home. He writes that “Any place can be suitable for prayer: it becomes so as soon as someone prays well in it…If we want to pray quietly without being disturbed, we may choose a particular place in our own house, if there is space – a consecrated place, so to speak, and pray there.” What Origen implies is that a place within the home has been set aside for private devotion, prayer, study, reflection and contemplation that is consecrated with an icon and a vigil light.
Again, why would the icon be such an integral part of devotion to God? An epigram from the Greek Anthology about an image of the Archangel Michael provides one such reason: “The mortal man who beholds the image (an icon of the Archangel) directs his mind to a higher contemplation. His veneration is no longer distracted: engraving within himself the traits, he trembles as if he were in the latter’s presence. The eyes encourage deep thoughts and art is able by means of colors to ferry over to its object the prayer of the mind.
If these words seem to any of us an idle tale, dare I say that we have yet learned to pray? Put the prayer book aside and just stand in silence in the presence of an icon. Yes, there is a place to utter words in our rule of prayer, but there is also a time for silence. Just stand in the presence of the Lord, His Mother, the Saints, and gaze at the icon, ideally lit by a vigil light. Just stand in silence and allow the Holy Spirit to bring you into communion with what is holy as you contemplate the majesty, the awesomeness, the righteousness, the goodness, and the mercy of God. And, as your thoughts are elevated to contemplate even greater things, thank God for the blessings of that which makes visible that which cannot be perceived by the ordinary senses and creates a way into the realm of truly transfigured humanity. Amen.