Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sunday of Orthodoxy, Part Two

The Sunday of Orthodoxy celebrates the restoration of icons to the Church. Basically, icons are the images of Christ and of His saints (and of feastdays such as the Nativity, the Resurrection and such) which we venerate in church and in our homes. This had been the practice from the earliest - the Evangelist Luke painted the first icon of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos. Icons aren't just for looking pretty on the wall, either, they take part in prayers and services. On a feast day, you would decorate the icon of the feast, or the icon of a saint on the day we remember them. The honor shown the icon goes to the person or event pictured - much as someone showing dishonor to the American flag is taken as dishonor towards our country (ever read the extensive regulations of flag etiquette?). The icon is also like a portrait - you might keep a picture of a relative who has passed on, in order to remember them, or a picture of an ancestor (or completely unrelated person, Abraham Lincoln for example) whose life was inspirational to you. The saints are our ancestors in the faith, the "cloud of witnesses" referenced by St. Paul (Heb. 12:1). Mothers whose children are having difficulty being left at a sitter's or at preschool are sometimes advised to send a picture of themselves with the child, because very young children instinctively equate the picture with the person in it (one of those things we "grow out of"). Well, as Orthodox, we don't "grow out of" that.
We don't "pray to" them - but we do ask for help sometimes from the person shown there. If you have a problem and want help with it, you might go to a priest (or pastor, minister, preacher, whatever your equivalent is) and ask him to pray FOR you - or some other person whose spirituality you admire. That is what we do with saints - they're not DEAD, after all, they're alive in heaven, so we are free to ask for prayers from them when we feel we need them. They are the cloud of witnesses surrounding us.
Example: When I was in the hospital a couple days before Kittyboy's birth, I was scared to death. I didn't know what was going on, I had no idea how things were going to turn out, all I knew was that it was WAY too early for me to be having this baby, and it seemed that the doctors were just preparing for whatever was going to happen, not that they really had any control OVER it. I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed, and when just saying "God, please HELP!!!" just didn't feel comforting, I started asking for help from St. Patrick, Kittyboy's patron saint, and the Theotokos. It's like the little boy afraid of the dark, who told his mother at bedtime, "I know Jesus is here - but I want someone with skin on!" Of the Theotokos, I asked also that she hold my son and comfort him while I couldn't (hmm, and she's his favorite saint). And to know that in addition to my parents, grandparents, church and friends, I also had intersession from Kittyboy's saint and the Mother of God made me feel better - especially the mental image of the one who held the Son of God as an infant holding my unborn son. THAT was an ENORMOUS comfort. That was my "someone with skin on", figuratively speaking.

Anyhow, in the 600s, there was a movement to ban icons on the grounds that it violated the commandment against graven images. Totally paraphrasing here, but one saint, I can't remember which, was arguing in the emperor's court that by honoring the image, you honored the person, not the wood and paint, and when the emperor said "That's not how it works" or words to that effect, the saint took a coin (bearing the emperor's IMAGE) and stepped on it - and was thrown in jail for showing disrespect for the emperor. Point made. Today's equivalent would be burning a flag (except in circumstances where flag etiquette calls for such action). St. John of Damascus wrote in 730 AD in his treatise, In Defense of Icons, "Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter."
On Sunday of Orthodoxy, people bring icons from home and carry them in a procession around the church. Kittyboy and I had been outdoors or in the basement most of the service, but our friend Beth, the Sunday School teacher, came down and asked if Kittyboy would like to carry St. Patrick. I told him quite firmly that he could hold this icon IF AND ONLY IF he behaved in line. If he tried to leave the line or tried to walk in front of people, he would have to give up the icon. "Got it?" "Uh huh." And what do you know, he was just good as gold.
The other time in church when he is good as gold is when he's in line for communion - because if he acts up, he won't get any! Having the bribe of "Do you want communion? Then you stand still, mister!" keeps him in line without fail. And the idea that he would lose the icon if he acted up kept him good in the procession! I'm thinking about getting a bunch of laminated icon cards and sticking different ones in the diaper bag every week, and he can hold one as long as he's in church.
Next year, we need to bring some of ours from home. Kittyboy could bring his own St. Patrick to carry. He got SO EXCITED when the children came into church and the boy right behind us was holding an icon of Jesus. Kittyboy knew who that was, and signed Jesus very happily, repeatedly. Then he made his Winnie the Pooh kiss the icon! Then his teddybear had to! Then his doggie had to! Then he did, repeatedly! Then he discovered the only facial feature he can say - "Eeeyyyyyessss!" LOUDLY. And repeatedly. "Suffer the little children to come unto Me" indeed!


DallettaOlena said...

Hi Cecily,

Thanks for taking the time to write this. When my Dad died in 1986 I was gutted. Then the Lord put two scriptures together--that we see through a cloud darkly and the great host of witnesses. Suddenly I had an understanding that heaven is like a two-sided mirror, with those in heaven having a clear view of us, while we can only see the sky. I knew that Dad was a part of that great cloud of witnesses. It was a great comfort. What a joy to see another like-minded person.

Caeseria said...

I'm so glad that verse helped you! I don't know what other understanding there could be of the cloud-of-witnesses verse, but that it's those who have "gone ahead". I read someone saying once that it was the other believers around us - or that it was un-believers watching us - and I never thought either of those made sense. Clouds are way up there and we can't touch them, but they're THERE even so. Just as those who have gone ahead to Heaven before us are still THERE even though we can't touch them.