Icons and the Black Church: The Time Has Come

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnared us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1, 2

Today, I used one of my vacation Sundays to worship at St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church near Richmond VA.  Like Father Moses Berry before me, I was stunned to see the huge icons of St. Moses the Ethiopian and the Saint of the church both looking like the African men that they are.  I also couldn’t help but notice that the icons of Christ and Mary on the iconostasis were also a bit brown in colour as well as some of the others on the walls.  Except for three smaller icons that were bowed to and kissed, I didn’t see anything that looked like worship of a “graven image.”  The pictures were more like going to your uncle’s house with photos of the family “old heads” on the wall over the sofa.  The focus of the worship was on Jesus with the sermon coming from the Gospel reading, the music taken straight from the Psalms (a couple of chants were entire Psalms), constant prayers for God’s mercy, and the Eucharist as the climax of the worship.

My Living Room Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

With so few Orthodox churches in our communities and our focus on the Civil Rights struggles, I can understand why older generations of black ministers didn’t learn and teach about the many African saints who are honored by the ancient faith.  With greater access to information through the internet, and immigration from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, it is far easier to learn about the church.  The Brotherhood of St. Moses The Black has been promoting Orthodoxy to the African-American community for over two decades.  So, there is information out there about saints, patriarchs, monks, nuns, and martyrs from the “Motherland.”  As Protestants, we need not venerate such icons.  But, as a people who wants to celebrate its rich past, it only makes sense that we learn about the Orthodox saints from Africa.  And as they worked and worshiped with Europeans and Middle Eastern people, we can also give respect to some of the other great heroes of our united Christian past such as St. John Chrysostom, Isaac the Syrian and American saints such as Herman of Alaska and Peter the Aleut.  Christianity is universal and iconography shows this.

Yes, I know what the Second Commandment is.  It is also repeated in Exodus 20:23 as well.  Icons are not gods.  Nowhere in Orthodox doctrine and worship will you find anyone calling them gods.  Icons of the saints are pictorial reminders of those who lived godly lives and for us to follow their example.  Believers cross themselves (which is a physical expression of the Gospel), bow to, and kiss the icons as a matter of reverent respect and not worship.  Had the saints been alive, they would be greeted with handshakes, hugs, and kisses like we do with all other living people who we respect and love.  The Israelites and Jeroboam made golden bulls and said, “This is your God who brought you out of Egypt.”  Solomon made idols of the gods of his foreign wives and they led his heart away from the Lord.  I have yet to meet any Orthodox cleric or layperson to hold up an icon and say, “This is God.”  They are icons that are worshiped with and not worshiped themselves.

A few of the Saints: ( l – r from lthe bottom) Sophia, Fulvainus-Matthew, Anthony, Elesbaan, Moses the Ethiopian, Cyprian, Djan-Darada, Maurice, Athanasius, and Mary of Egypt. (thanks to Bro. John Norman, the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black Detroit Chapter, and St Innocent Orthodox Church in Redford MI)

Let’s not use tradition nor narrow-minded biblical interpretations (the Bible was compiled by the Orthodox Church) deny us from the encouraging stories from the men and women of God from our African past.  Let us recognize them as members of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us  as we focus on Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1, 2).

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9 comments

  1. We have to remember what an icon is and what ancient Christian worship is. Our Protestant Black brothers and sisters and especially the clergy don’t understand these things. Or they have there own belief system. This is why I try to find the unchurched rather than change the churched.

    FrSeanAAOC

    1. Greetings Fr. Sean. Thank you so much for your kind words about the blog. You make a very good point about the need to go to the unchurched with the message of iconography in the black church and in ancient Christianity. I do think there is a generation that is willing to listen to the message of Orthodoxy if presented to them gradually. I know some are more accepting than others. But, yes, even our Lord spoke of going to the highways and hedges and compelling people to come to the feast. May God bless your efforts.

  2. I have a son whose patron saint is St. Maurice but I have had the hardest time finding an icon of him that actually dipicts him as a black person. I saw the photo of the icon that you have and would appreciate it tremendously if you let me know where I can order a copy of it. Thank you for your help and may the Most Holy Trinity bless you!

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