icons

No Saints=No Sanity: Seeing Womanhood

Father Seraphim Rose once said, “Pornography is the devil’s iconography.”  These days, the world of porn has become so exploitive of women that the founder of Hustler Magazine has said the industry has gone to far.  The women are subjected to acts of force, gross acts, and violence that are way too graphic and distasteful to describe.  To make matters worse, kids are vewing such things online with no safeguards on computers.  Grown men can visit these sites in public libraries.  In one anti-porn video, a porn user professed that such movies show men what women want.  While it can be argued that the girls who do porn do so in their own free will, I doubt that a naked 19 or 20 year old young lady has much decision making power in a room with two or more men, especially if any of them are old enough to be her father.

Aside from such extreme forms of porn, there is a type of imagry I call, “chicken porn” (porn for men who are too afraid to look at the real thing).  Images of women in sexually suggestive clothing and poses that are found in mainstream magazines.  Anyone who has seen the recent cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue can understand what I am talking about.  A young lady wearing a bikini swimsuit at a beach or pool is not unusual nor necessarily offensive.  But, to have her pose pulling down her bikini is uncalled for.  Women don’t do this in normal visits to beaches and pools.  This was done only to encourage men and boys to want to see more of her body.  For the porn industry, such images seve as business cards for the more “reputable” companies and the more rancid ones as well.

The Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, is praised for her ever virginity.  In traditional Byzantine iconography, she is clothed in a blue garment and head covering to show her humanity.  Covering these clothes is a red garment over her head and body to show that she has put on divinity.  With few exceptions (such as the Annunciation and Dormition), Mary is holding the Christ Child in one arm with her other hand motioning to Him.  Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the first wave of Protestants hold this image in high regard as the highest saintly model of womanhood.

Mary of Egypt was far from being a virgin.  But, ancient Christianity holds her in very high regards as a prototype for repentance.  In most icons, she is all skin and bones wearing only the black outer garment given to her by the monk Zosimas.  After repenting of her sexual depravity, Mary lived in the desert east of the Jordan River alone placing repentance more important than food, shelter, or clothing.  While no one today is called to that extreme, we see in her that turning one’s life around from wickedness to righteousness is not a one time act.  We are to be consistent and humble; willing to forsake even basic comforts for the heavenly kingdom.

Radical Reformed Protestantism and modern Evangelicalism tells society that holy icons are mere idols and it is not fit for Christians to revere the people represented in these images.  As America and Western Europe is dominated by this mindframe, it is no coincidence that porn dominates these nations.  By taking away the holy images of womanhood, it is inevidable that Satan has all but won the icon war by flooding our word with hard and soft core images of female exploitation.  According to the Desert Fathers, lust is the hardest of the sins for people to avoid.  Holy images of female saints are tools to help us overcome wicked thoughts.  What we set our eyes toward becomes etched in our minds.  If you take away a carpenter’s tools, it is very difficut for him to build a proper house.  Iconoclasim has been a total failure in helping create a society where a woman’s purity, either as a virgin or wife, is honored and respected.

People who struggle with distorted sexuality would do well to look into the Orthodox Church not because we are perfect (oh, that we were).  But, because we encourage men and women to use the examples of holy men and women as well as the Bible to overcome their sins.  In our great cloud of witnesses are saints who struggled with their urges and passions just like we do today.  Their stories tell us that there is victory through Jesus Christ.  The victory may not be quick nor easy.  But, if we endure even to the end, we will win because our Lord won the battle against death and corruption with His death and resurrection.  This isn’t something that we only read in the scriptures, speak in prayers, an sing in songs.  This is what we behold in our eyes as well.

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My Second Orthodox Pilgrimage: Monday Prelude

11/3

So, here it is once again.  You remember, the last time I went on a journey into Orthodoxy was my death knell to being a Baptist pastor.  At least I won’t have to worry about losing a job this time.  In fact, I may be gaining one instead.  Depending on how my interview goes, I may be working at the McDonald’s in Toano when I return.  Not a bad little part-time gig.  As far as church is concerned, I won’t have to worry about making my congregation upset with me.  My priest is driving us.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the news that I wasn’t selected for a job in my career field I interviewed for.  It took a couple of days.  It took a few days to get over that.  I was sorta thinking the job and the salary could be a spring board for me to afford to take the St. Stephen’s Course for a MA in Applied Orthodox Theology and evangelize in the Northern Neck.  I had dared to think to start a mission parish there.  A person must be Orthodox for at least 5 years before he is considered for the priesthood.  I was thinking I’d spend a year getting my secular career down pat and then begin my studies.  Then again, my walk with God has proven to me that His plans and mine can be a heck of a miss match.  Apparently, He has something else in mind.

Holy Cross Monastery (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia)

This trip is to the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in Wayne, West Virginia.  We are going to be with men who have committed themselves to prayer and repentance.  Instead of me plotting and planning, I need to do more of what they are doing.  I have my own personal demons that I have not been the most diligent at fighting.  I follow my nightly prayer rule about as consistently as Liverpool have been winning matches this season.  And my uncertainties and insecurities plague my mind.  I don’t expect any of the monks to put a cloak around me to make me invincible.  But, if someone could help point me in the right direction, that would be great.  Oddly enough, I think God has already sent someone my way to do just that.

St. Moses the Black (aka, the Ethiopian, Robber, and Strong)

I have this icon of St. Moses the Black with him holding up a scroll.  These are the words:

Let us force ourselves a little and let us never be slothful.  O Brethren, that we may receive forgiveness of sins.

I am kind of like that cigarette smoker who has tried time and time again to quit, but has not.  And to have this 2,000 year old brother to tell me to fight my temptations is a bit annoying, especially since in my 40 plus years of being a Christian, I have only learned of this African saint a couple of years ago.  I know this man’s story of how he was a former slave and gang leader who was convicted by the Holy Spirit through the loving hospitality of the monks that he attempted to rob. Moses, probably of Nilotic-southern Sudanese stock, was humble almost to a fault.  He considered himself to be the lowliest of the monks and did a lot of menial task for those who couldn’t.  He struggled with his personal demons for years.  When he was called upon to help judge a sinful brother, he carried a leaking basket of sand over his back to show how he left his sins behind him and is in no position to judge his fellow man.  So, when I see the icon of this brother telling me to keep pushing myself to do better spiritually, it is kinda hard for me to disregard him or make excuses.

I think this is the advantage of a holy icon and the Bible rather than just the scripture alone.  I can read about the Apostle Paul and his encouragement to fight the good fight and not to be weary of well doing until my  eyes roll out of my head.  And certainly I can read what Jesus taught about righteous living, “go and sin no more,” and his death, burial, and resurrection.  The icon puts a face on the lesson.  The life of the saint is the story of another person’s carrying of his (or her) cross that can’t be ignored.  “Well, all I need is Jesus!  I don’t need them ‘saints.’”  Maybe you don’t.  But, I do.  If the scripture is true, “There is nothing new under the sun,” I want to know who else got sunburn and how did they manage to heal and find shade.  Jesus was fully human.  But, He was also fully divine.  I want to know what other humans denied themselves, took up their crosses, and followed Him so that they could put on divinity as well.  I know that paint and wood, ink and paper, is not a god to be worshiped.  But, these representations of Christ, the Theotokos (Jesus is God the Son, Mary gave birth to Jesus, this makes her the mother of God; deal with it.), and the saints are reminding windows that there is a higher human existence to strive for.  Thus, I find it necessary to worship with and venerate holy icons as they represent the cloud of witnesses that surround me.

Along with the icons there is confession.  It is much easier to belong to a church that does not encourage this sacrament.  One can confess simply to himself and God with no priest around.  One may not need human accountability and encouragement on the journey of faith.  Again, I need this.  I am a part of the body of Christ and while only the priest needs to hear my issues, other members of the body can see that I am striving to do better in my walk as I see others.  And we confess not to put on a show of holiness, but it is an encouragement to come to this hospital for sin sick souls.  “Well, Jesus is my doctor!  He is all the doctor my soul needs!  I don’t need no priest standing beside me and putting his robe on me and praying on me!”  And what doctor doesn’t have a nurse on his staff?  Confession is done before the Lord.  The priest is an assistant and coach in this process and has the power to forgive sins just as Jesus gave that authority to his disciples (apostolic succession, as with the Theotokos, deal with it).   All Christian churches expect believers to improve spiritually.  Confession is a very effective tool for such growth as I admit my failures before God and receive encouragement and prayer from my priest.

I have to get some ducks in a row before I  leave.

The Race of Jesus: My Two Cents

Anyone who enters St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church near Richmond will be dumbstruck at its iconography.  The patron saints, Cyprian of Carthage and Moses the Ethiopian (the Black),  are both African and are as dark as my father and myself.  The icons of Christ Pantocrator and the Theotokos are both racially ambiguous, kinda like  mixed-race “redbone” blacks.  With the exception of one or two Ethiopians, virtually everyone in the church is white of Eastern European origin or Anglo-Saxon converts.  The ancient pictures of Christian Nubia depicts brown-skinned kings, queens, bishops, and saints.  But, Jesus and Mary are depicted as pale skinned.  This can be seen as a debunking of the black Jesus idea as the native Africans who had their own kingdom and were not under the yoke of bondage did not paint Jesus as one of themselves.  How do we interpret the question of the race of our Lord when He walked the earth?

A Slavic Christ Pantocrator

First, let’s go to one point that we all should be able to agree upon.  Jesus was not of a pale skinned, blonde haired, blue-eyed, Nordic stock.  Anyone with any sense of archaeology or history knows that such people would have found it difficult to survive in the Middle East.  The Israelites spoke a Semitic language that was closer to those still spoken in the Ethiopian highlands than Western Europe.  Indeed, the earthly lineage of Jesus has no connection to any place in Europe.

Yet, the idea that Jesus was a racially pure dark-skinned Nilotic African is also  misleading.  Immediately some would like to the point out that the Pharaohs of Egypt were  black people.  It is undeniable that most of the great rulers of Egypt were black.  But, consider the fact that there was a good deal of race mixing with lighter skinned races for centuries.  The Hyksos were a Semitic people who ruled Egypt for about 200 to 300 years.  The African kings did continue to trade with the likes of the Hittites, Phoenicians, and even the Greeks blending Egyptian blood even further.  The conquest of the Persians and Macedonians pretty much ended the idea of a racially pure black Egypt before the dawn of the first century.  So, when Joseph took Mary and the Child to Egypt to hide from Herod, it was just as much out of the fact that Herod had no authority over any place outside of Judea as it was that the Holy Family would be  able to blend in with the general population, which by that time the people’s skin tones ranged from “high yellow” to Ethiopian brown with a few darker Africans and more pale European elites.

6th century Christ Pantocrator from Sinai

Early Christianity depicted our Lord and Savior in a variety of skin tones.  For the Slavic people, a dark-skinned icon of the Theotokos was well accepted as she was from a part of the world different from theirs.  To a black Nubian, anyone from north of Memphis was painted with pale skin because they would be lighter than themselves.  For the first 300 years of the faith, Christians of all races were persecuted not because of skin color but because they refused to abandon their belief in Jesus.  After the legalization of the faith, it was a deacon from Africa, Athanasius, denounced by his detractors as “the black dwarf” that led the successful argument that Jesus was co-substantial and co-equal to the Father.  His mentor, Anthony, was another African and is widely regarded as the father of Christian monasticism.  Athanasius would later become the bishop of Alexandria and write the list of books that would be canonized as the New Testament in the African city of Carthage.  Europeans knew the history and the roles their African brothers played in the establishment of the Christian faith and even through the Renaissance depicted black people with the same dignity and honor as they painted and sculpted themselves.

A 5th century mosaic of Jesus from Rome

The slave trade changed this sense of mutual respect.  Muslim Arab conquerors  began the process of dehumanizing  Africans who refused to convert to Islam. They ruthlessly persecuted Christianity in Egypt and the Middle East, conquered Christian Nubia, and left Ethiopia as an isolated Christian nation.  As Western Europeans began their age of exploration, they saw the profits that could be made in enslaving non-Christian Africans.  With the faith barely reaching beyond Ethiopia and no regard for the persecuted Orthodox believers, greedy Catholic and Protestant elites found it easy to dismiss sub-Saharan people as being subhuman.  This is where the “curse of Ham” doctrine (a lie that was never taught by neither the Desert nor Early Church Fathers) was born with the excuse that Africans were meant to be slaves.  Catholic elites quickly ignored all but a handful of their black and brown-skinned icons and any references to Christianity’s African past.  Protestants rejected icons wholesale relying only on their various interpretations of the Bible.   Even through the end of the Trans-Atlantic trade, the preferred images of a more European-looking Jesus was a tool to establish supremacy  over the darker races of the world (the slave trader John Hawkins named his ship, “Jesus,” and his coat of arms was a black man in bondage).  African-Americans have every reason to reject portraits of our Lord and savior as a blonde haired, blue-eyed, pale skinned man.

Coptic Christ Pantocrator

But, I wouldn’t necessarily endorse every picture of Jesus with dark skin, an Afro, or dreadlocks either. To display images of a black Jesus to counter the racist images that we African-Americans had grown up with makes sense.  But, there is a temptation to use the dark-skinned Christ not as a tool for healing and reconciliation, but as a wall to keep black and white Christians separated.  Someone may easily start boasting his identity with that of the Lord and consider their former oppressors ans incorrigible or too far gone to receive salvation.  Blacks are not in an economic, political, nor social position to impose on whites anywhere near the same kind of hell we went through in this country (nor would 99.9% of us want to).  But, to use the image of Jesus as an example of black supremacy is just as racist and wrong as what white society did to us.

If you are comfortable with your heritage and skin, you need not be bent out of shape with what color Jesus is.  Attending St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church this past weekend, the images on the iconostasis were all darker than my mother.  The Slavs know that they have preserved the faith during the fall of Byzantium and spread Christianity to North America.  So, venerating images darker than they are is not a problem.  I saw a picture of an Ethiopian woman proudly displaying an icon of the Theotokos with pale skin.  For her to admire and adore this image does not threaten her noble history as the Christian kingdom that was never colonized by neither Arab Muslims nor Western Europeans.  African-Americans have experienced chattel slavery and segregation under the image of a Nordic image of Christ.  But, we also developed a reverent spirituality in the midst of our suffering and proven that the power of love and non-violence can overcome hatred.  Like the Ethiopians and Slavs, we can hold our heads up with a sense of pride.  We need not get uptight about the color of the image.  And as we are all called to the great multitude of humanity that will be saved in the heavenly kingdom, perhaps it is best for us to embrace one another’s differences as well as our unique qualities here on earth.

Chronicles to Conversion: Day 20 Icons of Flesh and Blood

I have an icon wall of saints that I look up to.  Of course, these are not all of the great men and women of the faith that inspire me.  But, these are the friends that grace the east wall in our living room (top to bottom, left to right):

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  • Basil the Great of Cappedocia (patron of my church)
  • Mary the Theotokos
  • Christ Panocrantor
  • Cyprian of Carthage (my personal co-patron)
  • Athanasius of Alexandria (hero of canon and doctrine)
  • Isaac the Syrian (wise desert father)
  • Felicity and Perpetua (example of true sisterhood)
  • Peter the Aleut (chose death over conversion)
  • Anthony of the Desert (father of monastics)
  • Moses of Ethiopia (honored for repentance and forgiveness)
  • Philip the Apostle (patron of my prayer discipline)
  • Catherine of Alexandria (scholar and martyr)
  • Seraphim Rose (perhaps America’s most famous monk)
  • Panteleimon (healer and martyr)
  • Raphael of Brooklyn (organizer of the faithful Antiochians)
  • Herman of Alaska (evangelist to the natives)

I have a few other important images on our desk below the icon wall (left to right):

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  • Gregory the Theologian (from my first visit to St. Basil)
  • H.L. Mays (my former shop teacher and mentor)
  • Louise Kersey (a dear cousin known for her kindness)
  • St. Mary of Egypt Parish Icon (from my pilgrimage)
  • Kursk-Root (from a ROCOR deacon and hiking partner)
  • Carter Wicks (my wife’s grandfather and ministry mentor)
  • Three crosses (Byzantine, Coptic, and Ethiopian)
  • Anthony the Great (on the book written by Athanasius)

These pictures and crosses cannot talk, move, nor do anything else.  The faces stare back at me as I gaze upon them.  I think about the lives they have led and the examples of faith they gave.  Except for Christ, none of them were sinless.  But, the images remind me to take the best of their character and add to my life.  I fall short in my deeds, words, and thoughts.  But, I am growing and have grown from how foolish I was in the past.  In the words of the church that raised me:  “I’m not all that I ought to be.  But, thank God I am not what I used to be.”  “Please, be patient with me.  God is not through with me yet.  When God gets through with me, I shall come forth as pure gold.”

Media images move.  Politicians take stances.  They dance on music videos.  Actors and Actresses play their roles.  Luis Suarez does the amazing (sorry, I am a fan).  In a world where nothing stays still, there is something  of great value in both ancient icons and images of those who have shaped our better natures.  By one act or word, yesterday’s hero can turn into today’s villain and vice versa (see Luis Suarez).  And when we dwell solely on the left or right side of the corrupt coin of earthly existence, anyone who is of the opposite side can be seen as a bitter, sub-human enemy no matter the goodness of their intentions or nature while those whom we side with are saints no matter how deplorable their actions, words, and thoughts.

While modern media of moving pictures can entertain and (on occasion) educate and inform, I believe we need to make room in our lives for the still images.  The still images that cause us to remember where we came from, what love is, and that the world of good people goes beyond our limited borders of place and time.  As we are all made in the image of God, we should give that same consideration to the living images we see every day.  Let us not let modern media drive us away from the cloud of witnesses that surround us nor from human brotherhood that we are a part of. Love and honor whomever you hold dear in icons or photos.  Love and honor the person who gave you the finger who cut you off in traffic and gave you the middle finger because you have an Obama or Tea Party bumper sticker.    

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).

Each One An Icon

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, according to our likeness, … .’   So God mad man. in the image of God He made him; male and female He made them.

Genesis 1:26, 27

How foolish I am!  How can I venerate and give honor to the saints on the wall and not show like love to the person on the street?  How dare I honor the Holy Theotokos and harbor lust for the girl I did not marry? 

What is a holy icon but a window and portrait of God’s greater glory?  Was it not by the hand of the painter that we have these windows?  Perhaps by the skill of a wood-carver and other craftsmen that we possess such items as reminders of the love of our Lord?

And yet God made the perfect icon when he made men and women.  In his image and likeness we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  With his breath of life we are all living souls.  Here is the icon I should honor and kiss in holiness.  Here is the image I should hold as evidence of God’s compassion and mercy.

Yet this is the icon that I hold in contempt.  I suspect it a thief and liar.  I condemn it for its flaws and imperfections.  I abuse it as a toy only fit for my pleasure and whims.  This icon which was not made by a man’s hands.  This image of God and made by God.  This likeness of which I am.  I am their brother and I have shown them fear, hate, and lust. 

Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  I am the chief of all sinners! 

Forgive my calloused thoughts and harsh words toward my fellow-man.  May the power of the Holy Spirit cleanse my heart and mind of wicked desires.  Let me hold high the value of each man, woman, boy, and girl.  We are the icons that you made.  Let us honor and love one another as such.