|"Please, help my man!"|
In our time it is the icon that struggles for the Church (Leonid Ouspensky).
In times past, but not remote, icons were a strong part of the resistance in the Church against the iconoclasm and oppression du jour. They can still be used very effectively in this way.
The people would buy an icon (or more) from a master-iconographer or the advanced students in the master's workshop, have it blessed in the appropriate manner and set it up with ceremony in their home. Those unable to afford an original icon would make sacrifices to buy one - that is how vital the icon was considered to be in regard to one's relationship with God, one's faith and the Christian spiritual journey. They would never dream of buying something plastic when this started to exist. Others would trade some of the tools they used in everyday life - for example, farmer's tools - for a real icon until they could pay for it. Yet others would take lessons over a period of time in order to learn how to write an icon or two for themselves, which was cheaper in the long run than buying a single icon outright - in particular if one then managed to get set up writing icons for the whole neighborhood. These kinds of icons are known as "popular icons" due to their lack of sufficient finesse in comparison to those written by the masters. They tended to be very prevalent in Ukraine.
Other people would learn to write icons by studying several older icons in depth, with the icons per se being the real teachers. Many Russian master-iconographers started out this way, in fact, because they were often so poor that they could not afford to take lessons. Some others, including priests and the laity, would defend the icon against usurpers and potential usurpers with their own lives - and in return, God would reward the people for their faith with nothing less than spectacular shows of His divine intervention. These shows often paralleled those of the Old Testament era with regard to their largesse and physical impossibility by natural means. And the fact remains that God still acts in such a manner, to this day, where icons are concerned.
Icons - Hidden, but Triumphant
|The Theotokos of Kazan|
You deigned to reveal Your face to me like a formless sun (Symeon the New Theologian).
|"I love you, Mama"|
In the home, the original icon is placed in the main room where the family gathers and which, preferably, faces east. This icon takes the place of what has become known these days as "your television." A pure beeswax candle made from the combs of hives is kept lit in front of the icon for the following reasons, according to Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite:
- To glorify God Who is both Light and Who has brought forth the Light of the world;
- As an offering to the depicted prototype;
- To denote that the light of Christ has dispelled all the darkness;
- To honor the martyrs for the Faith;
- To manifest the inner joy that may be present in our souls;
- To symbolize any good works we may have done; and
- As a reminder that if we turn to God, our sins and the sins of those for whom we pray shall be forgiven and burned away.
All the colors in an icon have meaning; none of them are arbitrary. Here are some meanings of the most frequent colors that can be found in an original icon (Irina Yazykova):
- Red is the color of the earth, blood, sacrifice and royalty;
- Blue denotes the divinity, the heavens, purity and having been chosen;
- Green is the color of the Holy Spirit, eternal life and blossoming in God;
- White denotes the transfiguration, purity and the robes of those who do justice;
- Purple denotes royalty; whereas
- Black is the color of darkness, the grave and the abyss.
Darker shades of the above tend to indicate the impeccable brilliance of the Divine Light that has often been perceived by humanity as blinding darkness (i.e., the apophatic darkness). The gold or silver halo around the head of the depicted prototype also denote the Light and indicate that the person is a saint, angel or divine Person. Any persons portrayed without halos in icons have either not yet become saints or pertain to evil.
A Brief Theology of Pure Beeswax Candles
|"We venerate You, O God"|
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God (Mt 5:8).
One hundred percent pure beeswax candles are used, to be lit in front of the icon - not 51% 'pure' as per the latest USCCB guidelines or something made out of paraffin that you buy at the Dollar Store. The main reasons for this are as follows, with some of the reasons coming from Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki:
- God the Father is the Provider. Everything that is offered to Him in an original icon written in accordance with traditional practice comes from the earth and its animals. No man-made materials are used. Even the brushes employed for painting the icon come from the tails of animals. The offering returned to God, therefore, when the icon is installed comes from His own provision to humankind. That is why only natural, primary materials should be employed. In a parallel manner, the candles used to light up the icon should come directly from the bees He created, not from secondary materials. Using candles of pure beeswax thus indicates one's faith that the Father will, indeed, provide during times of hardship for His people, the family or the person concerned, as He did without fail for the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt;
- The purity of the beeswax symbolizes the purity that should be in our hearts and souls. God is pure; He is Immaculate. As such He cannot live where the darkness of sin resides, even though He has never stopped intensely desiring to come and live not just with us, but in us - namely, in the very heart of our souls as He had lived in Adam and Eve during the first days of creation (albeit not in an identical manner), and as He has lived in a handful of human persons since then who have resided fully in the Divine Will;
- Beeswax candles give off a sweet, delicate scent. This scent is considered to symbolize the sweet aroma that should emanate from our souls as a result of divine grace;
- Candles made out of pure beeswax are supple, regardless of whether they are thick or thin. This quality thus symbolizes the flexibility that should characterize our hearts and souls until they have been made firm by the Gospel; and
- As the pure candles feed the flame while they burn, they symbolize our struggle on the Christian journey with the necessary, but beautiful, processes of purification, illumination and deification.
© Marcelle Bartolo-Abela, aka Bald Eagle.