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Monday, March 13, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI (Ratzinger) on Art and Liturgy



In the course of this struggle the true theology of icons matured and bequeathed us a message that has a profound relevance to us today in the iconographic crisis of the West.

The icon of Christ is the icon of the risen Lord. That truth, with all its implications, now dawned on the Christian mind. There is no portrait of the risen Lord. At first the disciples do not recognize Him. They have to be led toward a new kind of seeing, in which their eyes are gradually opened from within to the point where they recognize him afresh and cry out: "It is the Lord!" Perhaps the most telling episode of all is that of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Their hearts are transformed, so that, through the outward events of Scripture, they can discern its inward center, from which everything comes and which everything tends: the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. They then detain their mysterious companion and give him their hospitality, and at the breaking of bread they experience in reverse fashion what happened to Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: their eyes are opened. Now they no longer see just the externals but the reality that is not apparent to their senses yet shines through their senses: it is the Lord, now alive in a new way.

In the icon it is not the facial features that count (though icons essentially adhere to the appearance of the acheiropoietos). No, what matters is the new kind of seeing. The icon is supposed to originate from an opening up of the inner senses, from a facilitation of sight that gets beyond the surface of the empirical and perceives Christ, as the later theology of icons puts it, in the light of Tabor. It thus leads the man who contemplates it to the point where, through the interior vision that the icon embodies, he beholds in the sensible that which, though above the sensible, has entered into the sphere of the senses. As Evdokimov says so beautifully, the icon requires a "fast from the eyes". Icon painters, he says, must learn how to fast with their eyes and prepare themselves by a long path of prayerful asceticism. This is what marks the transition from art to sacred art (p. 188). The icon comes from prayer and leads to prayer. It delivers a man from that closure of the senses that perceives only the externals, the material surface of things, and is blind to the transparency of the spirit, the transparency of the Logos. At the most fundamental level, what we are dealing with here is nothing other than the transcendence of faith.

The whole problem of knowledge in the modern world is present. If an interior opening-up does not occur in man that enables him to see more than what can be measured and weighed, to perceive the reflection of divine glory in creation, then God remains excluded from our field of vision. The icon, rightly understood, leads us away from false questions about portraits, portraits comprehensible at the level of the senses, and thus enables us to discern the face of Christ and, in Him, of the Father.

Thus in the icon we find the same spiritual orientations that we discovered when emphasizing the eastward direction of the liturgy. The icon is intended to draw us onto an inner path, the eastward path, toward the Christ who is to return. Its dynamism is identical with the dynamism of the liturgy as a whole. Its Christology is trinitarian. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us capable of seeing, he whose work is always to move us toward Christ. "We have drunk deeply of the Spirit", says Saint Athanasius, "and we drink Christ" (Evdokimov, p. 204). This seeing, which teaches us to see Christ, not "according to the flesh", but according to the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 5:16), grants us also a glimpse of the Father Himself.

Only when we have understood this interior orientation of the icon can we rightly understand why the Second Council of Nicaea and all the following councils concerned with icons regard it as a confession of faith in the Incarnation and iconoclasm as a denial of the Incarnation, as the summation of all heresies. The Incarnation means, in the first place, that the invisible God enters into the visible world, so that we, who are bound to matter, can know Him. In this sense, the way to the Incarnation was already being prepared in all that God said and did in history for man's salvation. But this descent of God is intended to draw us into a movement of ascent. The Incarnation is aimed at man's transformation through the Cross and to the new corporeality of the Resurrection. God seeks us where we are, not so that we stay there, but so that we may come to be where He is, so that we may get beyond ourselves. That is why to reduce the visible appearance of Christ to a "historical Jesus", belonging to the past, misses the point of His visible appearance, misses the point of the Incarnation.

The senses are not to be discarded, but they should be expanded to their widest capacity. We see Christ rightly only when we say with Thomas: "My Lord and my God!"

We have just established that the icon has a trinitarian scope, and now we must come to terms with its ontological proportions. The Son could only become incarnate as man because man was already planned in advance in relation to Him, as the image of Him who is in Himself the image of God. As Evdokimov again says so strikingly, the light of the first day and the light of the eighth day meet in the icon. Present already in creation is the light that will shine with its full brightness on the eighth day in the Resurrection of the Lord and in the new world, the light that enables us to see the splendor of God. The Incarnation is rightly understood only when it is seen within the broad context of creation, history, and the new world. Only then does it become clear that the senses belong to faith, that the new seeing does not abolish them, but leads them to their original purpose.

Iconoclasm rests ultimately on a one-sided apophatic theology, which recognizes only the Wholly Other-ness of the God beyond all images and words, a theology that in the final analysis regards revelation as the inadequate human reflection of what is eternally imperceptible.

But if this is the case, faith collapses. Our current form of sensibility, which can no longer apprehend the transparency of the spirit in the senses, almost inevitably brings with it a flight into a purely "negative" (apophatic) theology. God is beyond all thought, and therefore all propositions about Him and every kind of image of God are in equal proportions valid and invalid. What seems like the highest humility toward God turns into pride, allowing God no word and permitting him no real entry into history. On the one hand, matter is absolutized and thought of as completely impervious to God, as mere matter, and thus deprived of its dignity.

read it all here.

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