Kissing Images, Grandpa’s Love, and Jokes On Me

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Years ago, while on a Mennonite forum discussion about the “holy kiss” ordinance, I had joked that the practice was impossible given that those mentioned to kiss in the Biblical proof-texts were already long dead.

Old Order Mennonites, along with some conservative holdouts, continue the practice of greeting each other with a kiss. They base this practice on some salutations of epistles where St Paul instructs the reader “greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Corinthians 13:12) and even gives particular people to greet in this manner:

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings. (Romans 16:3‭-‬16 NIV)

I was being facetious in suggesting that it was impossible to carry out the instruction above. I was challenging the holy kiss hardliners to consider the context of the instruction and the intended audience. My own thoughts at the time being that this practice was more common to the culture then, that it had become archaic, and that a holy handshake would get the job done in our own time.

The concern of those questioning the need to carry out the salutation as instruction for all time was that men giving other men a big smooch would be misunderstood by those not familiar with the practice. So my joke that we can’t kiss dead people was to drive home that point, we can’t greet Mary Andronicus or Junia and the others listed in the letter as those to greet, so why should we take any of it as an instruction for us?

The Joke Was On Me

One of the strangest things for a person coming into the Orthodox Christian culture is the practice of kissing icons. For whatever reason, this practice of veneration is often misconstrued as worship and dismissed on those grounds. However, that is a silly notion, if it is idolatry to kiss an image then why is it not also idol worship to kiss your spouse?

Over the time I was still mulling over the Orthodox practice of kissing icons, my grandma passed away surrounded by family and my grandpa—her loyal companion and loving husband of sixty years.

My grandpa’s grieving was intense, as one would expect, and there is no person on this earth who could ever replace his beloved Mildred.

It was then that I found out about a curious little ritual he would perform each morning and evening. He would take the image of his late wife in his hands, kiss it seven times, and put it down again. Why? Well, in what other way do you suggest that he honor the woman who gave birth to his seven children, who faithfully cooked his meals up until dementia stole her ability to do that, and professed her deep love for him to the very end even as her mind slipped away?

Suddenly my flippancy about kissing dead people lost its humor.

My grandpa is not worshipping the image. He is not confusing the image with his reposed wife either. But he was showing his love for her in the most intimate way available to him. Kissing her image was symbolic of something for him, things he probably couldn’t even put into words to explain, and it would be silly to question the appropriateness of his action.

For me, this ritual of grandpa kissing grandma’s picture put the Orthodox practice of veneration of icons in a whole new light. My grandpa isn’t Orthodox, he is a Mennonite, and yet intuitively he arrived at the same place they do concerning the beloved who have departed this life for the next. Not only that, but he made it completely possible for us to carry out the salutation of St Paul’s letters and greet even those he listed with a holy kiss.

The Church Both Militant and Triumphant

As a Protestant-born, I was firmly stuck in the here and now, the church was those alive today and those who came before were basically irrelevant other than the writings they left behind. That is typical of our generation. I mean, we have smartphones and Instagram, what could previous generations have that is relevant to us today?

But the Orthodox perspective is different. They see a clear continuity from the early church to the present and they also see those who have gone on before us as participants in the worship service. They believe that the dead in Christ are still spiritually alive in him and they make up the “great cloud of witnesses” that we read in chapter 12 of the book of Hebrews.

The Orthodox see their corporate worship, which is centered on Communion, as the link between temporal and eternal, a place where heaven and earth come together, rather than merely a commemorative meeting of religious folks. In other words, as Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, I am there with them,” (Matthew 18:20 NIV) there is an emergent property of our coming together, that being the presence of Christ and the “cloud of witnesses” we read about in Scripture.

There is a beautiful description of the two parts of the church congregation. The Orthodox refer to those who have completed their race as being “the church triumphant” and use “church militant” in reference to those still in the fight. They acknowledge and greet both. When the Orthodox kiss an icon they are merely saying hello to the triumphant who join us in worship. It is a true act of faith. If we do not believe that those who have gone on before can join us in our worship, then why go to church at all?

When is the last time you’ve consulted the church fathers when trying to interpret a passage of Scripture?

It is a shame that I did not understand the significance and need for a church that extends beyond the current generation. This notion that we do not need the church triumphant, that their contribution has passed, makes us weak and vulnerable. We need to cultivate the connection between our current practice, the Scripture and other tradition we have received through the church, and those who have gone on before us. We may not see them with our physical eyes, but that does not mean that they are not present, relevant or worth our time.

The wonderful thing about icons is that they are visual reminders that we are not alone in our worship. Sure, like my grandma’s picture isn’t my grandma, the objects we kiss are not the actual person, but it does encourage mindfulness about the true meaning of being part of the body of Christ.

The Biblical Basis For Sacred Objects and Icons

As with many Christian practices, from Sunday school to Christmas celebration, even Dank Kingdom Christian Memes, there is nothing in the canon of Scripture that specifically instructs us to venerate icons with a kiss. That said, there is definitely a Biblical basis for images in areas used for worship and even Christian purpose for relics and other objects.

It seems, actually, that Orthodoxy encourages more Biblical literacy (through practice) than the alternative of Protestantism. In questioning various Orthodox practices I was always led directly back to Scripture. From incense being referenced in the context of prayer, to art and images being used in Israelite worship, there is plenty of support for the Orthodox understanding of Christian practice.

For example, the idea of relics, like the bones of various saints, having significance originates in Scripture:

Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. (2 Kings 13:21 NIV)

Can you imagine that?

Merely touching the bones of a prophet could bring a dead man back to life!

But, lest a skeptic might say that was Old Testament, we also have this from the book of Acts:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11,12 NIV)

The Protestant aversion to the idea that objects have significance and can be sacred is not rooted in Scripture. The Bible shows very clearly that things in the physical world can be given supernatural powers, that touching bones could bring a person back to life or some cloth merely touched by an apostle could heal the sick and exorcise their demons. That is not idolatry, it is both Biblical and Christian.

Furthermore, this idea that every Christian practice must come directly from the Bible, a book canonized by the church via councils, is absurd. Those who trust the institution of the church to give them Scripture are trying to have it both ways when they undermine the authority of the church elsewhere, you can’t say that the Bible is completely reliable without also acknowledging the authority of the very institution that decided what books would be included in the Biblical canon.

The Arrogance of Assuming Your Own Normal Is Normal

What the objection to kissing icons really comes down to is arrogance and an assumption that what is normal for me is the ultimate standard of right or wrong practice in the Christian context. Those who dismiss or mock a practice simply because it is foreign to them show an amazing lack of self-awareness.

Maybe it isn’t normal anymore to greet each other with a kiss? Maybe the idea of objects having healing powers seems foreign, strange, ridiculous or inappropriate from your own perspective? But who are you and what makes your own opinion the center of the universe? All of Christianity, from baptism to concepts of eternity in paradise, can be dismissed on the basis of someone’s normal. Is it really that hard to accept a symbolic greeting of the reposed, those alive in Christ, for someone who believes that God himself became flesh in the person of Jesus?

Icons represent a physical connection to the spiritual realm, the Orthodox do not worship them anymore than those in the Bible healed by sacred objects committed a sin of idolatry, and it is as much an established tradition of Christians as the canon of Scriptural is. A church council decided what was normal for inclusion in the Bible and, likewise, a church council decided that the veneration of icons is appropriate and normal Christian behavior.

The church does not revolve around your own personal ideas, you as an individual are not an authority over the church, and if you dismiss what you do not understand simply because you do not understand it, then the joke is on you.

Deal with it!

“Why Don’t Mennonites Pay Taxes?” And Other Similar Questions…

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Growing up conservative Mennonite and going to a public school opened me up to many questions about my religion. However, while these inquiries were presented in form of a question, they often came off as statements:

“Hey, don’t Mennonites have horse and buggies, where’s yours?”

“Why don’t Mennonites pay taxes?”

Understand, this wasn’t intended as obnoxious, this was in elementary school and these classmates were genuinely curious. They were trying to take what they knew about Mennonites (or thought they knew) with what they observed in me and reconcile the two. I suppose these could be called “micro-aggressions” according to the currently popular terms, but I prefer a more gracious explanation.

Still, while I prefer to be gracious, the presumptions still annoyed me. This exposure might explain my sometimes strong visceral reaction to being pigeonholed in a debate. It might also have contributed to my desire to be a non-conformist in a culture that took pride in being non-conformed and did things a little different from other Mennonites. I’ve always wanted the right to speak for myself and for that reason have tried to give others the same respect and let them speak for themselves.

Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that any conservative Mennonite who spent time outside of their own religious cloister has experienced much of the same thing. The people asking if they are Amish, those inquiring if they ever considered the possibility there is no God, etc. And presumably, this would make us more careful not to do the same others. But that’s not always the case, as I’ve discovered…

Oh No, Not Again!!!

Since becoming Orthodox I’ve encountered the same kind of presumptions in a different form. This time, rather than public school peers, it is Mennonite family and friends. And it is not that I mind the questions either, but when someone starts with “I know a Catholic…” it reminds of those who cannot distinguish conservative Mennonites from Amish or Old Order Mennonites.

So I’ll start with that one…

“Aren’t Orthodox basically Catholics?”

Yes and no.

The word “Catholic” means universal. In the words of St Paul, there is “one body” (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:20, Eph 2:16, 4:4, etc.) and that is what universal or catholic means when applied to the Church. There may be multiple denominations, differences, and divisions within the Church, but there is only one universal Christian body of believers and that is what Catholic means. So, yes, all Orthodox Christians believe in a Catholic church, in that they believe there is only one universal Christian Church—that is what Biblical tradition tells us and that is what we must believe is true.

However, no, despite some similarities, we are not *Roman* Catholic. The early church had five patriarchs, one in Jerusalem, one in Alexandria, one in Antioch, one in Constantinople and another in Rome. These were geographic centers and separate jurisdictions of the early church and all were basically in agreement. However, in a similar fashion to how Amish split from other Anabaptists, there was a “Great Schism” in 1054 between the four patriarchs of the “East” and the Roman “West” over a variety of issues—including Rome’s unilateral addition to the creed (called the “filioque“) and the elevation of Papal power.

The Roman side veered towards more authority being granted to “Peter’s seat” in Rome. The Orthodox, by contrast, put more emphasis on maintaining Church tradition both written and spoken (or Orthodoxy) and hold that Peter was the “first among equals” rather than the “Vicar of Christ” in the way that the Romans do. This is a very significant difference of perspective, yet Orthodox and Roman Catholics do recognize each other at some level despite not being in Communion together. Both the Orthodox East and Roman West are Catholic in the sense they are parts of the universal Church, but they are not the same.

“Do Orthodox worship Mary?”

One of the first things a non-Orthodox will notice when entering an Orthodox sanctuary is the many pictures. These are called “icons” (after the Greek word for “image”) and are a visual representation of various saints, scenes, etc. This is a Christian tradition back to depictions in the Catacombs, there are icons of many virtuous Biblical characters, and of those most prominently displayed are those of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus. There is also mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “with the saints” throughout the divine liturgy and special honor is given to her.

However, Mary, while venerated (or honored) as the mother of our Lord, is never worshipped by an Orthodox Christian. Worship is only for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and all others are honored for their various roles. Mary’s role is more significant because her body was quite literally the ark of the new covenant. That is why Mary knew, early on, that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) and why Elizabeth (who were are told was “filled with the Holy Spirit”) loudly proclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Nowhere in Scripture do we have a similar proclamation made and it is only right that the mother of Jesus is recognized by us in the same manner that she is by Elizabeth.

For Jesus to be fully man he needed a mother and his mother was Mary and that is why we celebrate her role. But that honor is not worship. In Chrismation, one has to make agree and make clear that their recognition of Mary and the saints in form of icons is “not unto idolatry” but for sake of “contemplation” and so that “we may increase in piety, and emulation of the deeds of the holy persons represented.” It is no more idolatry to venerate Mary and the saints than it is to have pictures of your grandparents on the wall or to speak of your own mother glowingly on Mother’s day or to treat your own children or spouse differently than other people. There is a vast difference between honor and worship.

“Why aren’t there Orthodox missionaries?”

This one caught me off guard. First off, every Orthodox Christian is (borrowing the words of Charles Spurgeon) “either a missionary or an imposter” and by this, I mean every member of the body of Christ is sent into the world as his representative. Sure, not every Christian is sent abroad in the manner of Hudson Taylor, but every Christian is called to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and should do this wherever they are in the world. Secondly, Orthodox Christians, from St Paul onward have journeyed physically to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the world. Again, not all traveled to far away places, but every Orthodox believer is a missionary and there are no exceptions.

Some of the confusion of my Mennonite friends (who more or less proclaimed that Orthodox lack missionaries) could a product of Evangelical Protestantism and the influence this movement has had on defining their current practice. It seems many under that influence see missionary service as an activity that Christians do rather than an all-encompassing lifestyle. In other words, according to this mindset, one is only a missionary when shoving a tract in the face of an unsuspecting passerby or when they go with a group to do a project in a country that could use jobs more than donated labor. And yet, while that may be a part of what missionary work entails, this too is how we are to proclaim the good news:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22‭-‬24 NIV)

And, as far as Orthodox being missionaries in the forms more celebrated, there are many powerful examples of wonderworkers and martyrs for the faith. Orthodox don’t just travel to tropical paradises, do fun projects, and then jet back home again (back to their privileged lifestyles) after a few days or couple years. No, the Orthodox live in some of the most hostile places for a Christian to live and many have become the truest witness of Christ—they have died as martyrs for their faith, in this century as much as any other, and not only in the history books. It was not Protestant missionaries or Evangelicals being brutalized and beheaded by ISIS.

Furthermore, having entertained (very briefly) proselytizers of a sect widely viewed as heretical (even by Protestants) and having considered the words of Jesus about missionaries that make their converts twice as damned as themselves (Matt. 23:15) or those who will cry “Lord, Lord, have we not” when standing condemned in front of Him (Matt. 7:21-23) and listing their missionary works as if that is their salvation, there is something to be said for correct teachings and practice. The Orthodox, while all over the world (including Africa, where a baptism of 556 took place), seem to be more concerned with quiet and sincere obedience than they are with loud and proud professions.

“I’ve heard Orthodox don’t believe in being ‘born again’ experience, is this true?”

Conservative Mennonites, like other Evangelicals, tend to put much stock in a “born again” salvation experience. They take a phrase out of an analogy Jesus used (while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:1-20) to explain spiritual transformation that must take place before someone can enter the kingdom of God. He likens being born of the Spirit to the wind, it is something mysterious, and then foretells his dying on the cross by likening it to the brass serpent Moses raised in the wilderness that healed those who looked upon it. And, yes, there is an experience, at the foot of the cross, for those who look up to Jesus and cry out for God’s mercy to them as a sinner.

However, salvation is not simply saying something and having an emotional experience attached or a once and done event, there’s so much more. We are told in the letters of St. Paul to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and then also that we are saved by grace “through faith” and as a “gift from God” (Eph. 2:1-10) rather than by our righteous works, which (with many other Biblical texts) could seem to present a contradictory view of salvation—splitting Protestants into competing camps of works versus faith, eternal security versus potentially losing our salvation, or Calvinist and Armenian. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians avoid this debate entirely with a view of salvation that transcends easy categorization. We are saved, being saved, and will be saved so long as we continue to believe.

The Orthodox see salvation as a direction, not just a destination, as an intentional alignment with God’s perfect will and the choice we make daily in following after Jesus. In other words, salvation is less about declaring oneself to be “born again” or a singular event in time that we look back on and more about taking up our cross. Salvation is not a mere once-and-done transaction for them, it is a continuous relationship and being in Communion together with the body of Christ. So, yes, we should all be “born of the Spirit” and yet we should also be connected to the vine (John 15:1-8) or we will die as spiritual babies and never bear the fruit of salvation. Ultimately salvation is not a past event or a promised future reward, it is something we choose every day in our being faithful to God and living out the commitment to love each other.

“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”

+ St. Anthony the Great, “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” Text 45, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

“I know an Orthodox and…”

It is one of the most annoying statements. Annoying because it is usually followed by some sort of negative characterization which they then use their anecdote to generalize about the entire two millennia of Orthodox Christianity and a church made up of hundreds of millions of people. It is a statement many Mennonites have encountered as well, which makes it all the more annoying when the same thing in slightly different form comes from the mouth of a Mennonite. I recall a time, broke down while driving truck, when the service technician (who didn’t know I was Mennonite) went on a long rant about some Mennonites he knew and how hypocritical Mennonites are, etc. Of course, his criticisms weren’t entirely incorrect nor are many of those leveled against the Orthodox (we don’t claim to be a church of perfect people) and yet they were definitely unfair to use as a basis to judge the entire group.

This tendency to remember their worse examples and our own best is a human universal. It is something called in-group-out-group-bias which means we tend to recall good examples of our own group (minimizing our bad) and bad examples of other groups (minimizing their good) or, in a word, favoritism. But this is especially true where the perfect church myth is prevalent or there is a lack of contemplation, introspection, and ownership. The smaller a group is, the easier it is to imagine that you are not like those others—those who do not live up to your own personal standards—and forget that a judgmental, divisive and prideful spirit is as sinful as anything else. Pointing out the faults of others is never a good defense. We should recall the story Jesus told about the confident religious elitist who thought only of his own righteousness in comparison to others and the humble man who begged only for mercy in his prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, anyhow, maybe you know an Orthodox Christian and can only recall bad things about them. But I probably know a few more and can tell you that they are just as sincere as any conservative Mennonite or other Evangelical I’ve met. Maybe you know some Orthodox who do not live to your own religious standards or can point to a historical blemish or two from a thousand years ago? Well, I’ll raise you one pedophile ordained by a Mennonite church in the past decade (here’s a list of some other Mennonite sexual abusers, if that’s not enough) and the Münster rebellion. Every denominational group has their less than celebrated moments and members, I can assure you of that. And if a group is too small to have a history of mistakes, that is not a great strength, it is a weakness, it only means they are more vulnerable. So “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” or maybe we should just take the advice of Jesus to be humble about ourselves and understand our own continual need of God’s mercy?

The Orthodox do not run from their history by starting a new denomination (or ‘non-denominational’ group) every time there’s a failure, they have their greater and lesser examples like every other group. But one thing that can be said is that they have maintained their unity centered on Christ and keeping the traditions of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the present moment. Fr Anthony, the Antiochian priest who served during my Chrismation, can trace his ordination all the way back to Peter and the first Gentile church, the church of Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) where believers were first called Christian. There is a great wealth of history to draw from, some cautionary tales, and many who were faithful until the end. Like the church that Paul preached to, the Church today is by no means perfect and yet, as Jesus promised, the “gates of hell” have not prevailed against the Church he founded.

For all of my non-Orthodox friends, the door is open, all people are welcomed, and there are good answers to questions for those who have them. There is truly a wonderful diversity within Orthodoxy, and a beauty of traditions—traditions packed with deep meaning—that span thousands of years. This is not something that one can begin to summarize in a blog post. There are volumes written and many more yet to be written about the Church.

But the best way to start learning about Orthodoxy is first-hand—to come and see.