in Light and
for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord
rises upon you.
covers the earth
and thick darkness is
over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness
of your dawn.
American Baptist Int'l Ministries
New Life Center
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Merry Christmas! What a joyful time of the year! The weather in Chiang Mai is a comfortable high 70’s/low 80’s. All is well at the New Life Center, and it is good to be back at work. In early November, I returned to Thailand after four months of speaking in the U.S. It was an honor and a pleasure to visit longtime friends and make new ones in my travels. My deepest thanks to the many people who graciously invited me to speak, hosted me in homes and hotels, assisted with transportation, and gave generous financial support. The care and feeding of wandering missionaries is not an easy task!
While I was in the States this year, I pursued some continuing education. Since part of my work in Thailand involves therapeutic art, I decided to attend a week-long art workshop on contemplative prayer and icon painting. The class was taught by Russian Orthodox master iconographer, Dmitri Andreyev, from the Prosopon School. He gave both devotional insight and technical instruction throughout the week. The class was a wonderful, life-changing experience for me!
Russian Orthodox tradition teaches that icons are the “Gospel in light and color”. Each step in the process of making an icon is rooted in a theological concept. Students contemplate these concepts while painting. The intention is to “restore purity of heart and draw us toward the heart of God”. For example, the rectangular indentation in the middle of the wooden board creates a natural, raised frame around the figure. This indentation is called the “ark”, referring to the ark of the covenant. It symbolizes the interior presence of God in the person depicted and in fact, in all who believe in Christ. The halo or wings often extend onto the outer frame, symbolizing that the interior accumulation of God’s glory should extend outward and shine through the person, out into the world, so that we become beacons to inspire others. As Andreyev said, “Holiness does not exist for the betterment of the saint, but rather for the salvation of the whole world.”
The iconographer in this Byzantine Orthodox tradition uses only natural materials, including wood, homemade gesso, and linseed oil. To make the paints, we used powdered clay and ground minerals, found in soils from all over the world. This was mixed together with egg yolk, white wine, and water. And each student’s mixture, though prescribed, was vastly different, depending on the ratio of different pigments, egg mixture and water used. The paint was then applied, starting with the darkest, grainy colors. Each successive layer was gradually lighter and finer than the last. This represents the creation story. The earth was originally covered in darkness and chaos. Then God spoke into the chaos and created light. In the same way, we don’t want to add darkness to the world. Our presence over time should add more and more light. Just the paint mixing itself offered plenty of symbolism to meditate on!
Throughout the week, we meditated on the Word, the glory of God, various kinds of light and how light affects color, holy breath and the Holy Spirit, and what it means that people are created in the Image of God. We learned about the history of icons and the Byzantine iconoclastic controversy of the 8th and 9th Centuries. (Iconoclasm is the destruction of icons in the belief that they were idols). We learned that icons are not intended to be magical, ritual objects of worship, but rather are a guide to point us to Christ, and remind us of the stories of the great people of faith throughout history who loved Him. In fact, Father Michael Plekon, an Orthodox priest in America even says that people of faith are like “living icons”, whose holy lives point people to the gospel. Icons remind us that the Word became flesh and dwelled among us as a real person, the concrete incarnation of God in the world. Thomas got to physically touch the risen Jesus. We can’t do that, but we can touch pictures that remind us of Jesus, just as you might hold in your hand the picture of a beloved family member or friend and feel closer to that person.
As you look at this icon I painted of Mary, the “theotokos” or “bearer of God”, may it become for you the “Gospel in light and color”. A miraculous and mysterious thing happened some 2,000 years ago. God came to us, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. And He is the light of the world.