You enter a silent museum. Standing at an appropriate distance, you gaze at a piece of art set against a clinically white wall. The art is lit as to leave no glare or shine and you as the viewer leave no shadow on it. Enough space is allotted all around the art so to be admired without peripheral distraction. Near it is a small tag announcing the title and the name of the artist. The tag also advertises the more mundane: the size, the materials used and the year this object was made. You feel confident this art has been properly documented. You stand, and you look. You do nothing else. For this art to be on display is probably a rare event, and it will soon be stored back into a humidity and temperature controlled room, properly mummified for posterity and as a testimony to the artist’s genius. It might not be seen again for many years, unless the art finds favor in a curator’s whims.
As we come to the feast of Theophany, I would like to describe another experience, the encounter with the icon of the Baptism of Christ. an experience characteristic of what sacred art is meant to do.
You enter a dimly lit church. On a stand in the center, sitting at a 45° angle is the icon. It sits at an angle not so much for you to look at it, but for you to kiss it. All around are flickering candles, and in your approach sweetness surprises you as a man wearing shiny robes passes, swinging incense around it. The icon is surrounded by flowers. It is surrounded by flowers because today is a celebration, the feast of Theophany, and the icon of the Baptism of Christ is the icon for that feast. That is the reason why it is displayed. To see the icon is to hear the chanting, the hymns of Theophany, the feast of light. “On this day you have appeared unto the whole world, and your light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing your praise and chant with knowledge: you have now come, you hast appeared, O Light unapproachable.” Light is related to baptism because as the Divine Man enters the waters of baptism it is light entering the chaotic waters, light entering the deep.
The festal hymn which is also sung at this feast suddenly takes all of its meaning in the light of the icon on the stand: “For as many as have been baptised into Christ, have put on Christ, Halleluia.” The icon of the Baptism makes visible the root of our own spiritual journey to be united with the Divine, having put on Christ, we are called to share in his inheritance. The icon reminds us of our belonging, of our own baptism and our initiation into the Church, marking therefore our participation in the very community with which we are now standing, now bowing, now chanting, now praying.
In this image of baptism, the feast of Theophany is also the blessing of the waters, and so after a font of water is blessed, the faithful drink it, and are doused by the priest who walks around the church flinging water all over the place. So now you walk out of the church, not alone, but surrounded by your community. The icon, that piece of sacred art, is carried with you in a procession to the nearby shore of a river, a lake or an ocean. This baptism, this light that entered the waters of the Jordan 2000 years ago cannot be contained within walls. A cross is thrown into the deep, to show that all of creation receives the Divine light, that the entire universe is contained by the Divine Logos.
These actions mark the very meaning of sacred art, how it is not only us, the people that are baptised. Rather with us and in some manner through us, these painted objects, these metalic vessels, these stone constructions, these human melodies are also “baptised into Christ”, they have also “put on Christ” so to reflect the Logos, so to be united to the Logos at the level at which they are capable. And ultimately, though it remains a mystery to most of us, it is the entire cosmos, the whole of creation that has been given to participate in this process.
Finally, that icon we began with, that piece of sacred art is never seen alone and for its own sake. It is experienced in song, in movement and in the smoky smell of incense. It is not an intellectual game or an aesthetic experience. It does something. It participates in the identity of a community of believers. It makes them participate in a moment of sacred history, accompanies them on their spiritual journey and engages the root of their relationship with God as well as with the entire cosmos.