Orthodox theology is a “seamless garment”: no part of Orthodox doctrine, worship, prayer or life stands in a category of its own. Everything refers and reveals the one thing in Christ – our salvation. Even the doctrine of the Trinity, as utterly sublime as it is, remains a matter revealed for our salvation. Because this inter-relatedness is true it is possible to speak of Scripture as a “verbal icon” (Florovsky), or to say that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words” (Seventh Council), or that “one who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays.” In my limited reading I have never read any particular commentary that spoke of the music of the Church as an icon, but I feel confident in describing it in that manner. It is possible to say this, at the very least, because all of creation can properly be seen as icon – a window to heaven.
To say that music is an icon is not to have said all there is to say about music. But it does say something about the proper place of music in the Church. Music is not about us. Music in the Church does not exist for our enjoyment or entertainment, even though the joy associated with it may at times be exquisite.
Archimandrite Zacharias (of St. John’s Monastery in Essex) describes the heart of worship as “exchange.” It is not an exchange in the sense that we offer something in “trade” with God. Rather, it is an exchange that is also named “communion” and “participation.” God becomes what we are and in and through Him (by grace) we become what He is. This “exchange” is our salvation. In the mystery of Holy Baptism the candidate is asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” The union which is effected in Holy Baptism (Romans 6:3-4) is our salvation, “newness of life.” All that takes place within the Christian life is union and exchange – it is the means and manner of our salvation.
Music exists for exchange and union. It is the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in which we unite ourselves in offering our bodies (the voice) as a living sacrifice to God.
Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim,
And who sing the thrice holy hymn
to the life-creating Trinity,
now lay aside all earthly cares.
That we may receive the King of All,
Who comes invisibly upborne
by the angelic hosts,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
(Cherubic Hymn from the Divine Liturgy)
Not all paintings are icons. Not all music is iconic. Not every voice is raised in union with the heavenly hosts. To write a true icon is a great and holy thing. To sing in a manner that reveals heaven and unites us with the heavenly hosts is a great thing indeed. We were created to sing in just such a manner.
Lest I be misunderstood, I do not claim that all music in Orthodox Churches is iconic in character. Many Churches are decorated with religious art, which, though beautiful, is not iconic. Some music falls short of its intent within the Tradition. By the same token, there is music outside of the Orthodox Church that is iconic – both by accident and by intention.
Music that renders heaven opaque – particularly music presented as Christian – is tragic. We were meant to sing with angels – just as they delight in singing with us.