Nicholas Zernov (1898 – 1980)
Icons as Witnesses to a Transfigured Cosmos
Icons were for the Russians not merely paintings. They were dynamic manifestations of man’s spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art. The colors and lines of the icons were not meant to imitate nature; the artists aimed at demonstrating that men, animals and plants, and even the whole cosmos, could be rescued from their present state of degradation and restored to their proper “Image.” The icons were pledges of the coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one…. The artistic perfection of an icon was only a reflection of a celestial glory – it was a concrete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the spirit. The icons are part of the transfigured cosmos.
~ The Russians and their Church, SVS Press,1978, p. 107-108.
The Human Body, Creation and Salvation: Eastern and Western views
In the West body and spirit are clearly distinguished, and there is a tendency to set them in opposiiton to each other; in the Christian East they are treated as interdependent parts of the same creation.
In the West the individual occupies the center of attention; in the East he is always seen as a member of a community.
In the West mankind is the main object of redemption; in the East the whole cosmos is brought within its scope.
The West likes clear, precise formulae; it is logical and analytical…. The East treats religion more as a way of life than as a doctrine; it mistrusts over-elaborate definitions. It believes that the Church and its sacraments are divine mysteries… and that they will always evade analysis by logical reasoning.
Eastern Christians look upon the world as one great organism; they approach the divine manifestations of life as an expression of the same reality. The East does not think about salvation in terms of the individual soul returning to its Maker; it is visualized rather as a gradual process of transfiguration of the whole cosmos, culminating in theosis. Man is saved, not from the world, but with the world.
~ Nicholas Zernov, The Church of the Eastern Christians, SPCK Publ., London, 1947, p. 39, quoted in Jon Gregerson, The Transfigured Cosmos, Frederick Ungar Publ. Co., New York, 1960, pp. 9-10.
A Russian historian and commentator on relations between the traditional Orthodox Church and the Soviet system, his historical descriptions portray the Russian understanding of God and creation as intertwined. He draws out those elements of Christian faith as understood in precommunist Russia that connect nature and humanity back to God. His descriptions of creation in terms of iconic images imply a transparency to all things so that the world and each thing in it is seen as representative or symbolic of ever deeper meaning and purpose.
Creation and the Sacraments
Zernov describes the differences between the understanding of the Holy Eucharist in the East and in the West which reflect, he says, fundamental differences in cosmology. Because this deals with differences in worldview, this shapes how one sees the environment, which gives this passage ecological relevance.
Zernov says that in the West (referring to the theological understanding of the Roman Catholic Church) the Body of Christ in the Eucharist is seen as God coming down from heaven in the process of transubstantiation, and Christ taking form within the blessed host. This reflects the way Christ and creation are understood.
In the East, the mysteries of the Divine Life are set in a timeless reality. The words of Christ at the Last Supper are repeated and gradually the Divine Presence is revealed in the metamorphosis or transfiguration of the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the Body and Blood of Christ. During the Divine Sacrifice, streams of Divine Grace flood into the world. Heaven and earth, Infinite and finite, Uncreated and created, God and man come together and become one, or rather, their already existing unity is realized.
The Eucharist, for an Orthodox Christian, is not so much a sudden intervention from above, as a gradual revelation of the divine presence which is always here.
~ Nicholas Zernov, The Church of the Eastern Christians, SPCK Publ., London, 1947.