Sometimes, I just need an escape from the twenty-first century. When this happens on a Sunday, I go to Solemn High Mass. Christ Church’s impressive brownstone structure stands before me as I wait to cross Broadway; but, I can’t take in the sublimity of the building just yet. First, I must punctuate the text I’m composing with a smiley face. Phone finally put away, I look up as I pass through the church’s open doors. I stop and gaze at the sanctuary; I have entered an amethyst cavern. The white clouds of incense gather at chest-height, as if they were a musky-sweet mist. Only the thickest of the clouds ascend to the vaulted ceiling, each sending out breathy tendrils to climb the rood screen’s stonework. Just in front of the rood screen hangs the crucifix. I rub my eyes and again peer into the incense. I can barely make out Christ’s woodcut face through all the smoke. But it is there. It always has been there. It always will always be there.
For the next hour and a half, I am transported to England in the High Middle Ages. We bow, cross, and kneel as we worship the Lord; our words of praise are clothed in chant. If any of our minds drift from the service, our eyes bring us back. The crucifix, the Stations of the Cross, the virgin and child: outlines shifting behind an incense veil, ancient icons eager for our contemplation. All too soon, the service finishes and the twenty-first century greets me in the form of Broadway’s blearing traffic.
I cross Broadway and turn onto York Street. Like the incense that had engulfed me moments before, I am now swallowed by an ebb of undergraduates, finally stirring after Saturday night partying. Many I see are waving their fingers over smartphone apps as they walk down the street. This makes me recall the homiletic teachings of Thomas Troeger. Tom would always tell us that a good sermon incorporated visual details. Not only were we to study the greats of Christian theology for our sermon structures, we were also encouraged to gain inspiration from contemporary commercials and television shows. A smiley face, a blue bird, and a silver apple: the twenty-first century is rife with icons.
My reverie is interrupted when I almost bump into a girl, busily texting on her phone. Though I do not touch her, I come close enough to smell her perfume; it is musky-sweet. I continue walking: silver apple, smiley face, blue bird—what if the icons in our daily lives didn’t distract us from our faith, but primed us to experience its ancient visual tradition anew?
Editor's note: To learn more about Visual Culture and Sacred Icons read Thomas Troeger, "Imagining a Sermon."