On the icon shelf hanging between my son’s and our bedroom is a glass bottle filled with water and small red stones with a small icon of Saint Markella of Chios. My wife and I bought and filled it while visiting the site where Saint Markella was martyred on the island during our honeymoon nine years ago. The rocks and water close to martyrdom site emit a red, powdery mud which is not found anywhere else on earth. Orthodox Christians believe that the very place where Markella’s blood was shed for not worshiping idols has been marked by nature for the last seven centuries since. The water even is believed to boil when a Paraklesis (supplication) service is prayed at the site. Miraculous healings, appearances and all manner of phenomena have been known to occur at the site, and with water from the site, to this day.
Orthodox Christians having items like this in their homes, either from sites of pilgrimage or their local parish, is nothing out of the ordinary, as we believe that the Lord works in and through creation to assist His people. It is also not unheard of for human beings to attach personal meaning to these or any other objects as a way of remembering a specific time or moment in our lives. For my wife and myself, looking at the bottle on our iconostasis not only gives us great strength in our prayer life and in our home in general, but also reminds of a very special time in our lives as newlyweds. We visited the island mere days after we were married, made all the more significant because it was the region of Greece of her family’s origin and she had never been there. Looking at Saint Markella’s icon and the bottle filled with water and red pebbles reminds us of all the Lord has done in our lives and the lives of everyone in our family, as well as the memories of our honeymoon.
The same concept of attaching significant meaning to an object in our lives is (segway!) the heart of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. The first film begins with young Peter Quill’s mother dying of cancer in a hospital. On that day, Peter unwraps a gift by her bedside, which turns out to be a cassette tape she made for him of various songs of the day. Peter takes the tape with him and never lets go of it from that moment on, even after being abducted by aliens and having adventures in space.
(It’s a Marvel movie, just go with it…!)
For James Gunn, director of the first Guardians and its smash sequel, 70’s pop music which makes up both films’ soundtracks (appropriately titled “Awesome Mix Vols. 1 and 2”) is sprinkled all over both films and has been a huge part of the franchise’s success. Gunn, who grew up listening to and loving said songs with his brother Sean, had the following to say about his movies’ special ingredient:
“I knew ‘Guardians’ was a rather outlandish concept — it’s a talking raccoon, a bunch of space aliens, one character who’s from Earth but has been in outer space for nearly 25 years — so I needed a way to ground people emotionally… My thinking was that these AM pop hits would give the audience something they can hold on to that’s very familiar amidst all this strangeness.”
The soundtracks have been massively successful in their own right, both selling millions of copies, but are also the driving force behind both films. The great 70’s hit “Brandy” by Looking Glass, a top ten all time favorite of Gunn’s, is essentially the basis of the entire plot of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2.Despite the outlandish premise of Guardians– a bunch of aliens, a talking raccoon, a talking tree and a snarky human male- the hearkening back to a very specific pop culture reference is a huge part of what makes the concept so palatable for all audiences. It’s something filmmakers completely understand- special objects and memories which ground us emotionally. It’s something our Church and Christianity, in general, understands as well.
Icons, specifically, have always been a fundamental part of Orthodox architecture and worship for a number of reasons which go back to the book of Exodus and the Incarnation itself- Christ came to sanctify all of creation. They are tools, just like music, lighting, language, etc which bring the faith closer to us and make God’s presence feel more real. In addition to these qualities, however, they also serve as vehicles of triggering specific memories and experiences as well, particularly with saints and events that are close to home. Just ask the people of Zakynthos about Saint Dionysios, the people of Chios about Agia Markella, or the Orthodox of the Bay Area about St. John of San Francisco. People who knew these saints while they were alive on earth, or who have a relationship with them on the other side of the kingdom, remember these experiences and intercessions when items of personal significance are included in their worship.
Icons and all holy objects are intrinsic to our faith and to our lives as Christians. They take what is earthly higher and bring what is heavenly closer. They educate as well as inspire, calm, and put us in the right frame of mind. They are ways of grounding people emotionally, something familiar to hold onto during life’s strangeness.
Now where have I heard that before…? 😉
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” – Psalm 116:15
“”Rose of piety and sprout of Chios, we honor with canticles Saint Markella who was beheaded by her father’s hand, as she guarded the commands of Christ, give strength and save from danger, us who cry unto you. Glory to Him who gave you strength, Glory to Him who crowned you. Glory to Him who works through you, healings for all the faithful.” – Apolytikion of Saint Markella