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FREDERICA MATHEWES-GREEN


Through a Glass More Clearly

There was something about icons I just didn't get.

Jesus is lying on his side on my dining room floor, leaning against the radiator, balanced on one finger and one toe like a gymnast. He is flattened, just a sheet of painted plywood, and from pointed toe to the tip of his halo he is about four-and-a-half feet tall. For protection, for storage, Jesus is swathed in a blue tablecloth that has been knotted around his ankles and pulled up over his head. When I push the cloth aside, I can see his form, a crucified body without a cross. He floats in misery, head sunk toward one shoulder, eyes tightly shut, face brimming cupful of pain.

His arms are spread like gull-wings; he flies like Superman to save us. But Superman flew twinklebright with punchy fists out front, and our Jesus floats, wide-armed, fistless, hands open and drilled useless with holes. He comes to save us, broken, hobbled, and swathed here on my dining-room floor. It is the only way he can save us; it is the only way we can be saved.

For many, many years, I did not like icons. I kept this a secret. People I respected loved icons dearly, so I knew there was something I just didn't get. I did not admit this, because I didn't want to look dumb. My kids have a saying: "I played it off." It is what you do when (how familiar!) you want to pretend you understand something: laughing at an obscure joke, nodding at an opaque reference, all in the name of saving face. A friend would pause before an icon, and I would hear that sharp intake of breath and her words, "Oh! Isn't it beautiful." "Yes," I'd agree, "how marvelous." I searched the image, trying to find something other than a wizened, severe, and apparently angry Christ. I was thinking, What's beautiful about this? But I played it off.

I can see, in retrospect, that my problem was not with the role of icons, just the style of them. When my daughter Megan was a toddler, we spent many a bedtime story with a little yellow cloth book titled The Little Lost Lamb. The shepherd ...

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