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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 climbed over rocks in search of his lamb; he would not let it go. The last page showed Jesus surrounded by children, and the text read: "Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He loves us and will always take care of us." "This is Jesus," I told little Megan. "He loves you. We love Jesus," I said, and kissed the picture. "I love Jesus, too," she repeated, and gave it a noisy smack.

When David came along, I went to the Christian bookstore in search of something sturdier for permanent display. I bought a small, laminated wall plaque of a gentle, smiling Jesus and wrote on the back the date and this inscription: "So that David can know Jesus." Again, we kissed this picture goodnight. I knew this was only the thinnest glimmer of who Jesus was, and that it omitted a great deal of what Christianity entails, but I urgently wanted to establish this beachhead: Jesus is real, he loves you, you can love him, too.

My problem, then, was not with using images of Jesus, or depictions of Bible stories or heroes of the faith. I knew our love was not being lavished on a laminated plaque but being offered through the picture to the Lord himself. The image was like a window, a seen object opening us to things unseen.

I had a dim idea that Orthodox icons were something different from this; I thought they were end-in-themselves objects of worship, idols. I was wrong. Orthodox often use the same analogy I did, calling icons "windows into heaven." Saint Basil the Great explained that "Honor shown to the icon passes to the prototype it represents." It is not the wood and paint that matters, but the Lord pictured there.

So why did the Lord pictured there have to look so scary? A dozen years ago my husband, Gary, and I were at the cresting wave of the Episcopal renewal movement; every Wednesday night I played guitar at the Prayer 'n' Praise service, and we sang happy songs about a Jesus who was just plain nuts about us. Everything about renewal was bouncy and peachy-keen; icons looked like the manifestation of a sad faith, a faith that was afraid just to open up and let the Lord shower his sweet love.

But eventually the renewal movement began to taste stale; it seemed forced and even a bit desperate. There had to be something deeper. I had been in spiritual direction for about three years, keeping a brief version of daily hours and spending nightly time in wordless adoring prayer, when I read about a show coming to Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery: icons, as early as the tenth century, that had never before been seen outside Greece. Gary wanted very much to go. Yes, that would be wonderful, I said-playing it off.

The Walters, to its credit, had endeavored to present the icons as something more than merely "good art." Gary Vikan, the guest curator of the show ("Holy Image, Holy Space"), wrote, "We had a second, more ambitious aim. Namely, we hoped to present the icon on its own terms, not simply as art, but as sacred art . . . born of equal measures of art and spirit." To that end, the show began with carved, wooden church doors, then led to a reconstructed chapel of icon frescoes. Byzantine liturgical music, haunting and strange, drifted through the air. I began to understand the mood of solemn awe that inspired these paintings.

Directly in my path stood a towering icon of Jesus holding an open book, right hand raised in blessing. Red letters floated on the gold background on either side of his head, JC XC, H Sophia Tou Theou: Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God. His face was a subtle mix of emotions; though the brows were knit, the brown eyes were wide and kind. Light wrinkles radiated from the corners under his eyes, even suggesting a smile. The text on the book was in Greek too advanced for me, but I could make out the root for "forgive."

Moving closer, I realized that the sheet of Plexiglas covering the icon was smeared. No, I saw with surprise, that was lipstick. In fact, there were dozens of kiss-marks scattered over the face of the Plexiglas. Kisses! Who would kiss a painting in an art museum? And who would feel moved to kiss this painting in particular? This Jesus wasn't as harsh as some icons I had seen, but it was still a far cry from Megan's Good Shepherd.

The path led on to another standing icon, this one two-sided, scarred at the bottom where a pole had been attached for procession. The side facing me had the familiar outlines of a Madonna and Child, but this Madonna was different from any I'd seen. Her heart was clearly broken. The Virgin's eyes stared wide with shock and sorrow, dark-pooled and seared with pain; they darted sideways, away from us, away from her child, resting unfocused in mid-air. Her head was ducked forward, held low in an attitude of helpless imploring; her halo had turned a dull brown-green. One hand was lifted to gesture toward the child, not a gesture of pride but of helpless resignation. The watery fingers were transparent, ripples in her robe showing through.

I thought about "a sword will pierce your heart also," and wondered what she could see that we couldn't. When I walked around to view the other side I got my answer. A brutal image filled the panel: Jesus dead, head sunk to one shoulder, magnificent and broken.

The sight arrested me; I felt pinned to the spot. Slowly my eyes traveled over the panel. The image was badly damaged, with large areas of paint peeled away and exposing the pitted raw wood. Jesus' head filled the center of the panel, tipped to one side, as round as his tilted halo and capped with streaming black hair. His eyes were closed and eyebrows lifted peacefully. His mouth was relaxed, drawn down, with only a touch of red on the lip as a reminder of life. All over the surface of that beautiful face ran the scars and scratches of 800 years.

The magnificent head was set on an inadequate body: arms thin and useless, held pinched against the torso; shoulders round as wheels; an unnatural wide-ribbed breastbone. He had no neck; the head was not joined to the body but merely laid over the upper chest like a coin. This broken body was set before a wooden cross, and behind it the background was not gold, but a somber, dark blue. The border was a brilliant crimson.

I don't know how many minutes I stood there transfixed by the beauty and pain of this silent image. I felt that there was something here I had not met before in religious art, indeed, in conventional Western devotion. So much of my journey to that point had been focused on me, whether it was the giddy fun of renewal or the more recent self-improvement project of spiritual direction and centering prayer (a kind of soul aerobics). But looking at this icon I felt aware of nothing but him. I was flooded with love for his sacrifice. How could it be that he would do this for me, who had once spent years in anger and rebellion, ridiculing him and even trying to undermine the faith of Christian friends? Yet he had come to claim and rescue me when I was lost, endangered as a lost lamb on a rocky cliff. For me he had suffered this ultimate humiliation, abandoning all his power. I read the plaque on the cross above his ruined head: Jesus Christ, the King of Glory.

That was enough for me. When we reached the end of the exhibit, Gary and I picked up a handful of brochures; they included photos of several of the icons, including, fortunately, the King of Glory. At home we set up shop in the garage, sawing boards to size, spray-painting them red, and sticking the cut-out icons on with decoupage glue. I wanted this King of Glory with me everywhere. I put one over my desk, one on the bedside table, one over the kitchen sink, one over the washing machine, even one on the dash panel of my car. Gary, meanwhile, had bought some full-size icon posters and was applying them to larger stretches of lumber. The garage fed out a strong scent of aerosol every time the door was opened. A fine red mist was settling on all the stacked boxes.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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