Sitting in our bedroom for my morning time of prayer today, reading Aleksandr Men’s An Inner Step toward God again, slowly, I came across his advice to focus one’s meditation on an icon.
This is what one might presume is standard advice among Orthodox sages. And its equivalent encouragement to fix one’s eyes on a crucifix would be routine among Roman Catholics. But it is all-but-unknown among Protestants, even in this image-rich age.
Still, I thought I’d hit the Internet for a suitable image of Jesus. And I found, to my non-surprise, that my fellow evangelicals have in fact produced a startling, hilarious, and disgusting array of images of Jesus after all. We evangelicals have always been good at assimilating pop culture to our agendas of piety and evangelism.
After ten minutes of scrolling and clicking and sighing and laughing and wincing and despairing, I gave up. The images that were not simply inappropriate were either too sentimental…or too specific. By this latter word, I mean that I could never stop thinking that I was looking at that model, or that actor, or the artist’s version of a model or actor. It was never Jesus, just a man playing Jesus.
Then I had to laugh at myself rather ruefully: I was a classic modern, selecting the Jesus that I liked to suit my preferences. “No, that one’s too silly. That one’s too pretty. That one’s better…but still, too Caucasian. Hmm, that’s okay, but the painting style is pretty cliché. Let’s see what else….”
I don’t know much about the iconographical tradition of Brother Men, but I know a little. So I decided to go further in his direction, and asked Google to find me “Jesus icon.”
Most of what came up then were versions of, yes, the same two or three things. Jesus as Shepherd, or Judge, or member of the Trinity, or a baby in the arms of Mary. This was to be expected, of course, since icons have deep traditions of aesthetics and ethics that are followed by painters today, centuries later.
I fairly quickly recognized (I hope it wasn’t merely “chose”) the Sinai Jesus (often known as the earliest rendering of “Jesus the Teacher” or “Christ Pantokrator,” the Ruler of All) as the one for me:
This Jesus is, at first glance, and at hundredth, a little disconcerting because of the asymmetry. I’ve learned that what strikes newcomers as odd, even distressing (“What’s wrong with Jesus’ eyes?”), is theologically and devotionally powerful: This is a painterly way of rendering Chalcedonian Christology, the divine and human natures (the larger eye bespeaks the omniscient vision of God) in one person.
And if one contemplates it a little more, one sees that the artist has rendered the whole face asymmetrically: recognizably one unified person, but no feature on the one side is exactly like the feature on the other: ear, eyebrow, cheek, nose, moustache, mouth…. Indeed, it is the divine side that is in shadow, while it is the human side that seems to bear marks, wounds, even blood-stains….
Jesus’s right hand is raised: both to symbolize his identity (his fingers spell out the initials ICXC, the beginning and ending letters of “Jesus Christ” in stylized Greek) and to extend benevolence. Jesus (= “God saves”) Christ (= “Anointed One”) rules, yes, but in redemptive and re-creative love.
His left hand holds a large, bejewelled book: the Book of Life, the Book of revelation and testimony, the Book of heritage and wisdom, the Book of prophecy and poetry, the Book of the Past and the Future—with the Cross on the cover as it has the Cross at its heart.
His golden halo of deity, with three bars for Jesus’s unity with the triune God, contrasts with the dark plainness of his cloak, the garb of humanity. Indeed, the halo itself is thickly edged in black, the kenosis of incarnation, the unspeakable self-limiting of infinity in order not to burst, but to bless, our City in the background—or is that the New Jerusalem that Jesus is bringing us?
That’s just today’s initial musings on this rich picture that has inspired millions. Indeed, I feel almost apologetic to those trained in this tradition for offering here what must be the most elementary insights. I believe I can count on their indulgence, though, as they are glad, I am sure, that yet another Protestant has finally grasped how icons are not necessarily idols and can be true aids to devotion.
I have always been moved by this icon, and now, by God’s grace, I hope for a while longer to contemplate it, and the real Jesus, it has portrayed for so many for so long.
I sense the real Jesus here, odd and symbolic and “unrealistic” as this portrait is. This picture certainly helps me escape the sweetie-pie Jesuses of “sacred heart” Catholic piety and the macho Christs of contemporary evangelical nonsense. Jesus was not model-lovely. He was not, to paraphrase Richard Niebuhr, just a really, really, really, really handsome man.
He was what this icon says he was, and is, and ever will be.