At left is the Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of All) from St. Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai in the Egyptian desert.
“Written” in the mid-sixth century, 300 years after the monks started living there, the ancient artist-monk responsible for this painting worked in the shadows of the mountain on which God forbade Israel the worship of idols.
The reason this monk’s amazing art isn’t ironic is that icons are not idols. Idols are objects that we make and worship in place of the living God. In Jesus Christ, however, God has acted to make a perfect image of himself (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3).
God has acted to make the Son the “visible image of the invisible God.” When iconographers depict Christ in the icons they write, they are not fashioning a god for themselves but rendering an image of what the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have already done in the Incarnation of the One God in Jesus Christ.
It is not, of course, idolatry that God has made himself flesh in Jesus and it is not idolatry to depict what God has done and hang these depictions in our homes and houses of worship, as we hang our family photos or display images of saints and contemporary leaders.
It goes without saying but no one worships the depictions! Christians do, however, worship a God who clothed himself in clay, in the same material stuff with which he made our ancestors in his image in the Garden.
Men and women are made in the image of God and so it shouldn’t surprise us when our Incarnate Lord looks like us.
The oft-noted difference between the left (broken) and right (transfigured) sides of the face—particularly the asymmetry of the left eye—helped me two decades ago to stop thinking about Jesus as a stick figure or flannelgraph character and to start experiencing the full-blooded actuality of how things are in Jesus Christ; even the possibility that the sinless one’s participation in our nature may have involved bearing physical imperfections or infirmities, just as daily he grew thirsty, hungry and weary.
Icons of Christ help us to understand that Jesus is no abstraction—no mere thought, no matter how beautiful—nor a protagonist in a children’s story told to make us feel better but the express image of the unseen all-holy God now made vulnerable, made like us “in every way.”
We see in Jesus the sacred reality of our humanity as God intended it from the beginning; his the only human life ever to fulfill that intention. We become most truly human when we embrace the humanity of God in Jesus Christ. Icons help us visualize that possibility; that we might by grace become transfigured partakers of the divine nature in clay.
In Jesus Christ God leaves fingerprints and DNA wherever he goes (this is just how human he is); Jesus breathes the Spirit of the Father’s loving-kindness on all things (this is just how divine he is). His blood, his touch, his stops of breath reconcile the Creator and the clay that as female and male alone in all Creation bears his image.
He walks with us, walks as us now, and we participate by our prayers, by our touch—sometimes even our blood —in the renewal of all things.
Would that the world could see the likeness of Jesus in every human who bears Christ’s name; that all might behold in our faces icons of his love and resurrection in the world he became human to restore.
Draw close to the Word Made Flesh. His love—yes, even his love in us— sustains the world. O the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
– Rev. Kenneth Tanner+ Pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer – Rochester Hills, Michigan