Wednesday, 26 January 2011

"I can make an image of what I have seen of God...and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled."

For a change of pace, I'm not going to be taking our opening quote apart, but affirming it. It is from St. John Damascene, the great 7th-8th century defender of sacred images. If you'll permit me, I'd like to share some of the fruits of my contemplation of a new icon in my parish church, and I hope it will better enable you to draw a spiritual benefit from sacred images.

The use of images, depicting Christ, Our Lady, and the saints, for prayer and teaching is an ancient Christian practice. This picture on the right of a shepherd bearing a sheep on his shoulders (the Good Shepherd), is a fresco from the Catacomb of San Callisto, a 2nd Century Christian burial site in Rome. Such images, constantly employed by the Catholic and Orthodox churches since the earliest centuries, constitute a Biblium Paupares, a 'Gospel of the Poor' "who read in them what they cannot read in books," according to St. Gregory the Great.

It occurs to me (and to my parish priest, who said so explicitly) that too many Catholic churches in this country are more or less bereft of quality sacred images - icons, statues, stained glass, and so on. Correspondingly, we have grown up to be spiritually illiterate, because we can't read these images in a way that earlier generations were able to. With the modern, and admittedly necessary, focus on introducing the laity to the riches of Scripture, perhaps we Catholics have focused on the written word to the exclusion of all the other means in which the Word communicates Himself to us.

Any of you familiar with Lectio Divina, the practice of praying slowly with Scripture, letting the mind wander over the words, making connections between various passages, and being drawn towards the Truth, will recognise a similar method for praying with icons. Let's begin by taking a look at our new icon, here on the left.

The first thing one notices is the position of the icon, directly above and around the Tabernacle. This is an icon of the Resurrection, and its placement is no accident. That Divine Life which conquers death is not merely an image on the wall, He is present in the Sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle, and our holy communion at Mass is a real share in Christ's own life.

Then we may find ourselves wondering at the figures represented. Who are they, and why are they here? Christ, dressed all in white, is pulling Adam (on the left) and Eve (on the right), from their graves, upon which is written: "Lord by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free +/You are the Saviour of the World." From left to right, standing over Adam are 'Righteous Job' and 'St. John the Forerunner', while behind Eve are 'Righteous Sarah' and 'King David'. The Gates of Death lie broken under Christ's feet, and under them is the black pit of Hell. The inscription at the top reads: "He has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light."

The first fruit of my contemplation struck me when I was singing the Benedictus from Lauds/Morning Prayer between Sunday Masses. This is the song which was sung by St. Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist (John the Forerunner in the Eastern Church), after his power of speech had been miraculously restored. This icon is the Benedictus in picture form! Singing that ancient song, and looking up at this icon, for the first time I could actually see the Lord God of Israel, visiting His people and saving them from the hands of their enemy. I could see the Mighty Saviour who God had promised would come from the house of David His servant, and the covenant He made with Abraham, and His love for Zechariah's fathers (the Jewish Patriarchs, Prophets and Holy Women), being fulfilled. Likewise, I could see the little child, John, who would become a prophet of God Most High, and prepare His way before Him. The Benedictus has never been the same for me since - I see it being acted out in this icon every time I sing it.

Then I realised that there is an even deeper link between the Benedictus, the icon and holy communion. In the English version we use, the Benedictus says "He has raised up for us a mighty saviour", yet what it should say is, "And has raised up a horn of salvation for us," ("Et erexit cornu salutis nobis" as it is in Latin). Why does Zechariah say this? In the Temple, of which Zechariah was a priest, the corners of the altar were turned up into four horns. It was on this altar where the sacrifices for sin were made by the priests, and the flesh of the offerings was shared by priest and people. Before Jesus has even been born, Zechariah, the priest of the Old Covenant, is prophesying the sacrifice of the Divine High Priest of the New Covenant on the altar of the Cross. In the icon, Christ's pierced feet stand astride the Gates of Death, which lie in the shape of a cross behind the Tabernacle, where His flesh, consecrated on the altar, is waiting to be shared by priest and people.

Having explored the composition, I began to notice the colours. Colours are like a special vocabulary in iconography; different colours mean different things. A prominent colour in this Resurrection scene is blue - the sky is a very dark blue, and the mandelion (literally, almond) behind Christ is blue. In iconography, blue is the colour of the divine. God is above all, and present everywhere, even in this place, hence the blue of the sky. I personally like to think of the mandelion as a tear in fabric. Think about it - if you stretch a piece of fabric tight, then slit it in the middle, you'll end up with a tear which is roughly this shape. Here, the fabric of the old created order has been torn open by the death of Christ, and He bursts through to snatch Adam and Eve from death to eternal life through the mandelion, which to me looks like a portal to another world in a sci-fi movie. Except, of course, this one's real. sky; blue mandelion in which stands Christ, a bridge between the Divine and the human [cf. 1 Tm 2:5]. But there is more blue in the picture which I didn't notice at first, because it isn't obviously related to a divine subject. On the left we can see that beneath Adam's brown cloak (brown representing 'earthiness', as in "For dust you are, and into dust you shall return") is a blue tunic, and beneath this are sleeves as white as Christ's! In the picture of Eve it is even more subtle, with barely a glimpse of two blue sleeves beneath another earthy, ochre coloured robe. Adam's brown cloak also looks to me like it's falling away as he is being yanked out of the grave by Christ.

Here, the iconographer, or rather the Church, is reminding us of something fundamental to our fallen, earthly, turns-into-dust-when-you-die nature. Beneath all that, we are truly made in the image and likeness of God. That likeness, which was compromised by Original Sin, is still a part of us, a deeper part than the sins which cling to us like dust and lead to death. Even more fundamental still, this image and likeness of God is not an ethereal, wishy-washy nicety. Perhaps Adam's white sleeves are a sign that we are made in the image and likeness of someone real, the same Someone who now stretches out His scarred, white-sleeved hands towards us. What a source of hope for us in our day-to-day lives, full of struggles and failings and strivings! One of the Prefaces to the Eucharist prays to the Father that He "may see and love in us, what you see and love in Christ." We may be covered by sin, but we are made to be like Christ, like God Himself, and even in the darkest places and times, that likeness lives on.

Further, God will not force eternal life on us. We have to co-operate with His grace. Our efforts, of course, are minimal compared with His, but let's face it, He's much stronger than we are! Our little bit of exertion is puny, but it takes a lot of effort to do even that. This is an important part of our Faith, because it means we must walk the walk, as well as talk the talk - the way we live our lives has an impact on our eternal life (cf. the parables of the Sheep and the Goats, and the Prodigal Son). Adam plants his foot on the edge of the grave, adding his own little strength to Christ's might. 

After all this meditation on what it means to be human, I began to ponder on what it means to be me. I've been exploring my vocation for the last year, and I suppose this was on my mind as I looked at the icon. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote a prayer in 'Meditations on Christian Doctrine' which says, "God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another." [March 7, section 2] We all have a vocation, and like much in life, we struggle with it. It occurred to me that maybe if we reminded ourselves that there is something we're born to do, something which is simply a part of us, and this something is given by God, we wouldn't worry about it so much. 

Here, in my parish church, so large you can't miss it, is a colossal reminder about the nature of vocation.  On one side, John the Forerunner does what he was born to do, even here in the afterlife: he turns to Righteous Job, to the people of Israel who've been waiting for the Messiah, and points out to him "the lamb of God". On the other side stands King David, the man God called "a man according to his own heart" [1 Sam 13:14]. Pressure, much? But God gave David everything he needed in order to be that man, and he wears a mantle in God's colour as a sign of His favour.

Praying with icons is a tried and tested method of deepening your relationship with Christ. I hope next time you're in a church you'll take time to gaze up at the icons and statues and stained glass, and savor the Word written in pictures.