"He is the Image of the invisible God"
An essay written for inclusion in The Deacon, the monthly newsletter of St. Vincent's Cathedral Church, Bedford:
I have been thinking quite a lot about pictures of Our Lady and the infant Savior lately. This is partly the result of the Madonna-and-Child Christmas cards stacking up on my kitchen table. But I have also been painting just such a picture myself for the last two months. I have recently spent five or six hours most Saturdays sitting beside a master iconographer and learning how a Byzantine-style icon is “written.” My icon is a traditional image known as “the Tender Kiss,” where the Christ child is shown reaching up to give the Blessed Virgin a peck on the cheek. Writing this icon has been a marvelous, meditative way to spend Advent and prepare for the great Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord, the Christ Mass. It is an incredibly “grounding” experience.
And yet there are millions of sincere Christians today who would be uncomfortable with this sort of image. After all, God did command Moses on the Holy Mountain, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image […]. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” Can we be sure that devotional use of images of Christ is appropriate?
During the early Middle Ages some Christians known as the Iconoclasts, raised precisely this objection. They insisted that the Second Commandment forbade the use of images of Christ and the saints as aids to prayer and prohibited devotions such as the veneration of the Holy Cross. Eventually the Iconoclasts convinced some of the Byzantine emperors to begin the systematic destruction of sacred images and the “purification” of Christian worship. Suddenly Christians who maintained the traditional worship practices were persecuted terribly.
But soon a champion of the Catholic faith arose, St. John of Damascus. And St. John’s answer to the Iconoclasts was startling. Of course the Second Commandment forbids idolatry, he said. But we must never forget that the Incarnation and the saving work of Christ on the Cross have altered the world forever. The physical world has been sanctified to an unimaginable degree because God Himself became a part of it, living and dying as one of us. The Creator is separate from His creation, John insisted, but in the Incarnation God has also identified Himself with the created order. Therefore, after the coming of God the Son in the flesh the use of material things in our worship of Him is more than appropriate. It is demanded.
St. John’s words have not lost their power after 1300 years:
Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! … Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence, because God has filled it with His grace and power. Through it my salvation has come to me. Was not the thrice-happy and thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? What of the life bearing rock, the holy and life-giving tomb, the fountain of our resurrection, was it not matter? Is not the ink in the most holy Gospel-book matter? Is not the life-giving altar made of matter? From it we receive the bread of life! And over and above all these things, is not the Body and Blood of our Lord matter?...
You see, “materiality” and salvation are intimately linked. The Christian faith is not just about “ideas.” For, my brothers and sisters, the pagans have their mythology. Philosophers and scientist have their theories. But you and I, as the people of God, have the facts of history. Our faith relates entirely to the real world and the God who made. For the one true God, whom we worship, is not an abstraction. He is the Maker of all that is, visible and invisible. The Lamb of God, who gave Himself up for us on that terrible, yet “Good” Friday, is not a “redeemer myth” or “literary trope.” The flesh and blood man, Jesus of Nazareth—very God of very God come down from Heaven, saved us by the most mundane things imaginable: bone-studded leather whips, the spittle of Roman executioners, eight-inch long iron spikes, and a couple of rough-hewn pieces of wood. And from that despicable assemblage of material stuff, at one particular place and one particular time—outside the walls of a mid-sized town in a remote province at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon—our Lord Jesus Christ crushed the power of sin and death and gave birth to a new creation.
For that day at the Place of the Skull the Lord God Incarnate took upon Himself every sin committed by the human race--from that last dawn in Eden until the End of Days--as “He stretched out His arms of love on the hard wood of the cross.” All the suffering that sin has inflicted upon mankind since the Fall--every broken heart, every ache and pain, every tear shed at every graveside—our Lord Jesus offered all of them up in His own flesh as His perfect, atoning sacrifice to God the Father. Because Christ was lifted up on that rough-hewn Roman cross, there is no pain we can suffer that our God has not already shared and there is no trespass we may commit beyond the forgiveness of the One who knew no sin, yet became sin for us. And as those two unobtrusive pieces of Roman wood soaked in our Savior’s precious Blood, they became the Tree of Life for all those who have repented of their sin, placed their trust in Christ, and been buried with Him in the waters of baptism. Salvation for the Christian is a solid fact of history. Its results are material and palpable as well as spiritual and eternal.
Without the Incarnation, of course, none of that would have been possible. Christmas focuses our minds on that the Divine Humanity that redeemed the world. And while theologians have spilled buckets of ink down through the ages on the nature of the inextricable link between God and us forged in the Incarnation, nothing displays its reality quite like the Bread of Life lying in the straw of a barnyard’s food trough. That is also why images of Mother Mary and the infant Jesus captivate us so. The fragility of life at its beginning mirrors that at its end. The Baby in the manger and the King on His Cross are intimately connected. For the precious Blood that was poured out for the world at Calvary was human blood as well as the Blood of God. The hands that were pierced by those Roman spikes had once feebly grasped His Mother’s finger as she cooed to Him, like any other mother with her baby. The forehead that bled from the crown of thorns had known the Virgin’s tender kiss in the stable of Bethlehem. The Life given up for us in Christ’s atoning sacrifice was, in short, a human life very like our own as well as the source of Life Itself.
And that, my friends, is why we need images of our Lady and the Savior. That is why “manger scenes” and Christmas pageants really do matter. We need to see and feel the materiality of our salvation, because we are material. Pictures of the Mother and her Baby, both shown in all their frail humanity, are a reminder to us that our redemption is not just a fairy tale. It is a fact of history. It is as solid as the chalk-covered board on which I am painting my icon. When we see the utter dependence of the holy Child upon His mother in such an image, we remember that Jesus Christ—robed as He may be as a Prince--is no mythological figure. He was and is at once both a Man like us—able to identify with us in all our trials and our joys--and the God who made the tree from which such images are made. May God give us grace never to forget either the wood of the manger that bore the Babe of Bethlehem or “the wood of the Cross whereon hung the world’s Salvation.”