It’s good to be back at St Peter’s. For those of you who don’t know me, this parish finally was able to get some relief from my presence by sending me off to seminary in 2006. Actually, I’m kidding - this parish was a blessing to me in so many ways, not the least of which was supporting my candidacy for ordination.
One of the things I did while I was a parishioner here was to be a part of the icon-writing group taught by Irena Beliakova. We met every Saturday down in the old basement for a couple of hours of prayer, icon writing, and a whole lot of sighing. Sighing mostly because we couldn’t get our brushes to do as we wanted, or we couldn’t figure out the right color, or just because it was a hard spiritual discipline.
But eventually, with the help of our teacher and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we would complete an icon, and it always was greater than the sum of its parts.
Icons are wondrous things. I know to some of you they look like artwork, but they are so much more.
First, a point of clarification: they are not meant to be a teaching tool like stained glass windows. No, they are an aid to prayer, a window into heaven. When you look at one, at first glance it looks strange – elongated limbs, no attention to Western rules of proportion, serious faces, odd symbols. You might recognize the person portrayed in the icon – Jesus, Mary, Elijah, St. Peter – but it’s hard to connect with the image at first. But when you spend some time with them, you find yourself looking through them rather than at them. You see beyond the image on the board, into a divine space.
Let me say that again. You see BEYOND the image into another space, a divine space.
I spent the past week on retreat down in North Carolina, writing an icon. Most of the icon-writing time was spent in blessed silence. Since most of my workweek is spent talking to people, silence is precious, and this week was doubly precious, because I had no phone access, no interruptions, no unnecessary conversations…just writing an icon, the one that portrays that moment when Mary Magdalene encounters the newly risen Jesus outside the tomb. Once she recognizes him, she reaches out to embrace him. He says, “don’t touch me. It isn’t the time for us to touch.” It’s a blow to her, but as she looks at him, she realizes that the man she sees is not the same person she knew. He is transformed. Not just marks in his hands and feet, but he is different. She sees beyond the image she has had of Jesus, her rabbi and friend, to what he has become, the risen Lord, and she has to accept the impossible.
It’s a powerful icon. Jesus looks at her with tenderness, recognizing her confusion. She looks at Jesus longingly, wanting nothing more than the comfort of touch after the week that preceded it…she reaches to him and he holds his hand up as if to say “don’t.”
But she sees beyond what she thought she saw when he said “Mary.” She sees a transformed person.
Mary Magdalene is not the first person to see something different in Jesus.
As we hear in today’s gospel, most everybody at the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion sees – what? A loser. A failed rabbi and political provocateur who is going to pay for his transgressions with his life. His friends and followers have deserted him. Only a few women stand off in the distance – his mother and a few others. They see a beloved one whose mission seems to have failed, but they stay, watching the horrible scene, because they love him and they must bear witness. He is still their Jesus: their understanding of Jesus, their image of Jesus.
But as he hangs from the cross, in this most ignominious of poses, there is one who sees something different. And it is an unlikely person – another person being crucified. Perhaps it is desperation, perhaps it is a revelation, but this criminal sees the man next to him as something other than another victim of Roman justice. He sees one who is truly a King – Christ the King. He sees beyond the pain and the lash marks and the blood dripping from hands and feet and sees majesty and power. He sees Christ the King. No followers, not even Peter, the Rock who would be the foundation of the church, see Christ the King in this moment. Only a criminal, a thief, the least trustworthy of persons, sees this crucified rabbi as Christ the King.
I wonder if we had been there, if we had the stomach for the spectacle, what we would have seen. My guess is that we would not have seen a king, we would have seen a failure. Now it’s easy for us to say who it is – we went to Sunday school after all – but without that, how would we have seen beyond the visual image to what existed behind it?
That happens a lot these days – we make a judgment on what we see based upon visual evidence without looking deeper, without looking at the person behind the person. It’s the sort of thing that leads to demonization – the awful language we heard in recent weeks in the political sphere. We reduce the person whom we don’t like to a catchphrase or a judgmental witticism, despite the fact that we know that we human beings are infinitely more complicated than a snarky catchphrase can convey. It gives us a feel of control, doesn’t it, this reduction of a person to a judgment?
But it denies something very important about each and every one of us, and here’s where I turn back to the notion of icons and iconography.
What is one of the first things we learn as we study our Christian faith? That human beings are made in the image of God. We humans are the closest thing we can get to what God is. We can’t imagine what God looks like, but if we look at ourselves, that’s a start.
In other words, we are icons of God. It is through us that we see God. Each and every one of us. Each and every one of us is an icon of Creator God, of Christ the King, of the Holy Spirit that sustains us. If we look at each other and look beyond our human failings, what do we see? We see our Trinitarian God. We are the icons of God.
So now that we know that, does it seem right to disrespect other human beings by calling them names, by dismissing whole groups of people as bad in gross generalizations, by classifying them in ways that meet political expediency rather than recognizing that they are icons of God, of Christ the King?
Think of it this way: if you looked at that thief being crucified, it would be easy to simply say “that’s a bad person who robbed others of their honestly earned goods.” But if you looked beyond the visual, into someone who, despite his brokenness, was an icon of God, you would see why he was capable of recognizing Christ the King.
Exteriors are deceiving. Look to the heart rather than the exterior. Look through the icon to the God who created him. Visualize every human being, even the one you disdain, as a sneak peek into who the King is who reigns among us, and then…
…treat them accordingly.