Tuesday, March 11, 2008

How Do We Know What Jesus Looked Like?

A Messianic Jewish friend of mine and I were talking about icons. He has a big problem with them. I told him that the Jews were forbidden to make an image of God because no one knew what He looked like. Since God became flesh in Jesus Christ, we know exactly what He looks like, as Jesus is the image of God and the exact representation of His being. I asked him, "Do you think that of the thousands of people that saw Him, not one person drew or painted His picture?" His response was surprising since I consider him an intelligent and articulate individual. He said, "Don't be so sure of it."

But, for the sake of argument, let's say he is right. Supposing no one ever painted a picture of the actual Jesus, does this mean that His image is still not captured in the icon? People who knew Jesus well didn't recognize him after His resurrection until the Lord decided to "reveal" Himself by breaking bread. People who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty and visit the sick also don't recognize Jesus either. Does this mean His image is not in the world? Does the mean we have no point of reference to the God-man, the one made flesh for all to behold?

I think the truth of the matter lies in the icon image itself. It shows this man to be the Word of God, the Great I Am, the Almighty, the one who was humiliated, crucified, risen and ascended. The one who blesses and teaches us. He is our healer, our portion and our cup, the One Who Is and Who Was and Who is to come. My friend would certainly never deny these truths about Christ, and yet, despite any particular artistic detail regarding the accuracy of His physical features, the icons proclaim all of these realities and more - the Spirit of Truth rests upon them.

The same can be said for all of the other icons - they represent the truth of the Faith and the reality of the Kingdom of God, of a life that never ends, and of the living stones that make up the heavenly temple. It has been said so well before by many others, but Paul says it best when he says in the book of Hebrews that we have come to the heavenly Jerusalem, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect. Our icons help us keep this focus - on things above and not on the things of the earth.


Grace said...

Good job in talking this one through. It sounds like you've done some St. John of Damascus time. You make your godmama proud! (BTW, St. John's apologeia on the icons is in the bookstore if you haven't already read it.)

Your friend sounds like a tough nut to crack. It also sounds a little like he's under the impression we're trying to say that Christ looked the way he looks in an icon. Actually, the reason the features in Byzantine icons are so stylized -- and the reason we've got a problem with the more realistic "Western-style" Russian icons -- is because the Church wanted to make sure that everyone got that this wasn't a photographic likeness. The point isn't what color Christ's eyes, hair or skin were (though living in that time and place, the features on the icon are probably approximately right). The point is the incarnation -- that's always the point underlying every icon. Because every icon of every saint exists only because God became man, which is why they all have some resemblance to the icon of Christ.

And another thing (because this comment isn't long enough yet :-) ... It is part of our Sacred Tradition that there was one representation of Christ done during His lifetime by Christ Himself. It's what you see represented in an icon that's called "The Image Not Made by Hands" or other titles. You can read the story HERE. If the original still existed, it would be something people would make pilgrimages to go see, but we can count it among many of the treasures of the Church that were lost at the fall of Constantinople.

But that might not mean much to your friend. It can't be independently substantiated that the image ever existed, so maybe it doesn't carry much weight to non-Orthodox.

Nicodemus said...

Grace - actually, I have not read any of St. John of Damascus, but it sounds like it would be a good book to read since this touchy subject comes up often.

Yes, he is well-read and an effective debater on things regarding the faith - he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, now he is a missionary to reach Jewish people, so you can imagine some of the conversations he gets in to with that tough crowd. Nonetheless, he and I remain good friends. I think my jump to Orthodox Christianity rattled him a bit, though.

Grace said...

Channeling for St. John -- better and better! I thought you had read him because the case that we can venerate icons precisely because we live in the age AFTER God became flesh is one that he makes really well.

St. John of Damascus is really well-spoken, and some of his best writing is in defense of icons. Ironically, he was MORE free to write and send these arguments living in a land under Muslim rule than he would have been in one of the "free" countries that were in the hands of iconoclasts at that time. Icon veneration was -- and is -- a hot-button issue.

(Timely to have this discussion coming up to the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Every year when the entire church repeats the very forceful statement of the Church in favor of icons, I can hear those many decades of civil war. Icons are such beautiful things, it's hard to believe that the hatred of them has torn the Church apart in centuries past.)

I think it's great that you know people who have enough conviction in their faith to have an argument with. I love my family, but they're all religion-challenged (except my Orthodox sister). No arguments happen because they don't care about any of this one way or the other. Very peaceful, but sad.

Roland said...

If the original still existed, it would be something people would make pilgrimages to go see, but we can count it among many of the treasures of the Church that were lost at the fall of Constantinople.
It might very well have been looted from Constantinople by Venetian Crusaders and spirited off to the West, where it came to be known as the Shroud of Turin. A Similar artifact, the Sudarion of Oviedo, has been known since the seventh century in Spain, where it is said to have been brought by St. Lawrence. The similarity of the two images mutually reinforces their credibility. Moreover, icons of Christ since the fourth century have tended to resemble the images on the Shroud and the Sudarion, suggesting these cloths might have been used as models for icons of Christ.