[NPR, “All Things Considered,” November 5, 1997]
Jesus is lying on his side on my dining room floor, leaning against the radiator, balanced up on one finger and one toe like a gymnast. He is flattened, just a sheet of painted wood, and from pointed toe to the tip of his halo he is about four and a half feet tall. For protection, for storage, Jesus is swathed in a blue tablecloth that has been knotted around his ankles and pulled up over his head. When I push it aside I can see his form, a crucified body without a cross. His extended arms are like the wings of a bird; he floats in sorrow, head sunk toward one shoulder, eyes shut, face washed with death.
This icon was painted by my friend Carolyn, for us to use at our church. She cut the plywood to the shape of Jesus’ body, then painted it by the laborious many-layered technique icons require, with prayer and fasting. For Orthodox Christians, icons aren’t just inspirational paintings; we call them “windows into heaven.” We pray through them, so to speak, not to wood and paint but to Lord pictured beyond. Because they bear him to us we treasure them, like we would a photo of a loved one.
I first began to understand this when I attended an exhibit of ancient Greek icons and noticed, to my amazement, that the plexiglass covering each one was covered with the marks of kisses. Who would kiss a picture in an art museum? I wondered. Secretly, I didn’t think icons were very attractive, the images wizened and severe, with none of the grace of Renaissance art. But I gradually began to feel that these icons drew their power precisely from that rejection of conventional painterly expertise and style. The iconographer disappeared: all that remained was the view through the window.
On the eve of Good Friday, Carolyn’s icon will be used to dramatize the Crucifixion. After my husband, the priest, carries a wooden cross around the interior of the church, he will lay it on the ground and fix this icon of Jesus’ body to it with nails. For a pre-literate people, such acting-it-out must have engraved spiritual truths on their hearts. For a too-literate people, used to facile words zinging past us in print, TV, and ads, the simple, deliberate actions break down our sophistication and reduce us to awe.
Jesus is lying against my radiator, and his arms are spread like gull-wings; he flies like Superman to save us. But Superman flew twinklebright with punchy fists out front, and our Jesus floats, wide-armed, fistless, hands open and drilled useless with holes. He comes to save us broken, hobbled and swathed here on my dining room floor. It is the only way he can save us; it is the only way we can be saved.