1 John 1:5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.John 3:29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
One of the stranger experiences of painting icons (and I have nothing to compare it to since I have never painted anything else) is the movement from dark to light. The basic form is established in the darkest tones that will appear – and despite what you may have seen in books of reproductions, icons do not properly ever use the color black. Some other dark color has to carry that value. But at the stage of the first beginnings, when the basic shapes are established, an icon is at its darkest stage. Indeed, in painting the icon of a face, it appears quite dark, lifeless and flat.
The startling process (particularly for this neophyte) is the building up of form and content with light. Each stage is lighter than the last until at last highlights are added. But in the process what had been dead and lifeless, flat and empty, now becomes increasingly full and alive. “It is building with light,” we are told.
That, of course, is the process of painting an icon. But there is also a work of restoration and of re-creating an image that is taking place in each of us. Like the form of an icon in its darkest stage, we come to Christ and the discernable similarity to the image of God is there – but we are dark and lifeless by comparison to what we are called to be.
The Scripture verses I cited above were some that came to mind as I thought about this process today. We were told in painting: “You never create form back adding something darker.” This is true in our Christian formation as well. The movies like to add a bit of darkness to their characters for the sake of interest. Numerous writers from Dostoevsky to C.S.Lewis have noted the difficulties in creating a literary character who is interesting without at the same time being bad. But our badness, however “colorful” it may seem to some – particularly if it is nicely drawn on the screen and compared to lifeless “straw men” of goodness -is not very interesting at all. True goodness has a form and depth to it that makes anything less seem not full of character, but simple, banal and boring.
“God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” We need add no darkness to our character in order to become more like Christ. It is light that gives us form and reveals the character of Christ in us.
By the same token, St. John the Baptist’s statement, that “He must increase and I must decrease,” seems quite apt for our situation as well. The change that is to take place in us, from glory to glory, comes by beholding the face of Christ:
2 Cor. 4:6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in
the face of Christ.
The change that occurs in us does not come about because we have made a promise to make a good effort at self-improvement – to learn to behave ourselves better. It comes not because we have learned to reform ourselves by ridding ourselves of our worst habits and undergone years of psychoanalysis (I do not mean to disparage the use of medicines where needed, nor the help of physicians). But the change that occurs in us does not come by more carefully monitoring ourselves, but by recognizing that it is Christ who must increase while I am descreasing. It is not nearly so much that I need less of something as it is I need more of something, or rather, Someone. It is “Christ in you” who is the “hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Our daily labor needs to be towards Christ Himself – that He may increase in us. It is not the obliteration of what we are as it is the “light of Christ” appropriately applied that brings proper form and shape to our shapeless lives and reveals that this lump of clay was indeed created to become the image of God.
Not less of the world – but more of God. He is not destroying us in the process of saving us – but making His creation new.