“Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”
This statement by the 7th Council aptly describes the work of an icon – but fails to do justice to the reality. Scripture, as words to be read, necessarily becomes linear – words follow words and cannot be read except in the order in which they’re written. Icons, however, can do what Scripture does, but can also bring multiple Scriptures together in a single place, forming something of a commentary. Of course, icons that do this have a tendency to be somewhat jumbled, even busy. Formed by habits of reading, we frequently see such icons and attempt to “read” them, failing to notice the inner relationships within the various items and the commentary that they form.
This is particularly true in the traditional icon of the Last Judgment. Christ is seated (on the cherubim), surrounded by a mandorla, a circle that represents His transcendent glory. From beneath His feet proceeds the river of fire. The apostles are seated with Him. We see some who are being judged (with various demons being pictured as well). Of interest to me are a few details just below the seated Christ. They are the Cross, an altar, and the “balance scales (zygos) of righteousness.” This small collection does something Scripture (in words) cannot do. The three things are placed together because they are one and the same thing.
The Cross is itself the judgment seat of Christ. It is His throne. It is the place from which He reigns. It is also the place of atonement, and is thus the altar. Within the Church, the altar is understood to be both throne, footstool, place of atonement, etc. Lastly, the scales of righteousness, the judgment of Christ itself. Here the judgment is placed in a manner to say that these are all one thing. The Cross is all of these things, and all of these things are the Cross.
The icon directs our attention towards the manner of reading and understanding the Scriptures. Our tendency is to hear “judgment seat of Christ” and immediately picture a law court with the judge presiding, passing sentence. However, when that image is set within the context of the Cross, as in the icon, something different emerges. For example, we have this saying of Christ regarding judgment:
…God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” (Joh 3:17-21)
The imagery of judgment is changed. Here, it is not the assignment of punishment and reward, but the self-selection of all regarding the Light. Those who do evil hate the Light. Those who do the truth, are drawn to it. Compared to the imagery of the judge, the fire and the worms, such language is perhaps not as fascinating (in its original sense). But this language does much to reveal Christ’s Cross as the most faithful revelation of Christ’s judgment.
For so it was on the day of His crucifixion. The Judgment is revealed on Golgotha. The two thieves, sheep and goat, right and left respond to the Light. The words of judgment proceed from Christ: “Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing!” The hearts of the thieves are revealed (the Light reveals all things). One joins in the mockery of those who crucify and adds his own taunt, “Save yourself and us!” The other, whom tradition calls the “wise thief,” finds paradise in a single moment. He acknowledges his own shame and bears it. In his prayer he enters into communion with Christ. The forgiveness, already spoken by Christ, is made his own.
This is the true character of the Judgment. It is the Judgment prophesied by the elder Simeon when Christ was presented in the Temple as a child:
Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against…that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luk 2:34-35)
The Light always reveals things to be what they are. The heart of the wise thief is revealed in a manner that is truly surprising, and is not rebuffed. The other thief echoes the words of those who stand about and mock Christ. They rejoice at the shame they imagine themselves to have placed upon Him, though all that is revealed is the darkness and shame of their own lives. They will not bear any of it and would gladly thrust it on God Himself.
The shaming of God is a frequent thing, even to this day. “Why doesn’t God stop the violence, save the children, give us peace, make them stop, etc.?” All of the suffering in the world is a reflection of our own hearts, and we cannot bear it. It is too great in its enormity. Our shame is ultimately of our own making.
Christ brings no word of rebuke to the wise thief (nor to the thief who rejected Him). He says nothing to those who crucify. His words are for their forgiveness (strangely increasing the shame of those who hate the Light). His words are for His mother and His friend. He covers the shame of the wise thief who willingly yielded himself to public view (he acknowledges his crucifixion is just).
As I look at the icon of the Last Judgment, I realize that this same image stands before me every time I serve the Liturgy – the altar and the Cross. It is the dread Judgment seat of Christ.
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1Jo 1:7-10)
That is the Lenten journey. The Cross. The Altar. The Judgment.
A Christian ending to our life, painless, unashamed, peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask.
Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom!