On the Wednesday of Holy Week we down-shift for the ascent. There is a lot of terminology in scripture which is used to show determination. “He set his face for Jerusalem” is one such reference. The face in the first century was very important. Turn your face towards your desired destination and you will go there. Turn your face away and you will not go there as easily. Have you ever tried walking sideways to a location? The crab-walk does not work well for humans. We turn, face, walk and arrive.
I need to consciously set my face towards the way of the Cross or I will, as happened yesterday, find myself self-anesthetizing by “accidentally” stopping at Voodoo Doughnuts on my way back to the cathedral from a meeting. (I mean seriously! Who “accidentally” stops at a doughnut shop in the middle of Holy Week!?) … (You should see the amazing doughnuts they have there! …but I digress.)
Facing the predicament of human sin – of my own sins – is hard. I want to avert my eyes, change the channel, click a new window. So, left to my own devices, I might choose a matinee rather than go to church when the topic is my sin and God’s cosmic jury-rigging. But that is the point. I do not have to do this alone. I have beautiful friends with whom to do this work.
In this O Nymphios Icon of the Bridegroom, I have isolated Jesus’ face from the larger Icon we are using in church. There are always a few things to notice in an icon and one is the face. The nimbus around his face holds three letters which are the first three letters of the three words which title Jesus in iconography -(The) “One Who Is.” This is how one can find Jesus’s face in an icon – it always has this title in the halo – always these three letters. (Remember what God says, when asked His name – that “I am who I am” – earlier in the story?)
Another thing to notice is the light. From where does the light come? In this case, even though Jesus is looking down and away, He is looking into the light; so the iconographer is telling us that He is looking towards God. His high forehead long nose and long neck all are designed to illustrate wisdom and knowledge. The “S” of the skin and eyebrows show a furrowed brow. Is he confused? Is he concerned? If He is truly human then indeed he might be. It is Gnosticism to think Jesus knows all things and can be assured that this will not be hard (even though that is the theology frequently expressed in John’s gospel.) There are bags under Jesus’ eyes. Jesus is pictured tired. Going into this, Jesus is tired. There were, I expect not a few sleepless nights of prayer…and of concern.
But for me, the power of this icon is the way his eyes do not seem to be sad for himself. I have seen those self-sad eyes and these are not they. I have seen them in the hospital visits. I have seen them in the hallway chats. I have seen them in clergy conferences. I have seen them in the House of Bishops. I have seen them in my mirror at times. But that is not this. No. Jesus is sad for the situation in this image, not for himself. There is an elegance, even a dignity here. The staff and crown they have given him are mockery and yet he wears them as a king. Remember Eeyore, the icon of self-sadness who says things like “Thanks for noticing me.” and “It’s all for naught.” as examples of a kind of perspective on life? Jesus is not parading around fussing with things. Jesus has no great stump speeches at the trial. Jesus makes no final speech from the cross except to form the church from a mother and a friend. Jesus seeks no limelight. Jesus is not worried about whose cross is higher or whose title bigger or if, when he is being sketched for future images on the cross, we are getting his best side.
In this image Jesus is grief-stricken the way I am when Kai, my black lab, hurts himself. He will get a ten-foot long stick from the back yard and parade around with it to imaginary strains of “We are the champions.” I can see him from he kitchen window as I wash dishes. He is so full of himself. He is the star of his play and considers the stick’s massive length to be an opportunity to show off. He seems to know I am watching. He steels glances at me in the window out of the corner of his eye as he runs. He will prance with his massive sapling-play-thing balanced perfectly in his powerful jaws like a prancing horse in dressage. He will run at top speeds with the stick so perfectly balanced that he looks like a canine tight-rope walker, sans tight-rope. The tip of the stick swipes the grass as he takes turns in the loop.
But he will then hear me clank a pot or drop a glass or swear. His only concern suddenly becomes me. He stops running but keeps the stick balanced. He turns and looks at the house. If he had a Superman cape he would throw it back in preparation for the mad dash to rescue me. And he runs, at top speed to the house. He sometimes forgets that he has a stick four times his length in his jaws and I watch, wincing, as his body is stopped when his stick hits the door frame and his jaw is smushed between an immobile stick and a body whose momentum is substantial. Poor sweet thing. He drops the stick. Shakes off the pain and comes running in, stepping over the stick, to check on me. I wonder how long his jaw hurts. He curls up on the kitchen floor, pressing his haunches against my feet to remind me that he has come for me – and is staying in case his super-powers are further needed.
God watches as we hit the doors of our lives with the sticks in our jaws. Perhaps he loves our enthusiasm but is sad for our pain.
This is a week in which it is easy to revert to the preposterous notion that God is anything but crazy about us. It is easy to get so caught up in images of wrath and judgement that we do not see images of compassion, longing, desire and even willingness in God through Jesus.
This is the face of a savior whose humanity – real, lived humanity- has informed his self-offering. Did Jesus really never sin? I don’t know. But what I do know is that Jesus walked this way so that the supreme creator of the cosmos could be with me in my suffering, my disillusion, my regret, my experiences of betrayal, my grief, my loss. This is not a god who sends best wishes on a Hallmark card from a ten-story throne in a sea of glass. This is a God who sees me hit that door-frame with my obsessions, feels my pain – literally- and acts in order to be in the same room with me as I wince through life.
So yes. I am going to show up for Holy Week. I admit that I would rather be in movie theatre with a massive tub of popcorn with real butter watching Disney films as a way to avert my eyes. But no. I will show up. Because Jesus made it quite clear that we are now friends.
And besides. I want to be with my friends. And they will be in church this next few days – busy being Christ to me as I will be to them. That is how this all works. We show up and we are friends.