Our Faith : Icons Last Updated: Feb 8th, 2011 - 05:50:02

We Must Steel Ourselves
By Fr. Nathan Preston
Jan 17, 2011, 10:00
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Source: The Orthodox Post: a Newsletter of St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church, January 2011






Some years ago, a Christian but not Orthodox friend of mine asked to accompany me to my parish’s Pascha service. After warning him in advance to wear comfortable shoes and get plenty of rest the night before, we departed. I believe he enjoyed himself; we had, at least, a good time at the communal feast afterward. When later we were talking about Church he made a strange observation. Though he admired the icons of the Eastern Church, he noted that he could not understand why Jesus, even as an infant, looks so decidedly mannish. It was a thought that had never occurred to me, and he was right. Most of our depictions of the child Jesus show him as a little adult. He lacks those chubby cheeks and prominent eyes of real infants. Though miniature and beardless, he hardly appears the child! At the time, I had no really good explanation for this but that it was the stylistic convention.


The Donskaya Icon of the Mother of God


In seminary, studying iconography more formally, I learned something of its significance.


Even from his youth, Christ was devoted to a particular end. We know the gospel story as something linear—a narrative spread in orderly fashion from beginning to end. But even at the start of this story, the Nativity we have just celebrated, there is something more important at its heart. The particular end, the noteworthy aim of Christ’s life is His death. For this reason, even His childhood is portrayed as something already mature. Most often even the halo encircling his face bears already the outline of the Cross. This premature maturity and reminder of His end demonstrate the heavy commitment he shouldered from the start, and rather than a child to be coddled he stands formed from the start as a teacher of this new way. “We will die,” He proclaims, “but I have prepared ahead for you, if you will only start to learn how to die today.” So says the little man in Mary’s arms.


Pleased or displeased, obsessed or wishing to ignore this, we will die. We had best reconcile ourselves to this, lest we face an unpleasant surprise. This is sometimes why our faith seems heavy, because the athleticism it demands of us is to prepare us for this encounter. We do not pray or fast or give charity because we have a surplus of time or food that tastes too good or money enough not to notice. We do these things to prove to ourselves that we can do without. We do them in imitation of Christ. Like Him, we were born to death. Our challenge, then, is to realize this while we yet breathe and enjoy this life.


We were created to enjoy this world with each other and giving due thanks to God. Our inclination, though, is to find such things enough, to be distracted by these blessings of time and strength and means forgetful of their transience. So we must steel ourselves, mature in heart, to remember always the premature Lord of our icons, purposing ourselves to make His way ours.

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