By Fr. Andrew Tregubov
Author’s Note: Upon entering an Orthodox church, we immediately find ourselves in the presence of icons. What is their purpose or function? Are they mere visual props, creating a special “spiritual” atmosphere? Are they simply illustrations to the words of Scripture? The Church views the icons far above their different functions and uses as Her Triumph, as the gift of seeing Christ in our midst. In the deepest sense, all icons, even the ones not depicting Jesus Christ directly, show us other persons abiding in His presence. The Icon therefore is the gateway into the mystery of a personal meeting with God. It becomes a means of hope, a way of refuge, and an experience of joy.
Fr. Gregory Kroug (1909-1969) was born in Russia and lived in France. A reclusive monk who lived in great poverty, he participated in the “Russian religious renaissance,” which was, in part, a movement to rediscover the theological significance and artistic beauty of Russian iconography. His work reflects the pure form and content found in the golden age of Russian iconography (14th-16th centuries).
Once in a very great while, perhaps only once in an entire century, there comes a great iconographer like Fr. Kroug, a genius, who is a gift of God to this world, given the special task of revealing the face of Christ in a most direct, most wonderful way. The book The Light of Christ, published by SVS Press in 1991, is an attempt to bring these beautiful instruments of revelation to those who seek communion with God and also to save them for posterity. Here is the first chapter of this book.
THE HOLY FACE
In the Old Testament we find that God has forbidden the people to make and worship idols, to submit themselves to the image of a creature. That commandment was never abolished or changed. How then can we understand the veneration of icons?
Holy Tradition does not tell us the story of the appearance of the Icon of the Holy Face, or any of the icons, from a historical perspective; rather, it expresses very clearly the meaning of the icons, as they are understood by the Church.
At the time when our Lord Jesus Christ was teaching His disciples, the fame of His healing reached the ears of the ailing king of a little town called Edessa in eastern Syria. No physician could help him in his sickness, and even magicians did not ease his suffering. So when he heard that a rabbi in Judea healed all regardless of their diseases, he invited the Lord to come to Edessa.
The Lord declined, but the king was not discouraged. Because he knew that a person could be represented (made present) through the magic of art, he sent a court painter to make a portrait of Jesus. The artist met the Lord and was terribly upset that after working for a long time he could not paint the likeness of Christ. This is one of the very important points of the story: we are unable to discover God, to know Him, unless He reveals himself to us in a direct personal relationship. Expressing this truth, Jesus, out of compassion for the painter and the dying king, took a towel and wiped His face, and miraculously His Image was imprinted on the towel. The towel was taken to the king, and after praying to Christ through His image the king was healed.
It is out of mercy and compassion that Christ reaches out through His image to heal, to convert, and to save us.
The people in the Old Testament were forbidden to depict living beings because the essence of life is the presence of the Spirit of God: invisible, incomprehensible, and indescribable. The human spirit cannot grasp Him unless God reveals himself, and in Jesus Christ the fullness of God was made manifest to the world: the invisible God chose to make himself visible so that we can commune with Him and become one with Him.
What then can we read in His glorious face? Or, rather, what does He silently tell us?
His message is not limited to a superficial symbolism, such as inscriptions or the cross inside the halo, no matter how important this symbolism may be. The focal point is always His face, His eyes. The Icon is a revelation of the living person of Jesus Christ and in the deepest sense becomes for the one who prays before it the mystery of the personal meeting with God.
In the face of our Lord in this icon we see first of all something that for some people is quite disturbing: God is not indifferent or passive toward us. Nor does He show himself out of some need for self-revelation; instead, He opens himself to us by the active reaching out of His love. His face is not a mask behind which He is hiding; this would be only a comfortable old pagan idea to keep God at a safe distance. On the contrary, His face is a living call, an invitation to come.
This is what is so striking about the icon. In it we find God truly in our midst, “the one who pitched his tent among us.” Indeed, so closely and intimately does He enter into our lives that everything concerns Him; each moment is blessed by His attention.
The Lord comes to us in this icon as God-Man: by nature fully God and fully Man. In His face we see all that encompasses human nature: body, soul, emotions, thoughts, and will. No single element dominates or suppresses any other; all exist in perfect harmony, beautiful and transparent to the light of divine nature.
In the face of the Savior we clearly see something, the fullness of which was lost from human nature at the time of the fall: “peace,” peace between the free human spirit and that of God, an alliance or oneness of wills, the synergy of love. That was the gift of the risen Lord to His disciples when He came into their midst. That is the gift of His presence in the liturgy of the Church, the “mercy of peace.” That is the gift of the Icon.
There is a phenomenon in human life: sometimes we meet a total stranger and our hearts open up to him, reach out in friendship in a way that we do not fully understand. In what is called “love at first sight” we feel that we instantly and fully know another person just by seeing his face. We know nothing about him, no facts concerning his life, his job, his social position; and yet we are already bound to him, we have entered into his being, and therefore everything that we discover about him will come to us as a recognition. It is the same with Christ in this icon: responding to His appearance, opening our hearts to Him, seeing in His halo the holy name of God, “I AM”, we recognize the King invisible, “who by His measureless power made all things and in the greatness of His mercy brought all things from non-existence into being.”