“Lord, When Was It That We Saw You?”

A Sermon Preached Online on
Remembrance Sunday, November 22, 2020
With the People of The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete

The readings were Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, and Matthew 25:31-46.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you?”

This question is asked in various ways four times in our Gospel reading. But is raises the question for us, “What does Jesus look like?”

The correct answer is, “We don’t know.” We read in the gospels that Jesus taught with authority, which suggests that when he spoke there was a charisma about him which engendered respect. Otherwise he appears to have been indistinguishable from any other first century Jew, as Judas had to identify him to the soldiers. He did not stick out in a crowd.

At first Christianity seems not to have felt the need for pictures of Jesus. What Jesus taught and did was far more important than the superficial aspects of his likeness. As well, coming from Judaism, there was a strong imperative against the worship of images; the pagans used images, not the Jews and Christians.

Further, the churches met in homes and rented rooms, which did not encourage permanent decorations.

That said, the earliest depictions of Jesus were of someone who looked more like a “civilized” Greek or Roman man who shaved, rather than an observant Jew with a beard. The earliest portrayals ignore that, or have him as a young man.

The picture at left is from a third-century fresco from the Catacomb of Callixtus, and it portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Christ Almighty

After Christianity was legalized by Constantine in 314 and began to be favoured by the Roman Empire, we see an explosion of images. The one below dates to the 6th or 7th century, and is made of wax on wood, what is called encaustic. It was a popular medium for icons in that era, although has been rarely used in the past thousand years.

This is the famous Christ Pantocrator icon at the Monastery of St Catherine, at the foot of a mountain traditionally identified as Mount Sinai. The monastery was founded by Christian emperors in the middle of the 6th century, and is surrounded by imposing fortress walls. It remains an active Greek Orthodox monastery to this day. In the 19th century the Codex Sinaiticus, an ancient 4th century manuscript of the Bible, and now in the British Library, was found in its library. Unlike the codex, the icon is still there.

Up until 1962 it was thought that the icon dated to the 13th century, because someone had painted over it then. However, professional conservators cleaned off that repainted to reveal the marvelously preserved encaustic underneath, and in the past 58 years the icon has become well known and reproduced. Pantocrator is the Greek word for “Almighty”, and it is a representation of Jesus in glory. Walk into any Orthodox church of a certain size and you may see a similar picture staring down at you from the dome.

The sheer artistry of the icon is striking, and one is arrested by the gaze of the figure.

Why is Jesus shown with a light brown beard and long dark hair? The reason is not clear but it may have to do with Hellenistic and Roman preconceptions of what a male divine figure looks like. This image of Zeus on his throne, from the first century BCE in southern Italy, has a beard, robes, and is probably holding a now lost thunder bolt.

In the icon Jesus is not symmetrical. The eyes are quite different, and something is going on with his left cheek (on our right) that is not happening with his right (on his left). In his left hand he holds a bejewelled, gold covered book, and his right hand is raised in a blessing.

The difference in symmetry is more obvious below, where each side of the icon is matched with its mirror image.

The left shows the right side of Jesus mirrored, and it looks more or less like what we expect. Jesus has a long, narrow face often associated with intelligence. His eye is looking at the viewer. The eyebrow is finely curved. The other side is very different. The hair seems fuller, the ski tone darker, the eye is looking off to the side, the lips are fuller, the eyebrow more angular, and the beard is bushier. One commentator suggested that it was “hideous”, although that comment may have more to do with Eurocentric standards of beauty. What the two sides of the icon may represent are the two natures of Jesus, human and divine, with the human on Jesus’s left (our right) and the divine on his right (our left). Jesus’s left certainly looks more earthy, the kind of man one might find out harvesting olives. The man on the left (Jesus’s right side) looks more refined. Of course, we do not have the artist to question, so we will never really know.

Christ in Glory . . .in Coventry

Another image of Christ was erected in 1962, only this one was modern. The great mid-century British artist Graham Sutherland was commissioned to design a tapestry for the new Coventry Cathedral, the old medieval building having been destroyed by German bombers in the Second World War.

While very modern, the tapestry hearkens back to ancient predecessors. The tapestry, woven in one piece on a centuries old loom in France, is 23 metres tall (75 feet) and 12 metres wide (39 ft wide). Christ is seated on a throne, and the view is similar to that of the Pantocrator, only full bodied. The risen and ascended Christ is fully symmetrical, but bears the signs of crucifixion, especially on his feet.

While Sutherland contemplated a beardless Christ, he finally decided to go with tradition. Christ and his throne are in a mandorla, the vertical oval which is often seen in Orthodox icons, especially icons of the resurrection. The Holy Trinity is present, with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove at the top, and the unrepresentable Father represented by rays of light. At the feet of Jesus is a lone human figure, presumably to stand for each one of us, huddling under his protection. Further down at the bottom, obscured by the altar cross, in grey, is the cross. Between the resurrection and cross is an image of the bread and wine of the eucharist, signifying the means by which we enter into his death and new life Sunday by Sunday.

Sutherland was told to include the four heavenly creatures from Revelation (and derived from Daniel). These are traditionally associated with the four evangelists – Mark the lion, Luke the bull, the angelic man with Matthew, and the eagle with John. Sutherland chose to simply see them as representatives of nature, and so tried for a naturalistic look. Thus it is called Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph (“tetramorph” = “four shapes”) and not Christ in Glory with the Four Evangelists. My own impression at first glance is that Jesus is seated in a kind of Cross of Lorraine, a version of the cross made famous by being the symbol of the Free French in the Second World War – but that may just be a happy accident.

This is a vision of a transcendent Christ. In our imagination, this is what the Son of Man seated in glory might look like.

The Most True Image of Christ

These are magnificent images. But, may I suggest to you, that these are not the most true images we might have of Jesus. Listen to the gospel again:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25.35-36, 40.

If we want to see Christ we need to look to those around us. We see Christ in the faces of those who look back at us from the Zoom screen. We see Christ in our neighbours as we wave at them from a safe distance in this lockdown. We especially see Jesus in those who are suffering, such as the refugees on Lesvos. They remain in limbo for years, not having any permanent solution to their refugee status, unwanted by the Greek government and many nations across the European Union. Their overcrowded camp has been burned down, and they continue to have only that which they can carry.

We can , of course, say that this is not our immediate responsibility, but the hyperbole of the story about the Great Judgment is that we are responsible for just these kind of people. If we wish to truly venerate Jesus we must do more than venerate an icon and light a candle, or meditate upon the meaning of a tapestry. These are important means for knowing God, just as we know God from nature, from the scriptures, from the traditions and liturgies of the church. But if we really want to know Jesus we must look for the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the unclothed, the sick and those in prison. Some of us have been able to do this, and often it is the clergy who have the opportunity. But this is a ministry for all the baptised, part of the priesthood of all believers given to everyone in the Body of Christ.

In the portraits of Jesus in glory, whether in ancient icons or modern tapestries, we see Jesus as he is and what we will become in him, transformed and glorified. Let us also attend to the portraits of Christ in our sisters and brothers, so that we might be told, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Very little of what I have written above is original. The information about the Sinai Christ Pantocrator icon is derived from lectures I attended in 2003 on the The Theology of the Icon by Prof. Nicholas Constas at Harvard (who became a monk on the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, and is now Archimandrite Maximos Constas at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Greater Boston). This is supplemented by information from Wikipedia. The Sutherland tapestry information comes from a pamphlet at the the Coventry Cathedral website, as well as Wikipedia. Any errors of fact are my own.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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