A Trio of Gospel Icons

A Trio of Gospel Icons July 4, 2016

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How do you keep an almost-five-year-old quiet in a Byzantine Catholic Divine Liturgy? With extreme difficulty. But one thing that helps: go to the foyer and get a stack of old bulletins. See, at least at my church, each bulletin comes with an icon depicting the Gospel on it. And they keep old bulletins from more than a month back in the foyer as well.

I have been whispering what my daughter calls “Icon stories” to her, soft enough that my husband’s chanting covers the sound, for several Divine Liturgies now. I tell her the story of the Gospel and point out the major actions depicted on the icons. It’s fun, because I get to learn about icons along the way. I’ve mentioned my love of icons several times already, but somehow I never saw many of the great big narrative icons with several events happening all together like a comic book splash panel.
Here, look at three grainy laptop photographs taken for the purpose of art critique.

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Icon of Christ Healing the Centurion’s Servant

What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, it’s beautiful. But what’s not the same as the text of the Gospel? Other than the fact that the grievously afflicted paralyzed servant is being kept on a funny inclined mattress, outdoors in the courtyard? Right. Christ is standing right there. In the gospel, the Centurion expresses that he is unworthy to have Christ under his roof, and Christ wills the healing from a long distance rather than coming inside. Yet here Christ is, outside, healing the centurion’s servant in person. Christ is present in all places, even when you can’t see Him. Christ is present with the sick. Everything Christ does in secret will be declared out of doors and nothing will be hidden. But none of this explains why Saint Peter is standing behind Christ spiritually present in the centurion’s yard. He’s the one in gold. Get used to Peter standing right behind Christ for these icons; he must have accidentally gotten his toe stepped on a lot.

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Icon of Christ Casting Out the Garadene Demons

My daughter calls this “The Icon of the Two Hot Men,” because the two men are stripped down to their shorts, just like her male friends do at the pool on hot days. At least, I hope that’s why she calls it “The Icon of the Two Hot Men.” Anyway, here we have Christ nonchalantly driving the legion of unclean spirits out of the demoniacs, who are tastefully draped instead of buff. Nudes in the classical sense. By the nudes are the “tombs,” represented by two dark little coffins as though the demoniacs were vampires. Imagine the claustrophobic nightmare. I’d want Jesus to keep me from living in that kind of tomb as well. There’s Saint Peter standing behind him observing again. Over to one side we have the swineherds and the villagers, already furious and poised to send Christ away for spoiling their profits. And below them, we have the swine. Note that the demons are RIDING the swine, not possessing them inside. They are riding bareback on pigs which are tumbling headlong into the sea. That’s what you do when you give yourself over to sin. You give up a human life to sleep in a pitch dark coffin. Then you try to escape Christ, looking as dignified as a nasty little sprite riding a pig, but you just end up careening into the nearest body of water anyway. What a great visual sermon.

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Icon of Christ Healing the Paralytic

This is my all time favorite Gospel story icon, of all the icons on all the church bulletins I’ve seen in my short stint with the Eastern rite. Here we have Christ, with Peter treading on his heels as usual. Christ is still pointing His healing finger at the Paralytic, presumably saying “rise, pick up thy mat and go home,” even though the Paralytic has already been healed , is holding his mat and is about to head home. And not only healed. Oh, no. Christ has turned the Paralytic into a flippin’ body builder. Look at that man. He’s not holding a rolled-up little bed roll, he’s holding a twin mattress over his head. And look at those legs. Look at them. Not only are his legs not paralyzed anymore, they are ripped. Those are the most muscular legs I’ve ever seen. When you sin, you lock yourself in a black coffin and ride over a cliff on piggyback. But when you go to Christ for healing, Christ does you one better than just restoring you. Christ makes you strong. Christ makes you impressive. Christ is awesome.

I will have more icon musings in the coming weeks, but those are my favorite so far.

(Bulletin images taken by the author, of church bulletins from Eastern Church Bulletin Service and used in accordance with fair use principles for the purpose of a review. First image image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

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