The Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015
Two weeks ago I went with my daughter, Phoebe, to go visit some colleges in Chicago, and while we were there and visiting all these wonderful places we decided to go to the Art Institute to get a little bit of culture. And I find it a reliable museum. Even if you don’t find something in the exhibits that catches your eye they have things in their permanent collection which are worth seeing. And one thing that caught my eye was this exhibit they have going on right now called Byzantium: Heaven and Earth. For years I’ve been a student of Byzantine iconography, so I jumped at the chance to be there. I brought Phoebe in and went through the exhibit and looked for all the ways in which Byzantine theology has tried to convey this remarkable meeting that happens in Jesus Christ of the meeting between Heaven and Earth and time and eternity and humanity and divinity.
And I saw one icon that I had never seen in person before that is of tremendous significance historically. And I couldn’t help, even though they said don’t take pictures, I couldn’t help checking my smartphone, email, and then I took this picture here, which I have shared with you today purely for educational purposes. This is not to be sold. It’s from the 12th Century, the late 12th Century and this is the earliest extant example that we have of a theme and iconography known as Christ, the Man of Sorrows. And to give you a little bit of the history behind this icon, it arises when the Byzantine Empire is in the midst of falling in upon itself. And they had lost the Holy Land, so they could no longer make pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Easter services, for Holy Week.
This had been a practice that was around at least since the 3rd Century. You have accounts of people who would go and follow the events of Holy Week and trace the paths of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. And so they could no longer make pilgrimage there, and they made an appeal to the Western Empire. The West sent troops which then looted Constantinople and took all of their sacred objects, including the Shroud of Turin which may have been one of the templates that was followed in this icon. So the Shroud of Turin was taken away, and the people did not have the relics that they used to have to remind them of where God was and who God was in their midst. So this icon generates in the context of incredible suffering, incredible disappointment, incredible despair. They reached into their deepest resources within their tradition and thought, “How can God be seen as present in the midst of our suffering?” And someone somewhere wrote this icon and this image was repeated in many different places.
As it developed, the Man of Sorrows got to have a kind of typical appearance. The head of Jesus is bowed, his eyes are closed, he’s naked from the waist up, and his wounds are washed. They’re fatal but there’s no blood left in many depictions. And the image that you’re given is something that does not occur in the gospels. This is not retracing an event in the biblical narrative. And that’s one of the things that separates an icon from a painting, in that paintings will depict a scene from the biblical narrative whereas an icon will actually try to capture something that is internal to the liturgy. So this icon is of a moment that must have occurred in some way when the women were leaning over the dead body of Jesus and preparing him for burial. The icon is called Christ, The Man of Sorrows. And this is drawn from a passage in Isaiah that we read on Good Friday. He was despised and rejected by many; a man of suffering; a man of sorrow.
Icons were a way to capture and create space. Space can be constructed materially with stone, but space is created also linguistically through a common language or a language of prayer. Space is created visually by what we see and what we don’t see. Space is created musically through the kind of sounds that surround us. Space is a work of imagination in community where you enter sacred space. This icon was meant to convey God’s presence, to create space for holiness in which the worshipper would see this suffering God. This crucified Messiah, this Son of God who is now both powerful and weak at the same moment; who is both dead and alive in the same moment. This God, man, who is able to bring together and reconcile time and space, Heaven and Earth, divinity and humanity, power and weakness, salvation and sin. Jesus in this icon is the reconciliation of God, holding together all of these things. And like a scene from the Bible, this icon was its own kind of witness. This is why we say that icons are written and not painted because they are trying to make a point to use about who Jesus is, who God is.
And this icon caught fire in the relationship between eastern Christianity and western Christianity. For centuries they could not recognize each other’s Christianity. A patriarch from Constantinople traveled to Ravenna for an ecumenical dialogue, and he went into a church and he said, “I do not see Christ in their churches.” And the same kind of opinion was shared by Latins when they would go to Eastern Orthodox churches. When they would get there they wouldn’t see Christ, but this icon, this theme caught fire in the west. Suddenly they could see Jesus when they saw this icon. Suddenly they could see that magnificent joining together of opposites: Christ the lamb with Christ the lion held together.
What we are going to be doing this holy week is creating sacred space. And the hope is that somehow through this sacred space of language and sight and music we will suddenly become aware in a new way of God’s presence. This icon was used traditionally at Good Friday. It’s my hope that this icon could be in some way a kind of focal image for us to think about as we go through Holy Week together. Because what this icon tells us, and this is key: The way we close the distance with God is not by traveling to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, not by crossing geographical space, and not by holding onto something material like a relic and thereby holding captive material space.
What this icon is trying to bear witness to is that we close the distance with God by crossing affectional space. Only love can close the distance with God, and we know this because God has closed the distance between us through love, through sending his Son, Jesus. Through an infinite God who is willing to experience pain and suffering, to have his face spit at, to suffer a finite death, for you and for me. Are you willing to close that distance? Are you looking for that love that has been searching for you from eternity? What message are you going to hear this week? These are the questions you and I have to ponder for our own salvation. Amen.