catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 9 :: 2008.05.02 — 2008.05.16


Icons and alphabets

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
Colossians 1:15

And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.
John 1:14

Three strangers
This small colorfully painted image hangs on the wall dividing my kitchen and living room. In it, three manlike figures sit around a table. All are the same size. All wear robes with a hint of blue in them. All have golden wings. The middle figure holds out two fingers on the table, as though giving a secret sign to the others.

It tells me a story, this image. See, these angels are supposed to remind me of the ones who went to visit Abraham—the three strangers sent by God, one of whom was the second person of the Trinity (thus the two fingers at the table). It is this figure that sits in the center of the frame, smack-dab in the middle of the picture.

This middle stranger, we’re supposed to remember, just foretold the birth of the child of the promise, Isaac. (Ironic, since the person speaking is later to come again to earth as a child of the promise, so another story lurking even further outside the frame tells me.) That same central figure is about to listen to Abraham’s pleas for his cousin Lot’s cities—Sodom and Gomorrah—to be saved. (Ironic, because as they were bargaining, the other two angels were already on their way to Lot’s house to warn him, as though they already knew what was to happen.)

We can’t quite see any of that in this image, though—in this shot, we’ve caught the angels around the table, with the middle one giving that mysterious sign that shows who he really is. Sarah is somewhere off-camera, laughing like crazy at the idea of her being pregnant at her age. Abraham is probably hovering, just behind those big wings, making sure his guests are served, not knowing that a few minutes later he will be pleading for the welfare of two whole cities.

The thing is, this image tells me that Abraham and Sarah and Lot, though I so often try to think my way into their skins, elevating them to protagonists, are really peripheral figures.

The One who’s referred to in the written version as the LORD is the focus of the frame. He’s just made a promise. He’s about to save a man and his family. Later, although we don’t see it in this frame, he laid down his life and then took it up again, dying and rising so that I might live. He is the one who is central to all stories, even though I don’t always see him there as clearly as I do in this image.


As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been looking from the image to the curves and lines on tissue-thin pages that tell me the same story in a different form.

As I look from the image to the words and back again, I think of not just of the One who is the focus of this and other icons, but of all those others who have been encouraged to worship Him because of icons such as this one. People who, in “pre-literate” days, were able to “read” earlier copies of the image on my wall much better than I am able to—I who need the aid of the words on the page to understand so much of its meaning.

When I think of that, I am humbled. I look down and remember that my understanding of the English-language text before me—and particularly my understanding of it—is a translation, a glimmer of the original, in much the same way that this image on my wall is like stained glass through which I can see the light of One who is beyond anything I can comprehend.

Looking from the page to the image again, I am reminded that the Word did not first become Words, but flesh. Flesh that could be seen.

Because of that enfleshing process, argued many ninth-century Christians against those who wanted to destroy the icons they had made, viewing images of that second person of the Trinity allow the church to stay theologically sound. Destroying these visual images, they argued, was tantamount to denying the Incarnation.

And yet, the Protestant voice inside me rebuts (the avid writer and reader chiming in), Scripture in written form is God’s inspired revelation. The Word became flesh to fulfill them, and they were left to speak to us.

It’s true. Scribes—later, also translators—sat and faithfully copied the words of Scripture, praying and fasting as they did so, asking for them to be faithful representations of the Word. The thing is, whether or not icons can be considered with the same level of inspiration, the iconographers did the same thing while creating images such as the one that hangs on my wall. They wanted to make sure the icons they were “writing” represented the same Truth found in written Scripture, and so they passed on guides to tell later iconographers how to be faithful in the task.

Perhaps, back before first the iconoclasts, and then the Protestants, came along, both groups—writers and artists—even sat in the same room, side by side, writing the Word of God in different media, so that people could read them and be led to kneel, not before the bound pages or the icons they produced, but before the One who can be seen through these earthly bindings, the One who, as both texts remind me, humbled himself to take on even earthier, fleshier forms nearly two thousand years ago.

The words at the end of the book of Revelation remind me that He who made the earth in Genesis will come back to it in the end, and make it new and live on it. Whether there will be either images or written books in that place is beyond my understanding.

I just know that I’m glad both scribes and iconographers worked to faithfully copy the stories they were told. I wish that my Protestant forebears, who—I think legitimately—saw many abuses in the church of their day, hadn’t rejected the icons. I see through a glass darkly, after all, so it helps me to have both icons and alphabets showing me a fuller picture of the One I worship, especially since I’m supposed to be a living icon myself, illustrating that not I but God is the primary protagonist of my story.

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