THE ICON OF ‘CHRIST PANTOCRATOR’ WHO INVITES US TO A HEART TO HEART WITH HIM.
What is an icon?
The word ‘icon’ comes to us from the Greek word for ‘image’. An icon is not like a photograph. It is an image which invites us to prayer. Like the Gospels, but in a visual way, it helps communicate to us what kind of relationship God wants to have with us. As Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church wrote: “An icon is no mere religious painting – and it is not, by definition, a religious object. Indeed, it is a subject with which the viewer, the worshipper, enters into wordless dialogue through the sense of sight… the encounter with the icon is an act of communion with the person represented in the icon.”
In this icon written specially for our church by iconographer Mihai Cucu, we are invited into dialogue with the person of Christ Jesus, who although ‘Pantocrator’ – Almighty – is already looking at us and contemplating each one of our lives with infinite tenderness.
The initials and the halo:
We see to the left and right the white letter initials IC and XC. This is a monogram, an abbreviated Greek title for the One we see before us: Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς, Jesus the Christ. In the halo around his head there are three bands. This can remind us of the cross but it particularly signifies that the person before us shines with the holiness of one of the three persons of the most Holy Trinity.
In these halo bands we see Greek letters (ho on) that quote the Book of Exodus 3:14–15, the holy name of God as given to Moses at the burning bush: ‘I am the being-One’ or ‘I am Present’.
We remember the number of times Jesus describes himself as “I am…” in the Gospels – the way, the truth and the life, the resurrection and eternal life, the bread of life, the light of the world, the good, the beautiful shepherd. We rejoice that he is present to us.
This form of representing the face of Jesus is said to be inspired by an image of Christ ‘not made by human hands’ which came to the King of Edessa. From the beginning of the fourth century on, the face of Christ is often shown framed by hair parted in the centre, bearded, with a pony tail down his left shoulder. His eyes engage us. His face is like that of someone who is listening intently to you, giving you their full attention. He sees into the very depths of us, with a look that does not condemn, but that saves us because he loves us. He is accessible to all the prayers of humanity. His is a face of sweetness that comes to take away the sins of the world.
He knows our needs, our sadness and burdens and invites us to come to him as he is gentle and humble of heart. It is sometimes said that this face of Jesus portrays him as both our judge and saviour: the left eye is more penetrating in its gaze, seeing into the core of us, our conscience, whilst the right side is somewhat softer, full of understanding. The light of his face, the radiance
of love, comes from within him. His throat is full and appears swollen. This is because he is full of the breath of God, the Holy Spirit. On his forehead we see the shadow of the cross, the sign of his total self giving through which we are saved. It reminds us of when we received the sign of the cross on our foreheads both at our Baptism and later at our Confirmation when we were sealed with holy Chrism, and how we make the sign of the cross when we pray.
His clothing and hands:
Christ’s clothing also reveals who he is. His undergarment is red, the colour of Divinity. It features a vertical gold sash to denote that he is our high priest. His overmantle is blue, representative of our humanity, since we live under the blue of the sky. His garments are vibrant and majestic. His right hand, as well as being raised to bless us, is also simultaneously teaching us. The thumb and third finger touch each other to remind us that in him the two natures of God and humanity are wed. As we say in the creed, Christ is both true God and true man. The fingers of his right hand suggest the shape of the Greek monogram IC XC mentioned above. The other hand clasps the bejewelled precious book of God’s word. Jesus is God’s word of saving love for us made flesh.
In him we meet our God who communicates himself to us personally. We can understand from the raising of Lazarus that it is Christ’s word that calls our souls to life. Christ longs for us to be deeply rooted in his word of forever love to us so that our lives can bear rich fruit in loving kindness and forgiveness for others. He longs for us to enter into dialogue with him and to grow in intimacy with him.
Heart to heart:
If we look closely, we can see that as well as adorned with jewels and pearls there are four hearts on this book of God’s word pointing in every direction. Christ is one who always reaches out to welcome us, who never pushes us away. He invites us in prayer to have a ‘heart to heart’ with him. In the scriptures, the heart represents not just the kind of ‘love heart’ idea we see on Valentine’s cards. It’s much more than romantic feelings. The heart is the very essence and sacred core of who the person is, their will, their desires, their innermost thoughts. When standing before this icon, even when we have no words, there is the beginnings of prayer. Face to face with the person of Christ we see our life caught up in God’s longing to draw all people to himself, that we can become all we can be in God’s eyes. Contemplating an icon of Christ, face to face, prepares in us the hope of being with the Lord face to face in the life of
eternity. It prepares us now to be bearers of Christ’s compassion and attention face to face with those God entrusts to our care. As St John of the Cross once wrote of Christ: “When you looked at me, Your eyes imprinted Your grace in me, for this You loved me ardently and thus my eyes deserved to adore what they beheld in You… Now truly You can look at me, since You have
looked and left in me grace and beauty” [The Spiritual Canticle].
Sacred Heart of Jesus,
we thank you for your utterly trustworthy words
and promises of saving love and forgiveness to us.
Your light, the radiance of your loving,
shines within us.
Let not our doubts and our darkness speak to us.
Let our hearts always welcome your love.