An Icon of the Face of God

An Icon of the Face of God

Saint John of Damascus lived during the time of the iconoclasm controversy when the Emperor banned the veneration of icons. John wrote three treatises defending the practice of veneration.

Today is the feast of St John of Damascus. This beautiful little quote dropped in my lap:

Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God. Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence, because God has filled it with his grace and power. Through it my salvation has come to me.”

John of Damascus

Saint John of Damascus lived during the time of the iconoclasm controversy when the Emperor banned the veneration of icons. John wrote three treatises defending the practice of the veneration of icons. This excerpt from one of those treatises feels especially apt this Advent. Advent the season as I prepare to welcome the God who became matter for my sake.

And that brings me to this: The One Who Gave Myrrh by painter Kate Capato. I wish I could post the image here, but I do not have permission and would not presume. So please, click on the link and go see this painting.

Today again and again I’ve come back to this painting. Contemplating this image of one of the three Magi, Melchior, adoring the baby Jesus.

This is an amazing painting. I’ve never seen the Magi depicted like this. Usually in iconography the Magi stand or kneel before the baby who is in the manger or seated on Mary’s lap. But here, almost unimaginable: the king has taken the baby into his arms and nestled him against his chest. It looks like a pose we might expect for Simeon or Anna (though they usually hold Jesus more formally away from them so they can look on his face). But usually if someone is cradling baby Jesus like this it is Mary or Saint Joseph. When I showed the painting to the children they asked if it was Saint Joseph. It’s a daring intimacy. A friend of mine exclaimed: I never thought about one of them asking if he could hold the baby! 

The way his large hand protects the baby’s head and cradles the baby’s bare bum: this man holds the Christ child as a father holds his son. Maybe he left behind a wife and children when he departed on his pilgrimage. Maybe this baby born to be king reminds him of his own child far away. The child is naked, vulnerable, a scrawny newborn, I can almost hear him crying. But the adoring King doesn’t notice, His eyes are closed, he is relishing this moment, the physicality of it, the absolute sheer love and adoration of it. 

But I think what brought me back for a third and fourth look was the title: The One Who Gave Myrrh.

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume 
breathes a life of gathering gloom; 
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, 
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

We Three Kings

After Jesus is laid in the tomb, very early on the morning of the third day, the women came bearing myrrh to anoint his body. Myrrh is the gift that presages death. It points me past Christmas and Epiphany to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It reminds me that this child is born to suffer and die. I look again at that little, naked newborn and think of the body stripped and hanging on a cross, the body wrapped carefully in a shroud and laid in a tomb. Christ is born for this, Christ is born for this: to die for our sins. 

And then I found on the artist’s web page, Visual Grace, a beautiful meditation by the artist Kate Capato on the Meaning of Myrrh. It’s a beautiful story recounting her journey from missionary to painter, her struggles and frustrations. And though she doesn’t mention this painting directly, clearly she is telling the story of of the prompting of the Spirit that led her to paint The One Who Gave Myrrh.

“Your ceaseless offer, however, must be love, which is the gold, continual prayer, which is the incense; and the patient acceptance of labors and true mortifications, which is the myrrh. All that you do for the Lord, you should offer up to Him with ardent affections.” (Venerable Mother Mary of Agreda)

The painting became ever more clear as I pictured the kings presenting their offering with such care and affection. It seemed quite obvious that God was sharing some simple truths with me. Particularly, the way in which I was to serve him. While each of the gifts presented are important, as Mary mentioned, it seemed particular that God wanted me to pay close attention to Melchiorre who’s offering represented an acceptance of labors and true mortifications. This was a small way to serve Him, but something I can give daily. In doing this, I will find Christ as they had and thus find the Joy my heart thirsted for.

As we get ever nearer to Christmas, this memory flooded my heart. A reminder to simply be with Him here right now and to offer up in great love what I have and do in this moment. Sometimes God calls us to grand ways of serving, other times it is in the simple ways that He waits for our offering. What I would give to be as the Magi were on that night they visited Christ. To see Him face to face, so vulnerable, just a babe, and to give Him something special.”

Kate Capato

The Myrrh-bearing king represents the painter giving her struggles, her labors, and mortifications to Christ. It is a work that speaks of the work of the artist: to suffer and to be transformed by suffering and to transform that suffering into art. With what pain have the Magi made this journey? How broken are they when they arrive? And they throw themselves upon the mercy of the child-king, begging him to accept not only their gifts, but themselves, their love, their prayers, and their work and suffering… their brokenness. 

Broken, bleeding, dead, dying. We arrive at the manger, at the tomb, empty of everything, we have nothing to offer for the sufferings of Christ except our own suffering, our own brokenness. Our labors have often been vain and yet we have labored. We have spilled ourselves out, our tears, our sorrows. And here, here is the one who has worked with us, suffered with us, wept with us. The one who dies with us. And with whom, one day we will rise again. 

I am so glad the iconoclasts didn’t win. How could they have, though? As St John of Damascus tells us, the very earth is an icon. God the great icon-maker calls us to contemplate his face wherever we find it. He speaks to us in images, in the works of human hands, painters, sculptors, poets, songwriters… artists and artisans and makers of all things which are good. Even in the humblest bread and wine. 

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1 comment
  • If I recall correctly, the name Mary means “bitter” and is derived from the word myrrh. (Through Miriam, the O.T. version of the name.)