Articles

Invisible Icons: Are Our Children Seeing Jesus?

“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” And the king will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25: 37-40).

As a parent, I want my children to always know and see Jesus. Jesus’s account of the Last Judgement tells us that if we want to see Jesus, then he is hidden in our cities and doubly hidden at that. The story about the Last Judgement in Matthew 25 is an indication not so much of what is to come for us, but the story of Jesus for you and I, and our children, at this very moment. Jesus is approaching us daily in our relationships with others.

Jesus seeking us in our relationships with others is a very communitarian and churchy way of being. If we want to see Jesus as individuals and as families, we need to seek him out in other people. Furthermore, we need to seek him out in people who tend to be hidden themselves.

Warning: all people are not equal icons of Jesus. Matthew 25 chafes against our egalitarian sensibilities. For the purpose of our daily lives, we might better call the Last Judgement “the story that is happening right now between myself, and my family, from Jesus’s perspective.”

Let us allow Jesus’s revelation of how things really are to compel us to act like detectives in search of Jesus right here today. Jesus tells us this story now, so that we can correct our vision and see what is really happening at this moment in our lives with respect to Jesus’s approach to us. Matthew 25 shows us that in this moment Jesus is both very hidden and very present.

If we want our children to see Jesus, we need to understand what we mean by seeing. The first step in understanding how to see Jesus involves re-configuring what it means to actually see. Seeing Jesus can be likened to the way we see with icons. Icons place us in the gaze of God, instead of us gazing upon God.

We are used to understanding seeing as an act whereby we have an image that comes through our eyes to our mind. Insofar as we see Jesus, we do see an image, but it is not an image wherein we see Jesus as it is an image wherein we understand that Jesus is the one seeing us. We are being seen. Sight involves an awareness that God sees us. We see by recognizing that we are in fact seen by God. We see God by becoming aware that God sees us.

In the Eastern Catholic Rites, seeing an icon is not so much seeing the face of Jesus as it is being seen by Jesus. The icon is not an image wherein we ourselves see Jesus’s face. Yes, Jesus or the saints, and maybe a short passage from Scripture is in front of us. Yet, the images used in icons of the Eastern Rites do not seem very lifelike for a reason. Icons are not trying to portray what and how we see on earth. Icons do not emphasize the earthly aspect of the Incarnation. Icons emphasize the divine aspect of the Incarnation. The emphasis is not on the messy and human, instead, the icons are an encounter with the divine amidst our mess.

When we look at an icon we are not seeing Jesus in the same way we see other people. We are, according to Byzantine theology, seeing by placing ourselves in God’s presence. We do not so much see, as trust that we are seen (trusting that God sees us, that the icon is an encounter with the presence of God, is similar to how Western rites relate to the Eucharist in the tabernacle or monstrance).

Vision is present to the degree that we acknowledge our blindness: “Lord, when did we see you?”

There are immense benefits to allowing the icon to reorient our sense of what it means to see God. When we go through our day, or pray, or receive the Eucharist, or meet another person, we are no longer responsible for grasping onto some particular idea, insight, or emotion when we try to see God. This places the burden of action where it belongs . . . on God, as von Balthasar emphasizes in his theology.

When we are helping our kids to see Jesus, we can explain to them that God is always moving towards us in Christ, through our daily encounter with other people.

We bring so many expectations to seeing Jesus based on our ordinary way of perceiving people in our lives, that we are sure to be disappointed. We are not the prime movers in our relationship with Jesus. We do not seek Jesus, Jesus seeks us. We do not move towards Jesus, Jesus moves towards us. We are merely responsible for being available to Jesus, who always and everywhere is already making the first move.

The reality revealed in the theology of the icon helps us to avoid over-reliance on concepts about Jesus that overshadow or replace our actual lived relationship with Jesus. Replacing Jesus with our ideas is a form of idolatry. The constant pull of the typical way of educating our children about Jesus is to focus on mental images and concepts. Such is the spirit of our age. But, knowledge for Catholics is not a mere concept. Knowledge for Catholics involves a living relationship, and concepts are but a small part of any relationship.

Icons can overcome idolatry by avoiding attachment to our own vision, and relying instead on God’s vision, as Cyril O’Regan points out in The Anatomy of Misremembering. Our relationship with Jesus is not the same thing as having genuine insight or ideas about Jesus. We cannot possibly imagine the infinite God. When we try to see God through our imagination, we risk substituting the unbounded, immeasurable, literally unimaginable, and Wholly Other who is God with an idea or an image of our own making. We begin to worship the understanding that we have of God, and not God. As Augustine says, if you understand, it is not God. If we understand seeing God as being-seen-by-God, then we reduce the risk that we are attached more to our ideas than to the living God.

Jesus explains, through what he says about the Last Judgement, that we will not likely know at the time, on the level of emotion, insight, or imagination, that we are seeing Jesus when we encounter him in other people. We do not need to worry about making mental images or having particular emotions or guessing whether or not Jesus is present in our encounter with another person. Jesus’s Last Judgement, or as we might add, also the story of the way things really are with Jesus right now, tells us to trust that Jesus is always approaching us, and rely on that trust in being seen and being beheld by Jesus as our sight.

We simply have to seek out people through whom Jesus meets us. The person is the place of encounter with Jesus. Jesus is present to us in the encounter with another person, but we need not be terribly bothered by how well or how poorly we imagine and feel that person. We simply trust that Jesus sees us through our relationships with other people. Jesus offers himself to us in the encounter with other people.

The Presence of Christ in the icon of our encounter with other people has a deeper, more pointed aspect that our Lord takes pains to illustrate in Matthew 25. Jesus reveals his hidden presence in the encounter with people who are typically invisible.

Here, we might see ourselves in an uncomfortable spot in the story that God tells us about ourselves and about Jesus’s care for us. According to Jesus, no amount of Eucharistic devotion, trips to confession, or rosaries are sufficient for participating in the divine life if we are not associating ourselves with the vulnerable. Jesus’s version of what he is doing with us today should make those of us who are able to read articles like this some pause. We who have been given the leisure and mental gifts of understanding are probably, compared to many people, less vulnerable. We are probably people who can organize our lives and spend time with people who are able to organize their lives. The capacity to organize our lives is itself, relatively speaking, a form of wealth.

When we look around, we, the wealthy, know and see the stars of the show in our story; the stars of our story are the capable, the charitable, the interesting, the thoughtful. Jesus explains in Matthew 25 that our story about ourselves is not the story of who Jesus is for us. The stars in Jesus’s story about our lives today are the extras, the ensemble, the uncredited, in our story. Our story is not Jesus’s story. When we can really see someday, Jesus tells us, we will look and perceive that Jesus has been offering himself all along through the invisible among us. We stand on holy ground when we truly seek out and see those who are not seen.

Jesus reveals that he is not an egalitarian. We cannot console ourselves with believing that because everyone is made in God’s image, we are able to be in his likeness by looking for Jesus in everyone. The problem is that Jesus does not make a blanket statement that he is accessible in people we spend time with daily; “even the pagans love those who love them” (Matt 5:47). The problem for us is that we do not associate with the vulnerable, because our social groups, our neighborhoods, and our jobs preclude genuine association or community with the vulnerable, the unseemly, the poor.

The Last Judgement story recounted above tells us not only how to see Jesus, it tells us how to see ourselves; we may not in fact be seeing Jesus, because we are blind to where he is offering himself to us. If we want to see Jesus, we are to see him in the poor. Conversely, if we are not with the poor, we are not with Jesus, and we are permanently blind.

Yet, Jesus gives us a chance to see whether or not we are seeing Jesus. Jesus reveals what it means to really see and follow him in our lives. Jesus gives us that story about the Last Judgement to help us this very day to be good detectives in our own lives, always on the lookout for Jesus, always seeking Jesus.

It tells us that Jesus is twice hidden in the invisible among us. If we go around telling ourselves that we know Jesus, and we do not know people who are vulnerable, people who are invisible, we do not know Jesus. If we are to be detectives of the Presence of God, we will not find him if we keep looking at people who have it together, by people who are talented, by people who are “influencers.” Jesus is hidden within the human person, and Jesus is most present in people who are invisible to us. Jesus is most visible in the invisible. Jesus sees us in the unseen.

Therefore, if we want our children to see Jesus, then we must constantly seek out, as families, encounters where we are friends with the vulnerable, on their own terms, not ours. Impoverished people run afoul of the idea most of us have of a “good” (often code for “wealthy”) school, a good neighborhood, and good playmates for our kids. Christianity is not always perfectly safe. And so Jesus’s terms for meeting us run against most of our ways of being-in-the-world. Jesus’s prefers the disorganized protagonists of his story. Our families must live this preferential experience of Jesus if we want our children to experience his gaze.

SEE ALSO:

Our Children Might Return to the Church, but Our Grandchildren Most Likely Won’t

Featured Image: Mashup of 1) Metropolitan Peter of Moscow icon, 15th c., PD-Old-100 and 2) Kazimierz Malewicz, Suprematist painting, c. 1910-1920, PD-Old-75; Source: Sztuczne Fiołki [Fake Violets] Facebook meme page, PD. 

Brad Klingele

Brad Klingele and his wife Cecelia are parents to ten children. A former lay minister, Brad currently teaches eighth grade in Madison, Wisconsin.