I recently started reading a book entitled Windows to Heaven: Introducing Icons to Protestants and Catholics (Brazos Press, 2005) by Elizabeth Zelensky and Lela Gilbert. (Zelensky is Russian Orthodox, Gilbert has a Protestant background.) It’s a very readable introduction to the theology and use of icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, with a particular focus on the following: Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity, the Vladimir Theotokos, Theophanes’ Transfiguration of Christ, the Dormition of the Virgin, the Sinai Pantocrator, and the Iconostasis in the Russian Orthodox Church of St. John the Baptist in Washington, D.C.
I find myself drawn to the beauty and much of the theology of Orthodoxy (although I have reservations about some of the moral theology and I do not accept a male-only priesthood). So I welcome this book’s effort to correct some of the misperceptions that many Western Christians may have about icons, as well as its rich reflections on the implications of the Incarnation for Christian faith and practice.
Early in the book, I came across a passage (written by Gilbert) that especially moves me. It’s a powerful illustration of how a common faith can bridge the divisions caused by differences in language and tradition. And it puts into proper perspective the meaning that wearing a cross around our necks should have as an outward and visible sign of our faith.
Here’s the passage:
Many signs of perestroika and political change marked my 1990 trip to Kiev. Still, after hearing countless stories of religious persecution in the U.S.S.R., I was both surprised and delighted to find a tiny amber cross for sale among the clutter of tourist souvenirs in the hotel lobby. It was inexpensive, so I bought it and immediately strung it onto the gold chain I wore around my neck. I promptly forgot about it.
Two days later, I was invited by a young Russian girl to visit a nearby convent. The girl wanted to practice her English on me, and I wanted to see whatever sights I could, so off we went. It was late in the day, and as we entered the convent’s dimly lit chapel, I soon found myself alone among the innumerable icons, surrounded by bouquets of garden flowers and blazing candles.
All at once an elderly woman approached me, a tiny Orthodox nun, clearly a resident of the convent. She was emphatically telling me something in either Russian or Ukrainian. Every few words, she pointed at the little amber cross around my neck. And she didn’t look especially happy.
I shook my head. She shook hers, frowning even more deeply.
Embarrassed and wondering if I had somehow managed to cause an international incident, I scanned the sanctuary for my “interpreter.” Naturally, she was nowhere to be found.
Meanwhile, the nun seemed to be repeating herself. She looked distressed. I shook my head again and shrugged. I couldn’t imagine what was bothering her so much.
Finally, she took me by the arm and led me across the chapel to a triptych, about two feet high. There was Jesus on the cross, with Mary his mother standing at his right and St. John the Baptist on his left.
I looked at the icon, at the fragrant roses that had been placed so lovingly next to it, and at the candles that represent the prayers of the faithful. All at once, I understood. The elderly nun – who, old as she was, had surely survived seventy years of Soviet atheism – did not want me to wear a cross around my neck without clearly recognizing its meaning. The icon was, for her, a glimpse into the reality of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity’s sins. The Son of God had suffered and died for her, for me, for the whole world. Did I understand what that meant?
Somewhere along the way, I had learned to say “Jesus lives” in Russian. I nodded, placed my hand over my heart, and whispered the Russian phrase: Yesus zhiv.
For the first time, a smile lit up the old woman’s face. She nodded, took both my hand in hers, squeezed them, then walked away without another word, satisfied that I knew enough about the Christian gospel to wear a cross around my neck.