Lamb of God, Who Takes Away the Sins of the World …

The early history of icons in the Christian church is a bit sketchy because, in the 8th century, an iconoclastic Byzantine emperor (Leo III) ascended the throne. He believed his task was to destroy, and when that wasn’t possible, to deface all the holy icons that were in existence. Today there are only a couple dozen pre-iconcolastic icons that remain, along with a few frescoes, etc. In spite of this unspeakable loss, archaeologists and scholars have pieced together a basic understanding of early iconography. Most notable, for the purpose of this essay, is that Jesus Christ was predominantly portrayed as a sacrificial lamb (The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, Rev. 13:8.) up until the 6th century.

The 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries were a time a great turmoil in the church. The hegemony of Greek ideas and the Christian worldview that grew out of those Greek ideas was coming to an end. Islam would soon be a threat from the south and east. Many of the same world-shaping ideas that led Mohamed to re-frame Jewish and Christian theology into a highly rationalistic and deterministic theology were affecting the Christian church.

Rationalism and Christian faith don’t dwell together in peace. Christian theology expresses the lived experience of God, the nature of whose existence is beyond the ability of human mind to grasp. As a result, authentic theology is a mix of negative statements (“God is not this.”), subtle paradoxes, and even seeming contradictions that Christian theology simply lets stand, because the contradictions express an aspect of our experience of God. This sort of approach drove the rationalists crazy, and they sought to “clarify” theology so that it could be understood by the rational mind and the common people.

Arianism (a heresy with many parallels to Islam) was by far the most successful of these alternative Christian philosophies during this period. Bishop Arius rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, proposing that the Son of God was the first and greatest of the created beings. Why? Because that makes more rational sense than the doctrine of the Trinity.

This quarter of a millennium period marked by the rise of rationalism (and the consequent rise in the assumption that everything was absolutely predestined…yep, the cycle happened again about a thousand years later…was the context of the great Ecumenical Councils where specific language and formulas that pointed accurately in the direction of the lived experience of God was put into place.

One of the many canons (church rules, of a sort) that grew out of this period was that Jesus Christ should be primarily depicted in human form. Pictures of sacrificial lambs and and lambs bleeding and yet healthy and alive were not wrong, but being pictorial metaphors, they tended to downplay the sublime truth that the incarnate Christ was truly human, born of Mary, and not just a metaphor that God loved us so much that he came to us in mercy to offer salvation.

It turns out that there is a whole lot more to this story. Former Harvard professor and Eastern Orthodox monk (and renowned authority on the history and theology of icons), Maximos Constas, offers this aside in his most excellent book, The Art of Seeing:

It seems, then, that in an age of political catastrophe, social decline, and religious anxiety, the sacrificial lamb was no longer deemed an appropriate symbol for imperial self-expression. What was needed was a powerful, adult Christ, whom later ages would call the “Pantokrator,” that is, “All-Sovereign.” No longer subject to time, still less a victim of the times, this Christ promised to appear at the end of time to judge the world (cf. Rev 19:15). [Loc 675 in the Kindle edition]

The Byzantine empire was still a powerful force in the world, but Emperor Theodosius (a theologian in his own right and the driving force behind the move away from the Lamb of God imagery and toward the “powerful, adult Christ” imagery), had an ulterior motive. (At least this is so if Fr. Maximos is correct, and I have no reason to think he’s not.) Theodosius, to borrow an idea from contemporary society, saw an opportunity to advance the rhetoric of making the Empire great again.

But here’s the key take-away: Just because Theodosius had ulterior motive, this doesn’t deny the proper theo-logic of emphasizing Jesus Christ’s human form in iconography. It’s not that Theodosius made up a doctrine out of thin air in an attempt to make the Empire great again. Given that this was a rationalistic age and given that this reductive rationalism needed to be counteracted, the canons specifying that Jesus Christ should be shown in actual human form rather than metaphorical caprine form, was a theologically solid move that the bishops wholeheartedly supported. The best political manipulation is not arbitrary, but is rooted in principles that are already widely accepted. Political manipulation isn’t just pulling the wool over the eyes of the common folk (or in this case, removing the wool, so to speak), it is more typically an attempt to promote something that has been under-emphasized or even forgotten.

The period of the great Ecumenical councils, that is, the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries (bleeding back into the 3rd and up into the 7th) is often decried as…well, to quote Fr. Maximos, “an age of political catastrophe, social decline, and religious anxiety.” The increasingly abstruse and even esoteric distinctions give the appearance of theology used primarily as a tool to exclude one’s enemies, or, at the very least, to try to make the Christian empire great again.

Fr. Maximos’s aside about the move away from the Lamb metaphor and toward the reality of the incarnate Son of God shown as a real man, might seem like an unfortunate slip, giving ammunition to those who want to dismiss fundamental theological principles as mere political maneuvering. But this misses the real point. Again, we need to be careful of a too-easy rationalism that too easily explains away the mysteries of real life.

Let’s start with the politics and embrace the likelihood that Theodosius used the change in iconography as a political tool. Let’s admit that the Emperor was trying to prop up his empire in the face of the massive threat that eventually became the Ottoman Empire. That was precisely what Theodosius was fighting against. He was a politically astute leader who understood how to manipulate both ideas and people to further his ends.

But there’s a glorious paradox in this political history. Theodosius used truth to manipulate the system. One might be dismayed that the move to de-emphasize the metaphorical Lamb and emphasize the real human body of Jesus Christ was probably a cynical attempt to prop up the Empire. One might even want to promote the use of the Lamb of God metaphor, given this history. But the paradox is that this new emphasis on the reality of the incarnation was not only important, but utterly foundational to the life of the church. True truth, even when it is used in a cynical manner to promote a political agenda, remains true truth.

And this should be of great comfort to us. Who among us can say that our Christian lives are controlled by pure motives and absent ulterior, and even cynical motives? But the story of how the rules of how Christ should be portrayed in icons gives all us hypocrites hope. Truth remains truth. Even if my motives are self-serving, God can and will use the truth that we know to further his Kingdom and even transform our lives. The fact is that our every action is unworthy of God. But God uses those very actions to transform us into the people he wants us to be. That’s why the real person Jesus Christ was willing to become the sacrificial Lamb of God. I find great comfort in this paradox.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

 

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