Saturday, April 8, 2017

Face-to-Face: Iconography and the Saving Work of Christ

In Orthodox iconography all images of Christ, Mary, and the saints are given a direct portrait. This is to say that we see them looking straight on. It is considered impious to show them in profile, that is to see a face from the side. In iconography one sees the Jewish mob, devils, etc. in profile. The face in profile is obscurity, shifting, instability. It isn't that the character in profile is not being honest with the viewer, but that it's in a position of deficiency. The character lacks a face to show.

This coincides with Eastern churches emphasizing the role of the face, something that has mostly been ignored or forgotten in the West, even though the ramifications continue to plague us. In Greek Christian theology, the word 'prosopon' means both face and person. It is because the face functions as a nexus point between the invisible and the visible. While the flash of the eyes (viz. Homeric epic) or flowing blood (viz. the Bible) unveil life, the face unveils the person. Seeing face to face, like St. Paul's desperate desire to see Christ, is to see the fullness of one's person and the radiance of that glory.

Orthodoxy, more so than other Christian churches, has preserved the distinction between person and nature. Some say confusion between these two is the root of every heresy. I wouldn't go that far, but I will say that it is highly problematic. Maximus the Confessor battled this distinction out as he tried to defend the full Humanity of Christ. In this, there's a kind of juncture between Humanity (nature) and the individual (person). The Fall broke this juncture, leaving us not only in broken communion with God relationally, but also a broken connection to God through His divine work of Humanity. We are born as inhuman Humans; we are out of touch with what we are. When the early hymns and sermons speak of Christ restoring Human nature, or healing our wounds, this did not mean that there was anything defective with Human nature, but rather there was something wrong with our link to it. Christ, by uniting divine nature to Human nature in the person of the Son, not only brought about restoring Humanity, but also leading Mankind to its mature glorified state.

What does this have to do with faces? Because in as much as we have a face we are a person. The destruction of sin is to annihilate the person through the dissolved bond with nature. We become inhuman, and thus our face no longer reveals anything. The face becomes only a face-in-profile, an unstable, shifting reality, heading towards death. The glory of the face is the Human revealed, the image of the Image, Christ, who in His face, we see the Father. There is a chain-reaction in as much as we recover our face, we shine the glory of God, Christ, who radiates the Father of All Lights. Orthodox iconography intends to show a world where Mankind is restoring its face through the work of Christ saving us and lifting us up. The saving work of Christ is the condition for us not only to have a face to reveal, but also that we might unveil our faces to one another, the communion of the saints. In glory we will not only see Christ face-to-face, but each other as well.

This is manifest in Dostoevsky's The Idiot, where Prince Myshkin has a fascination with Hans Holbein the Younger's The Body of the Dead Christ which depicts, shockingly to a Russian Orthodox, Christ in profile. Rowan Williams' discussion of this book regards this as proof that Myshkin, for Dostoevky, is thus a defective, anti-Christ, form of Christ. While some have read Prince Myshkin as a Christ figure, and thus seeing Dostoevksy as suggesting an ineffective, romantic Christ-the-Beautiful-Soul, Williams sees this differently. Rather, this is Dostoevsky's critique of a certain form of arrogant, defective, theology. It is not Christ Risen, but Christ Dead. This is a kind of Nihilism at work, reflecting Russian fascination with German philosophy.

However, Dostoevky's critique withstanding, it's perhaps helpful to assess a weakness in the Orthodox account of iconography. There is an implicit rejection, or sidelining, of what Luther called the Beautiful Exchange, that is, as St. Paul said, Christ was made sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. This is the theology of the cross that stood to radically blow apart the Church, and function as a lever to pry apart those who would sidestep the cross.

Now, it's certainly the case that Christ rose from the grave in glory, and thus Orthodox iconography is not wrong to state this. But Hans Holbein, a good Lutheran as he was, saw that perhaps we move too quickly. Christ dead in the tomb might appear as weakness, impotence, and creatureliness. But, as Luther correctly understood the Apostles, this was the very means and mechanisms by which Christ in glory and power overcame the Dominions of the World. Thus, Christ Dead in the Tomb is by fleshly eyes the former, but by spiritual eyes in faith it is the latter. Christ wore the veneer of every sinner, took Himself the full power of Death through which He overcame the darkness and crushed Satan.

Thus, Christ's face in profile is really the face of all of Mankind who are deprived of their Humanity. We are all faces in profile, unstable and shifting, disconnected from what we are. But Christ took our facelessness upon Himself so that we might have a face. Christ never lost His face, but donned our facelessness to overpower the one who is robbing us of all life, slowly destroying our persons until we lay in the tomb, ultimately where our facelessness is revealed with pallid skin, maggots devouring, and eventually a skeletal husk. But now, as iconography reveals, the People of God can now have a face, we can now see the face of another.

All of this is important not only as the Gospel, but also because we have to see facelessness at work in the world, that is to say, death at work. Mass Media has now put upon us the ultimate devilish trick through the creation of the simulcra of realism. The idea now is that we can take control of persons by revealing them through rendered faces. The air-brushed, digitally sophisticated, photograph tells us that what we see is the truth, a truth that is perhaps more true because it was seized from sources unwilling to give it. Not only is this destructive, but it's a lie. The digital image is a magician's trick, we do not really see even though we are looking. The purveyance of the gaze fulls us into thinking we're ascending. It is anti-Christ in the most literal sense, because instead of believing that Christ, crucified and risen, reveals all of our faces, by reconnecting us to our divinely created Humanity, we believe it is we ourselves who have done it. We can make ourselves Human even as we are not.

Now I mean this last part in the sense not only of photography viz. news agencies, but also in private. The sophisticated uses of make-up, lighting, and photographic realism tries to create life. I believe that our righteousness is reflected in our corporeality, that holiness is beautiful. One sees the marks of sins in the ugliness of the face, an ugliness that cannot be suppressed no matter how many beauty products one uses. Our faces are our persons, and our decaying person will shine through as an ugly and shattered visage of death as long as we are bound in sin. Yet as much as Christ's life is present we see a beauty emerge within broken bodies. It's indescribable, but one can truly see beauty in the face of one who is in Christ.

Now, I hope you can never look at a painting or photograph the same way. The face is a stage on which the saving work of Christ stands victorious over a world of sin, death, and devils. May we look onto Christ and hold to Him, the Savior of the Human race.

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