Christians are by grace what Christ is by nature. That is to say, the members of Christ’s Body (the Catholic Church) are deified so that we, too, can be called sons of God. By grace, we are so identified with our Redeemer that His joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries become our mysteries, too. (We have termed this elsewhere the “Mystical Incarnation.”)
Right now, we are fasting with Jesus in the desert. Yet, our Lenten fast is barely begun and the Church, on the Second Sunday of Quadragesima has just presented us with Jesus Christ glorified in his Transfiguration. Strange. The reasons for the selection of this Gospel reading have already been explained (see the link); it is the aptness of the Transfiguration as a goal of Lent that interests us here.
From the miserable sinners that we are — and that we considered ourselves to be last time — Lent is to make us more perfectly configured to the image and likeness of Jesus Christ in glory. That image was revealed in the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Tabor. Therefore, in addition to self knowledge, we must also gain another knowledge that is indispensable in the spiritual life: “the excellent knowledge of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
Where we are now is the starting point. Tabor, a figure of our own transfiguration in glory, is our goal. For this to happen, we must look on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith (cf. Heb. 12:2). We must keep Our Lord before our eyes.
In II Corinthians chapter three, Saint Paul tells us that the unbelieving Jews of his time read Moses (i.e., the books of Moses: the Torah) with a veil on their faces, just as Moses’ face was literally covered by a veil after he had received the Law on Mount Sinai. This is the way Saint Paul explained their unbelief, for Christ was revealed in the Torah, and rejecting Christ was tantamount to rejecting the Old Scriptures. By comparison, he says, Christ’s faithful do not have such a veil, since they have the light of faith to see the Truth.
He then goes on to say something very deep: “But we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord” (II Cor. 3:18).
In beholding Jesus Christ by faith, hope, and charity, we are transformed into Him. If this is not a defense of the practice of praying before icons — and by that, I mean all holy images in two or three dimensions — I don’t know what is. Mind you, in saying that we “behold” Our Lord, Saint Paul probably meant doing so spiritually, with the “mind’s eye.” But if Jesus Christ really is God made Man, then we can behold a likeness of Him with faith.
This brings me to another Lenten theme, this one from the Eastern Churches. Our Eastern brethren keep the first Sunday of Lent as “the Sunday of Orthodoxy.” It commemorates the triumph of the Faith at the Second Council of Nicea, which condemned the Iconoclast heretics. It needs to be remembered that Iconoclasm is not merely a heteropraxy (an error in practice) but a heterodoxy (a false teaching). This heresy was the latest effort on the part of the devil to revive the Trinitarian and Christological heresies that had been condemned in the earlier councils, which had painstakingly established that Jesus is both true God and true Man. If He really is the incarnate God — a palpable Divine Person — then God can be imaged: in fact, God has been imaged in the Incarnation.
In eternity, the Logos is the Image of the Father (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15), for He is the Father’s Word, or self-knowledge. In time, it was fitting that this Person of the Trinity, already an Image of God the Father, should become Incarnate. Thus, we get a three-dimensional Icon of God written in flesh. It was Saint John Damascene who said that God the Father painted the first Icon in the Incarnation. (See Saint John Damascene and the Iconoclasts.)
When Saint Philip made the audacious request to Our Lord to “show us the Father,” he heard the response: “Philip, he that seeth me seeth the Father also” (John 14:8-9).
It is through Jesus Christ that we know God. Yet it is also through Jesus that we know Man. In Jesus, we see human nature as it is meant to be: holy, divinized, a son of God and heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. For this reason, Jesus Christ is a “Rule” or a “Law” for us, that is to say, He is a norm by which we are to measure ourselves.
So the Icon of God is also an Image of man, that is, of Man Transfigured.