Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)
by Helen C. Evens, et al.
Yale University Press, 2004
650 pp., $75
The Byzantine Museum, Athens, August 2001
Christ of Sinai is directly in front of me, and I can't breathe. I didn't think He would be here. I rounded a corner, absorbed in my own thoughts, certainly not expecting to see Him on this quiet morning, in the hundred-degree heat and dust of a city that has not yet fully wakened; but here He is, and I am suddenly confronted with His image, the image, the oldest icon in existence, the epitome of what an icon is and should be. My hands shake, and I approach Him slowly, in disbelief. The rest of the room evaporates, and all I can see is Him.
He is part of the exhibition titled "A Mystery Great and Wondrous," a title I thought was fitting in many ways: it is drawn from the Megalynarion of Advent, a "magnifying" hymn to the Virgin Mary in the weeks before we celebrate her Son's birth. She is Virgin, yet she gave birth to a son: "In the confines of the manger is laid the infinite Christ our God." He is fully God by nature, fully man by choice. He died in the flesh and conquered Death; he went to Hell, only to take Hell captive. How can we ever hope to understand these truths? They are indeed pure mystery, great and wondrous and dizzying and terrible. And icons, the attempts of man to communicate these astounding and beautiful events, are themselves a mystery. How can the physical materials of wood and pigment and egg yolk and animal skin convey such ethereal truths, and how can the passage of many centuries only intensify the power of these images to captivate Christian eyes and hearts?
Christ of Sinai looks at me with a steady gaze. His eyes-the famed twins, Justice and Mercy-see straight through me, piercing the whitewashed tomb of my exterior, and it hurts. I turn to the guard and ask her, in broken Greek, whether this is the true Christ of Sinai, or one of the copies that the ancients were so fond of. No, she says. This is the only one, and it is the first time it has left its home in Egypt. I look again into His eyes, where there are no highlights, emphasizing Christ's spirituality over human individuality. One eye is dark, foreboding, the shadows between the brow and lid deepening and on the verge of righteous anger; the other eye embraces all, even my own unworthy soul. I stand and pray. My eyes swell with tears, and I cannot look anymore.
Read the entire article on the Christianity Today website.