Most striking is the portrayal of Jesus as a black person of indeterminate gender, with piercing but gentle eyes, and a sorrowful but self-assured countenance. Clearly the artist determined to depict God incarnate as encompassing all humanity.
The painting, of course, appeals to those who have customarily and unjustly been left out of the picture--women, people of color, and seekers of spirituality outside the Christian Church. It certainly balances the lopsided images many of us saw as children. My husband, of Ukrainian background, beheld the Lord and his Mother as blond models clothed in Eastern Slavic patterns. My guess is we've all been exposed to equally exclusive images.
So, why, as an Orthodox Christian, was I disturbed by this haunting representation? Because this iconographic interpretation intended to inspire us for the next 1,000 years swerves dramatically from the Tradition of the previous 2,000 years.
By including varied elements in the image, the artist imagines she is depicting wholeness, the fullness of all of humanity in the body of Jesus Christ. Wrong. She is representing only one aspect of Jesus Christ--his human nature. Noticeably absent are his divinity, his person, and his mode of existence. This is not the Jesus Christ of Scripture or of the Nicene Creed, who is one Person - the Son of God - in two natures, human and divine. This is a collage of humanity, scraps of our flesh sewn together. It is more about the unity of human nature than the Word of God become flesh - Jesus Christ.
Let's focus on just one aspect of this Jesus - the conspicuous vagueness as to whether this person is a man or a woman. For the last three decades feminist theologians have proclaimed the Word of God incarnate is a spiritual Being beyond masculinity and femininity. They decried the divine Word's eternal Sonship and the human Jesus' male body, and they carried crucifixes bearing feminized images called "Christas" to prove their point. They quoted from the Fathers of the Church, among them St. Gregory Nazianzus, who stated, "that which is not assumed cannot be healed." If the Christ assumed only masculinity, they asked, how then are women saved? The incarnate Word, they insisted, must have included every particle of human nature in order to save all. This icon is the trophy of their doctrinal battle.
Regrettably, they did not dig deeply enough into the wisdom of the saints. According to Orthodox Christian Tradition, a being is made up of four elements--nature, person, characteristics, and mode of existence. For example, I am by nature a human being, who subsists in the person of Deborah, who possesses the characteristics of being 5 foot 3 with brown eyes, whose mode is feminine. Likewise, the Word of God subsists as a Person with a divine nature, who possesses the characteristics of being the Wisdom and Power of God, and whose mode is Sonship, eternally begotten.
Prior to the Incarnation, the Word of God was always the only-begotten Son of God, not some ambiguous being. According to the Fathers of Church, this Word was not male in the animal sense, but he still possessed Sonship. Additionally, it was imperative that the Word of God take flesh as a male human being, so that his mode, his Sonship, would remain intact. St. John Damascene says, "For this reason the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, namely, that his peculiar property may remain unaltered. For, while he was Son of God, he was incarnate of the holy Virgin and became Son of Man without giving up the property of filiation."
Likewise, after the Resurrection, Jesus Christ possessed a risen male body. The tomb was empty (Mt 28:6; Mk 16:6; Lk 24:3; Jn 20:2). He invited the doubting Apostle Thomas to touch his wounds (Jn 20:27). His risen body was imbued with the Holy Spirit and was incorruptible and immortal, but it still was a male body.
Eternal masculinity does not negate the fact Jesus Christ saved both women and men, for he took on a human nature common to both females and males. What he did not take on was every human characteristic. He could not simultaneously have had brown and blue eyes, straight and curly hair, breasts and pecs. He also did not take on a feminine mode. He came as High Priest and the Sacrificial Passover Lamb, not as the Bride of God. Since any characteristic or mode may append to our common human nature, it is not necessary to have a God incarnate inclusive of or beyond race and gender.
Confusing? You bet, but Traditional and Biblical, and of great consequence. What would an icon of our incarnate or risen Lord look like, if one were true to these categories? His divine Person and mode of existence would be depicted as Son of God and Son of Man, a definite male form imbued with glory. His divine nature, indescribable and incomprehensible, might be represented by a blue outer robe that represents endless space and the light. A tunic of earthly brown and red tones might represent his human nature. His characteristics would be typically Jewish of the first century.
May I contemplate him in this manner, rather than upon an image that is a mish-mash of humanity unable to effect my salvation?