In the foyer of my house, just as you enter the front door, a tall wooden bookshelf stands just to the left, and it is filled with pictures of family, some very old, and some very recent. I have pictures of four of my great-great grandparents in the cluttered shelves, and alongside the black and white photos lean frames of all different shapes, sizes, and styles filled with the full color images of the people we love and want to remember forever. My parents, my husband’s parents, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, they are all there reminding us to pray, reminding us to love. One particular photo, my favorite actually, is of my Papa when he was a teenage boy. It is black and white, but I can easily imagine the colors. He is dressed like the Marlboro Man, black cowboy hat, straight leg dark blue jeans, pointed toe cowboy boots, and a white pearl button shirt. He is so handsome and young in the picture, I love thinking of him this way. All of the pictures are wonderful, and almost everyday I look at them and I remember.
On another wall in the family room, pictures hang of a different kind, they are called icons, they are paintings of the holy saints that we are named after ( Orthodox converts have two names, our birth name and our church name). When a child is baptized, or a person is received into the family of God through the anointing of oil and a confession of faith, what is called Chrismation, they are named. In the Orthodox Church it is a honor and a privilege to be named after a holy saint, a person who loved Christ and is worthy to follow. My church name is Anna, named after Mary’s mother. Slade is named Joseph, in honor of Jesus’ foster father. Adalay is named Anastasia, after a holy princess of Constantinople. Caroline is named Hannah, after Samuel’s mother. Sophia is named Sophia, after a saint who loved orphans. Elinor is named Helen, after the mother of Constantine, and a champion for Christianity.
Also hanging on the wall is an icon of Jesus, and one of Mary holding her son Jesus when he was just a baby. In every icon of Mary, she is pictured with her son. She is never alone. This is to remind us of our need for Christ and hers as well. The icons are beautiful, and surprisingly they are hanging for the same reason the family photos are resting on the shelves in the foyer. They remind us to pray and to love. They remind us that we belong to a great family, the family of God.
As I look at the photos of my family in the foyer, I know that the image is not them. The image only allows me to contemplate the essence of that person, how much I love them, what things I want to emulate, the memories I cherish, and the hope that I will see them soon, and if they are deceased the hope that I will see them again. Icons are no different. However, an icon does more than a photo in that it portrays what flesh can become through Christ, sort of like a spiritual glamour shot. And this is the heart of Christianity. Flesh can be saved, glorified, deified because Christ became man. Oh the glorious incarnation. Because of Christ, a man or woman can become a saint, they can be written in a holy icon only because Christ Himself became man. Because of Christ…all because of Christ.
This year at our annual family reunion, my mother’s family gathered at their usual spot in Plano, Texas. We all converged on the hotel for two days of food, swimming, laughter, tears, and sharing. This year was the fourth year that my Papa was not with us after a fatal farm accident. It is his family that we are celebrating, his brothers and sisters, my great aunts and uncles. Out of nine children, my Papa’s brothers and sisters, five are left; two of them in their nineties. As I bent to kiss their thin soft skin, all but one dependent on wheelchairs and walkers, I took their smell in, so much like my Papa’s, and I knew I may not see Aunt Marge or Aunt Farris next year. I took lots of pictures. Heaven may be our next meeting, and I long to see my Papa, and I dread the death that is inevitable for my aging loved ones. It’s hard to let go of earth and believe in heaven.
And then I remember the icons, and I ponder the family reunion that heaven will be. If I never see any of these precious aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins again, I pray we meet in heaven. I think of unity and how heaven will be the cure to my heartache, no more separation, no more death. Icons are unapologetic reminders that heaven is real, and that only saints see heaven. I will die someday, but I will live forever.
In Christ, I do not fear death, or the death of those I love. The sting of death is taken right out of me when I gaze upon the icon of Christ, when I pray full of faith and hope in front the icon of Saints Joachim and Anna.
When I look upon the picture of my Papa, or when I see my own reflection, I remind myself: it is not my own image, my own righteousness, my own strength, it is Christ, and His image, His flesh, that saves. Every man is made in the image of God. Pictures remind me of that. Icons assure me of that. Death where is you sting?
Their are those that look at my wall of icons and call me an idol worshiper. I wonder if they look at my shelf full of family photos and think the same thing. Both the wall and the shelf are a place that I honor those in my family that I love, both are a memorial of remembrance, both are a reminder of the Image of God in all of us, both are a symbol of hope and sobriety.
The Church Militant
those alive and still struggling; me and you.
The Church Triumphant
those who are in heaven and praying for us. The cloud of witnesses.