“Go ahead,” my friend Ernie said to me, “choose any one you would like.” I looked down into the plastic container that he held in front of me while admiring the many small wooden crosses he had crafted. Ernie is a woodworker and passionate about sharing his love and knowledge of different kinds of wood. As I moved the many different coloured crosses around, so as to see them all, one particular wooden crucifix seemed to standout. “Oh, that’s a nice one,” Ernie stated. “I made that with African Zebrawood.”

A kind of white wood with dark striping, he had carefully pieced the form of the cross together while placing a ringlet in the top so that a leather string could be drawn through it and hung around the neck. There was a slight sheen to the cross as he had varnished it but, it wasn’t the glimmer that drew me to its beauty. As I looked at its pattern, it was as though I heard God’s voice whisper in my ear, “By these stripes, you are healed.” Not really a modern translation of Isaiah 53:5 but, it was as though the weight of those words found a deeper meaning in my soul and was entwining me to the significance of this cross.

This past week, I visited St. Stephen’s Protomartyr Ukrainian Catholic Church as part of a pre-Lenten art and Icon tour. I never really considered myself an iconic worshiper as a follower of Jesus but, seeing the beauty of the tiled art on the church walls, the stained glass windows, the classically depicted saints prominently placed above the alters, and the articulate miniature church used to house the sacraments, sparked my imagination to the physical reminders of Christ’s living presence in our world today. Like the cross around my neck, it seemed as though icons were a physical reality that the Word draws near to us all and we take them up in ourselves as we enflesh the incarnation.

Take, eat, this is my body given for you.

Most often during the Lent season, we tend to think about fasting and what we sacrifice or do without in remembrance of the life of Christ. And yet in the Eucharist, it is the taking in of his body that brings a transformational new reality to which we live today. Our humanity is infused with the wholeness of Christ’s iconic goodness so as to be a physical presence of his here in a vastly new and needy world.

This physical reality presents sacred works of cultural beauty like that of my friend Ernie’s woodworking or the artists who created St. Stephen’s iconic representations. It doesn’t have to be confined strictly to old traditions either. They can be shaped by the imaginatively intuitive diverse natural surroundings of your neighbourhood and the creativity of your mind. 

It also reveals the very physical needs of social justice and the active roles we must play in changing our world for the better. The earth’s climate calls for renewal in human care, social-political relationships rot from divisive polarities cry for reconciliation, and the deep need to restore the visibility of God’s narrative presence in a world that has forgotten him is evident everywhere.

Drink this all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant shed for you and for many.”

Looking at the significant art pieces of St. Stephen’s this past weekend it seemed easy to get lost in the attractiveness of its iconic elegance as being the sole marker of Christ’s earthly presence. But how can we find God in the midst of suffering? Might my tears of sorrow bring a sense of the iconic to life also?

“I was born in the shadows of preachers and saints,
I was raised in a house of God,
But the blood on my lips and the dirt on my face,
Is all the religion I’ve got.”

While Wilder Woods song ‘Religion’ voices the earthly struggle for anguishing spirituality, the same imagery of the dirt upon Christ’s brow and the blood that trickled over his lips as he hung on the cross enfleshes a truth that the iconic life is not always without strife. Love is continuously wrapped in the pain and anguish of self-sacrificial living. We do not bring change to the world through ego-driven self-willfulness but through submitting to a life of willingness to serve and open hospitality to others, no matter their difference.

Vincent Donovan casts his words well in illustrating the point:

“In this era of the people of God, of the laity, of the priesthood of all believers, the role of the missionary, at home or abroad, will no longer be the role of the visible hero, the one in the limelight. There are different ways to be heroic and the way of the missionary should be a hidden one. He is no longer a leading officer in the army of Christ the King, but a disciple of Christ the suffering servant. And if there must be a cross along the way, a cross in the form of violence and suffering, let it be reserved for him.”

Jesus would eventually tell his followers, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24) Indeed, Resurrection Sunday is coming. But for now, I embrace Good Friday knowing the iconic life shines a light of hope for all today.