While liturgical icons have only gained popularity over the past 20 years in the West, the transcendent beauty of icons is well-appreciated by the Eastern Church. In the East, the spirituality surrounding icons is everywhere. Most Eastern Churches are graced with these wonderful creations of faith, calling believers to a deeper experience of God and his works.
By definition, an icon is more than just a picture or portrait of an individual; an icon engages the faithful in an experience of the truth of Gods revelation, namely Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother and the saints. Icons serve to foster and better our faith in the Incarnation of the Son of God. The Council of Nicaea II was clear in affirming that the tradition of sacred images was handed down from the earliest times of the Church and, as a matter of faith, confirmed that the Incarnation of the Word of God was real and, in fact, did occur.
Thus, an icon leads the human heart to a prayerful experience that confirms faith in Jesus Christ. When an icon depicts the Blessed Mother or one or more of the saints, we venerate that individuals faith and dignity as a believer in Jesus Christ. The central message of an icon is always the same: somehow the image serves to lead us to the Son of God, the Eternal Word.
With the tragic events in the Holy Land over the last years, could the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem be an icon for our time? The 1,700-year-old church became the focus of the worlds media during a 30-day siege of the property in 2002. The conflict between Israeli forces and the Palestinians housed within the church complex was an affront to the sacred space. All eyes turned with disbelief that this holy site was now the scene of a violent military engagement. The sacred was in direct conflict with the regional political forces of the day.
This humble place of Christs birth had become the site of bullet shells, bloodshed and tears. Army trucks and equipment roared in the streets patrolled by teenage boys wearing the uniforms of the Israeli army. As with an icon of the Eastern Church, there seemed to be a greater message than simply a revered place of pilgrimage embattled. The deeper meaning attached to this shine shrine church transcends its important history.
Once the siege was over, the church was left in squalor. The revered altar that marks the very spot where the Lord is said to have been born miraculously escaped any damage, but throughout the building were irreverent signs of debris and filth. An altar had been used as a dining table, part of the church functioned as a latrine and the baptismal font was employed as a wash basin. Outside the church complex, the narrow alleys of the neighborhood were blocked with burned-out cars, and streets were marred by the tracks of the retreating Israeli tanks. This holy place of pilgrimage was the victim of war.
As the Greek Orthodox priests began the effort to clean the church and prepare for the first Sunday Mass in more than a month, the church took on greater meaning for all Christians. As an icon, the Church of the Nativity calls the world to behold a greater truth: the message of the Nativity of Christ transcends the politics of our day. Just as any liturgical icon leads the believer to a deeper experience of the Son of God, the Church of the Nativity calls us to better appreciate that the violence and destruction that are generations-old witnesses to how well or how poorly the Savior has been received.
We often view the world through the news media, but what I suggest here is that the story of the Church of the Nativity can lead us into a deeper appreciation of why Jesus Christ came in the first place. At times in opposition to political entities, the Church of Jesus Christ must seek to save souls and oppose every civic measure that seeks to compromise Gospel values and the moral order. The story of this ancient shrine should ennoble us to oppose, in fidelity to Jesus Christ, any legislative efforts to promote abortion in any form, as well as euthanasia, assisted suicide and the rest of the various affronts the Church is facing in the Connecticut legislature.
Pope Benedict XVI plans to visit the Holy Land, and we hope his pilgrimage will bring a greater appreciation of the plight of the people of the region. How can it be that the sites of the Lords earthly life have become a place of discord and bloodshed?
Father Hinkley holds a doctorate in moral theology and is Pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish and the Shrine of St. Anne in Waterbury.