The first time I remember seeing an icon was in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I was taking a class in Israel my sophomore year of college, and as our group filed down into the crypt of the church, I was filled more with skepticism than with awe. The flickering of many hanging icon lamps was reflected off the polished marble floor. In the dim light, I could make out images of Jesus and Mary, and my feeling was one of aversion and sadness that people were looking to these empty images rather than to Christ (or so I thought).
After I finished my undergraduate studies in Art and Art History, I moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, where icons hung in the corner of every room and the churches were full of them. I still felt they were a distraction for people, taking attention away from the honor due to Christ and placing it on these pictures that then seemed to me to be nothing more than overly-simplified, angry-looking idols.
During my graduate studies in literature I became a Catholic, and afterwards I moved back to Russia. It was then that I begin to understand icons and their beautiful devotional purpose, that they were not a distraction, but a way to come closer to Our Lord. Now I could see that these stark, serious figures were not meant to be realistic portrayals of the saints, but spiritual windows to our fellow soldiers in heaven. When we look at icons, we are meant to join hands, spiritually speaking, with these saintly superheroes and, in the good company of these brothers and sisters, lay our hearts at the throne of God. We bring our concerns to Him, always “two or more” together. We remember the lives of sacrifice and victory those who have gone before us have lead, and we are encouraged to go on, to strive for the same crown. The inverted perspective of icons makes the viewer the vanishing point, pulling her into the eternal moment portrayed; icons depict truths outside of time, outside of shadow, in the heavenly realm. They are the truth of the Gospel communicated in visual form.
On the 10th of March we celebrated the Sunday of Orthodoxy - the end of iconoclasm, the restoration of icons to churches and homes, and the triumph of the True Faith. In the modern world icons are little known or appreciated by most, and though we celebrate that victory because we know it is immanent and assured, we are still in the midst of the battle. God continues to use the power of the arts - visual and dramatic - to encourage us to keep fighting the good fight, sometimes through people who don’t even realize they are doing His work.
One of my personal favorite avenues of spiritual encouragement in the mainstream world is
the superhero film. I love the good-triumphing-over-evil pathos that makes these our modern day fairytales. We need to see that the smaller - and at first glance, weaker - force will rise up because of the Good and conquer vast armies of darkness. Although usually not overtly Christian, these films remind us that the good guys strive for virtue, are providentially given powers beyond themselves to do more good, and embrace self-sacrifice - while the bad guys become obsessed with power, fame or revenge with dependably ill-fated results. It is a vestige of the reverence that society has shown to the saints - our own real-life superheroes - in the past.
I am encouraged in prayer and remembrance of our family in the Church Triumphant. But as we live in this world and engage with many who do not share our Faith, sometimes we can begin to connect over the common thrill of good conquering evil. We can admire selflessness as Spiderman learns that “with great power comes
great responsibility,” puts aside his own desires, and sacrifices himself for others. We can be inspired by Batman’s determined pursuit of the good as he discovers “we fall down to get back up again.” We can be filled with renewed confidence and the zeal to carry on with the culture war after seeing Captain Marvel single handedly save a displaced people from the tyrannical alien race who wants to enslave them. And, despite all the chaos and sin that seems to be winning in our world, we can see that there is still a cultural knowledge of some spark of goodness, and we know that we must keep fighting, even when things look bleak, to ignite that spark. So next time you feel like you are one person turning back a fleet of warheads about to destroy the whole earth, light a candle in front of an icon, go see a superhero movie, and celebrate the triumph of orthodoxy even in the face of a Kree attack.