Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Picture of Jesus

I found this article, about a peculiar happening in the aftermath of the Provo Tabernacle fire, interesting. Obviously, it's a nice faith-promoting story that can bolster one's faith in Christ. Alternatively, one could ask why all (or many) of the other pictures of the Savior were fully destroyed (or, in the sarcastic words of one commenter on the Herald's site: "Oooooh. Jesus['] right hand is burned off. What does THAT mean?").

What the events mean to any individual says a lot about the individual but perhaps not as much about whether or not there is a God and whether or not He specifically intervened in this instance.

But I'm most interested in the response from the many Mormons who do see this as a sign of divine protection. I got the picture above from a friend's facebook (I don't know where she got it) who seemed to think it was pretty cool; the woman interviewed at the end of the Herald piece, Cynthia Dayton, got emotional describing the symbolism she saw; others are paraphrased in the story as calling the remains of the painting "remarkable"; it's apparently under "emergency conservation and stabilization" by the LDS church, so I guess someone somewhere in the hierarchy there feels similarly. My question is: why?

I don't mean that question in a patronizing way at all. It really is a cool story and could very well be divine in origin--I am a firm believer in the truth of this church and of Christ in particular, so why not? Weirder things have happened in Christianity. But Mormons traditionally have downplayed (sometimes we've verged on (OK, gone over the line towards) ridiculing) the "icon worship" of other faiths. I have heard Mormons (and, sadly, participated in it myself) speak derisively of Catholics praying to crosses or adherents to the Russian Orthodox faith confusing images of Christ with the actual Christ. Why then do we seem to want to jump at the chance to say that an inkjet print of a painting that shows a caucasian Christ (and which originally portrayed winged angels--something Mormons don't believe in) was protected by a higher power?

I don't think anyone believes that allowing this print to burn would have taken away from God's power or glory or our reverence towards Him. The only possible explanation would be that such an act would be for us, to remind us that God really is in charge of everything. While that could arguably be accomplished through this kind of preservation, it seems like miraculously protecting something that had real value--like a human life, or at least an original, priceless work of art--would be a better way of doing so (though of course the painting-saving method has the benefit of being open to interpretation and thus allowing us to choose faith instead of some rational explanation).

I think though that really, for all our talk of not having idols, of not revering mere images of the Lord (favoring instead to worship God directly), we do impute inherent holiness in our representations of holy people and places. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

We Mormons disagree with Catholics about the nature of the Lord's Supper: they believe it literally becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus, we believe it mattereth not what we eat because it's just a symbol of renewing our covenant to remember Christ and take his name upon us. And while that sounds nice in theory, it is tempered by what we really believe. I heard a funny story about a guy from my home ward who, when he was late to church and missed the sacrament, would just pop into the sacrament preparation room as the Teachers were cleaning up and take a piece of the bread and a cup of the water; he did so half-jokingly, like it wasn't ideal, but still better than nothing, as if the tokens had a spiritual half-life so that even though they weren't quite as potent as right after being blessed they still had some residual spiritual properties to them. Granted, we might not all give the pieces of white bread and plastic cups of water quite this much literal significance, we do give it more than nothing. We do show reverence towards the symbols. Again, this isn't a bad thing.

When we think of the symbols we use as really representing something very powerful, real, and holy, how can we not transfer some of that mysterious force to the symbols themselves? Doing so helps us reify those abstract and unseen concepts, to strengthen our faith in the hoped-for. It's hard to treat symbols of something holy lightly without also treating the holy thing lightly as well; it's really hard to separate our feelings towards one from our feelings towards the other. As long as we don't take it to an extreme and mistake mere symbols and simple images for the truths they convey, I think it can serve a useful purpose.

So while I might be a bit skeptical of how much God's hand held back the fire around the copy of a painting of Jesus in the burning Provo Tabernacle, I can recognize how that symbolism of Christ withstanding fiery darts carries a deeper truth to the hearts of many. Christ really can help us overcome our worries, our problems, our walls caving in, and anything else. If this recent story helps you believe that, then I believe it too.

In closing, listen to this beautiful Ben Harper song and think about how you can appropriately find strength through images any symbols. I especially love the lyric that says "I long to be a picture of Jesus." What a lovely thought, no?