Divine Mercy 101: Elements of the Devotion

2) An Ecumenical Miracle of Iconography

Christ has fashioned for us in this Image of The Divine Mercy an ecumenical synthesis of Christian iconography. A brief review of the history of Christian art will enable us to appreciate why this is so.

There are two very different traditions of sacred art in the Christian tradition. The first is the tradition of the Christian East, the tradition of the holy "icons."1 The background of an eastern icon is usually in gold, the color representing divine glory. The figures in an icon are usually like "cartoon" figures: they are not supposed to be accurate, realistic portraits of Jesus, Mary, or the saints. Rather, they are meant to depict the essence of each character - what matters most about them. In particular, they often represent our Lord and the saints in their glorified, heavenly bodies. Even the clothes they are wearing express something of the glory of heaven, for light seems to be shining from the very garments themselves. Whether the icon depicts the Madonna and Child, or the calming of the storm, or even the descent of Christ into the underworld after His death, almost always the appropriate characters are glowing with heavenly light. The eastern Christians have a saying about their icons: they say they are like "windows into heaven," for they enable the believer to see Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and all the saints, and to commune with them as they are right now, reigning in glory.

Icons often tell stories from the New Testament, such as the story of the Nativity or the Resurrection of our Lord. But here again, there is something distinctive about this sacred art form. For unlike western holy pictures, the eastern icon usually does not represent just one scene from a gospel story. Rather, there may be several scenes from a story present all at once, in various corners of the icon. In an icon of the Nativity, for example, there may be, in the center, the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger in a cave, with the Virgin Mary resting nearby. In another part of the same icon, there could be a depiction of the wise men following the star, or an angel appearing to the shepherds of Bethlehem, or the Holy Family fleeing on a donkey from the wrath of Herod. In short, the eastern icon is often like a double or triple exposure photograph, with a whole gospel story summed up in one picture, all at once.

Today, eastern icons are very popular, even in the West. Zealous devotees of icons sometimes claim that the eastern icon is the most ancient tradition of Christian image making, stretching back to the earliest days of the Church. Some will claim that any other kind of Christian holy picture is somehow "second-rate," a falling away from the ancient tradition of the saints and the Fathers of the Church.

In fact, that is not true. The earliest examples of Christian art that survive today are found on the walls of the catacombs in Rome. Some of these sacred images date back to within a hundred years or so of the death of our Lord. A look at the pictures in the catacombs - for example, the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and of the Blessed Virgin and Child - reveals a note of realism that is lacking from the Byzantine icon, a naturalism that almost reminds the viewer of paintings by Raphael. Generally, the figures in the catacombs do not seem to be depicted in glorified, heavenly bodies, but as relatively natural, fleshly, and three-dimensional.

In the West, from the high Middle Ages onward, we see something of a revival of this "naturalism" in sacred art, both in statuary and in frescoes and paintings. Originally, this was probably inspired by the realism of St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans, with their special devotion to the earthly humanity of Jesus Christ, evident, for example, in the devotional use of the Christmas crèche, and the crucifix. These western images and statues were trying to convey something just as profound as their eastern counterparts: namely, that the Son of God truly became flesh and shared our lot, first as a tiny baby in a manger, and then as a "man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows" (Is. 53:4). St. Ignatius Loyola also encouraged this appreciation of the Lord's earthly humanity through his imaginative Spiritual Exercises, and it passed into Jesuit inspired art such as the images of the Sacred Heart. As a result, the best Sacred Heart images are really nothing but a summary of the truth of the Word made flesh; they show us infinite love humanized: the love of God expressed through the human sufferings, compassion, and affections of Jesus the Savior, summed up for us in the symbol of His pierced and wounded Heart, aflame with love.

It helps to call to mind both of these great traditions of Christian art whenever we gaze on the Image of The Divine Mercy revealed to St. Faustina. For if one looks closely and with attention at the Image of The Divine Mercy, one discovers that this Image actually contains most of the essential characteristics of both an eastern icon and a western holy picture. It is a remarkable fusion of both traditions: an ecumenical miracle.

Consider the figure of Jesus in the Image. He is certainly resplendent with heavenly glory: the light seems to shine from His body, His garments, and especially from His breast. This is the Son of God, risen from the dead in glorified flesh, almost as in an eastern icon. And yet, He is a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human being too, with wounds in His Hands from His Passion, and (in the best renditions of the image) an expression of tender compassion for us on His face. In other words, this could just as well be a western picture of the Holy Face and the Sacred Heart.

Consider also the treatment of time in this image. What event, what moment in time does the Image depict? Again, a closer look reveals eastern characteristics. For this image is like a triple-exposure photograph; it is an icon that sums up the whole mystery of our redemption - Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter - all at once.

What springs to mind first, perhaps, is Easter. It is Easter Sunday night. It is Jesus appearing to His disciples in the Upper Room. He has just come through the locked doors of the cenacle, with His hand raised to bestow His blessing of peace: showing them His wounds, shining with radiant light, overcoming their fears (Jn. 20:19-23).

This image is also an image of Good Friday. It is Calvary, the time of the piercing of Christ's side by the spear, for out of His Heart flow streams of blood and water, a fountain of Mercy to wash us of our guilt and heal us of all the wounds caused by sin. The flow of blood and water show us His merciful love poured out to the limit for us on the Cross (Jn. 19:34).2

In addition, this image alludes to Holy Thursday, the institution of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass - or indeed any Holy Eucharist. This is clear from the garment that Jesus is wearing. He is dressed all in white, in the ankle-length white linen vestment of the High Priest of the Jewish Temple. Only the High Priest was allowed to wear this particular vestment, according to the Old Testament. Clad in this garment, the High Priest was allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies of the Temple to offer the blood of sacrifice, and to emerge from that inner sanctuary with a hand raised in blessing for all the people from the Most High (Lv. 16:1-4, Sir. 50:18-21).

Similarly, in the Image of The Divine Mercy Jesus is shown as the sacrificial "Lamb of God," who forever pleads all the merits of His self-sacrifice for us before the true Holy of Holies: throne of God in heaven (Heb. 7:24-25, 9:23-28). Jesus is our great High Priest; on the basis of His pure and perfect self-sacrifice, He can now bless His disciples with the most perfect blessing: the water and the blood - in other words, Baptism and Holy Communion - a special, intimate, and sanctifying union with Himself.

In short, here is the whole mystery of our redemption - Good Friday, Easter, Baptism, and the Holy Eucharist - all summed up for us in a single image. It is enough to make any eastern icon painter proud.

On the other hand, the Image depicts two other moments in time, with an historical realism that makes it a western as well as an eastern picture. First, it is a single moment in the past that is literally depicted here, that moment back in 1931 when Jesus appeared to Sr. Faustina just like that in her cell in her convent in Poland, and said to her: "Paint an image according to the pattern you see...."

(3)An Image for Our Time

Most importantly, it is another time as well. It is today; it is our time. For one thing about this image makes it not quite like an eastern icon at all: Jesus appears in almost total darkness! This is not so much a window into the glories of heaven; there is no gold backdrop here. Rather, it is Jesus Himself, Divine Mercy Incarnate, piercing the darkness and gloom of our terribly dark age with His saving light, and with His rays of Mercy.

What more accurate description of our age could there be than simple, enveloping darkness? Over the past century mankind has suffered two world wars, communist and fascist totalitarianism, new refinements of oppression and police torture, violent revolution and terrorism, mass starvation and new and hideous plagues. We are living in a world in which nature itself seems to be broken and bleeding, and (despite advances in medicine, agriculture, and the spread of democracy) mankind still seems to be running away from Jesus Christ into the darkness as fast as it can: rejecting a culture of life, turning its back on the light, and fashioning instead in the darkness a "culture of death" - a culture of abortion, euthanasia, and suicide, of materialistic greed, hedonism, and empty pleasures, of broken families and broken hearts.

But Jesus will not give up on us!

The Mercy of the Incarnate Lord is so great, the ocean of His Mercy so vast, that He pierces the darkness with His light and comes to find us. In an age in which the visual image has become the most powerful means of human communication - whether through television, films, billboards, or the Internet - Christ has given to us, through St. Faustina, a new image of Himself that powerfully proclaims the message of God's merciful love to a lost and aching world.

(This series continues next week on the topic: The Image of The Divine Mercy).

1 An outstanding presentation of the meaning and value of the eastern tradition of iconography can be found in Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978).
2 This was indicated in Christ's own interpretation of the Image, revealed to St. Faustina and recorded in Diary entry 299.


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