Several years ago, I bought a Jesus icon at a Greek Festival near my house. (My interest was artistic, not liturgical.) Since then, I purchased another icon of my namesake, St. George. And I looked into buying antique icons, although so far their expense has priced me out of the market.
The interesting thing about the icons I’ve looked at is the otherworldliness of their subjects. Typically, the saints – whether biblical or traditional – are presented “in glory,” as it were. In my Jesus icon, for example, Jesus is Christos Pantocrator, “Christ Almighty,” the Son of God enthroned with power in heaven. In my St. George icon, the saint battles a ferocious dragon without a drop of sweat, mud, or blood staining either his crimson-and-gold toga or his majestic white stallion.
It seems to me that we American Christians think of saints in a similar way. We pluck them out of the grit and grime of their real-life contexts, slap a halo on their heads, and speak well of their deeds – all from the comfort of our couches, viewing them as pretty icons that adorn our walls.
I revere John Wesley, for example. However, I wouldn’t want to ride with him over thousands of miles of bad English roads, in weather both fair and foul, to preach sermons in the open air to hostile audiences that often threw rotten fruit and stones his way.
I admire Mother Teresa. I wouldn’t want to give up my family, my home, and my comfortable life to clean the sores of dying lepers in the streets of Calcutta, however.
I respect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I wouldn’t want to march to Selma or battle Bull Connor or get thrown in prison or have my house firebombed, however.
Here’s how Paul describes his life and compares it to the Corinthians’ in 1 Corinthians 4:10-13:
We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.
The Corinthians wanted icon-leaders, pictured “in glory,” untainted by blood, sweat, and tears. They wanted pretty leaders to hang on their walls and to converse admiringly about with their friends. But sainthood is not pretty. It wades into the muck of human sin and misery with a shovel of God’s grace and gets to work.
And sainthood is not restricted to an elite few, like Paul and the apostles. The Corinthians were “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (1:2). Us too. Do we sit comfortably on our couches admiring icons, or are we ready to wade into the muck?