The church that we attend has a lot of stained glass. Wrapping around the sanctuary are beautiful stained glassed panes. If you start in the corner at the front of the sanctuary and walk around counter-clock-wise, you can follow the life of Christ, one pane at a time. Where we sit every Sunday (yes we are those people who sit in the same pew every week), the stained glass pane directly behind us is of Jesus hanging on the cross. Every week we sit under the same pane, with Jesus hanging over our shoulder. When my two year old gets antsy as two year-olds are wont to do, she likes to turn around and fold herself over the back of the pew. One day, as she was trying to pull herself back up after folding too far over, she stopped.
“What’s that?” She asked, pointing at the stained glass.
“That’s a picture made of glass,” I replied.
“No, who’s that?” She pointed directly at Jesus.
“Why?” Ah yes, the inevitable why. In as simple a way possible, I tried to explain that that was a picture of Jesus saving the world. The two year-old stopped, for a minute, tipped her head to one side, and then matter-of-factly said, “Jesus is a superhero!”
Now, every Sunday she points to the stained glass behind our pew. “That’s Jesus!” She tells everyone. And of course, my four year-old, not wanting to be left out, makes a point of telling her sister that Jesus is not just in the stained-glass windows, but more importantly, he’s in the Bible.
In our church service there is intentionality in how we worship. The entire liturgy is designed to draw upon all our human senses. We watch a cross being carried in during the processional. We hear the Word proclaimed. We respond to the Gospel reading by singing “Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” In unison we affirm the life and work of Christ as we recite the Apostles’ Creed. When the pastor preaches on an aspect of the life of Christ, he draws our attention to the stained-glass panel, so that we not only listen, but also visually contemplate the significance of Jesus’ actions.
In a recent article at Hermeneutics, Megan Hill argues that physical images, be it drawings or figurines, of Jesus does not belong in our Christmas décor. She appeals to the commandment “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…You shall not bow down to them or serve them….”
Yes, physical images can lead to idolatry, especially if we cast Jesus in our own image and then proclaim that he must only look that way. But guess what? Verbal constructs can lead to idolatry as well, especially if we translate the words of Jesus and then proclaim that Jesus must have used King James’ English! The creation of physical images does not have to necessarily lead to the worship of said images, just as the translation of the Scriptures does not necessarily lead to the worship of said Bible.
Hill suggests that it because Jesus is fully divine, that we should not and cannot create images of him: “Though fully human, his humanity cannot be separated from his divine person, which means visual images of Jesus are, in fact, attempting to picture God.”
I want to suggest that the opposite is also true: Jesus’ humanity cannot be separated from his divine person (hence, not only his bodily resurrection, but also his bodily ascension into heaven), which means that visual images are, in fact, attempting to understand the reality of Jesus’ humanity.
If Jesus is just a vague, unphysical concept in our head, he becomes an abstraction. When his humanity takes a back seat to his divinity, he becomes more like a demi-god rather than the second Person of the Trinity who took on the flesh and blood reality of the human experience. In becoming an abstraction, we forget or water down the significance of the event of revelation, namely, that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” And the Word taking on flesh was not a temporary thing. After his death and resurrection Jesus did not abandon his flesh, but in the ascension he bodily returned to heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father.
What well-done images and portraits of Jesus do is what the Bible does just in a different medium: they tell the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, who was, in the words of Karl Barth, “the object and theatre of the acts of God.” The images of Jesus, be they stained glass windows in a church, a figurine of baby Jesus in a nativity scene, or an actor portraying Jesus in film, tell us the story visually. When paired with the oral tradition of hearing and telling, physical images of Jesus help us to not only tell the story, but also to respond to the story.
When we go to church each Sunday, my four year-old can “read” the Bible in the pew (recognizing letters but not understanding how the letters go together to tell the story of this Jesus who saved and is saving the world) and confess her belief in Jesus as she recites the Apostles’ Creed. My two year-old may not be able to read and may not be able to say the Creed, but she can point to the stained glass panel of Jesus hanging on the cross and confess her belief in Jesus: “That’s Jesus!”