March 17, 2024 – Fifth Sunday in Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

The Rev. Candice B. Frazer

In Christian iconography—the usage of written images in prayer—there is one called “Pantocrator” which is Greek and means “ruler of all” or “all powerful.” It is an image noteworthy in that it has shaped our own image of Christ. The Pantocrator icon is of Christ’s face. The face is brown as is the hair and beard. His nose and jaw line are a bit long and angular and he wears a tunic and mantle that are rather plain. It is an inherited image—we may have never seen the actual Pantocrator icon or any of its written forms (you write icons, not draw them), but it is the one that artists have worked from since the fourth century.

You might wonder how anyone would have remembered what Jesus looked like five hundred years after his death, but apparently Christ’s image was miraculously imprinted on a napkin by the Lord himself and sent to the King of Edessa—or so the legend goes. Regardless of how the image came into being, there is clear archaeological evidence that by the sixth century, plenty of Christians knew how to recognize Christ.

 Usually, in the icon, Jesus is holding the Book of Life in one hand and the other hand is lifted in blessing. A halo encircles his head. But it is his intense gaze from serene and, yet misshapen eyes that draws me in and often wounds me. Those eyes have disturbed me over the years. I have often wondered if the artist was not sophisticated enough to capture Christ’s gaze or, maybe, intentionally drew them to be provocative. 

They are different from one another. One is open with a normal-sized pupil holding an easy gaze of love and concern. The other is less rounded, tighter, not quite squinting but more intense, almost angry—questioning me and searching me out in ways that make me uncomfortable. The shadows of the face align with the eyes, further completing the image drawing a cautious reserve on the one side as it is shaded and an openness on the other. It is the side that holds The Book of Life that holds the fear and reverence. The more open and lighter side reaches out in blessing. It is as if, within this one being lay past and future, teacher and judge, ego and soul, human and divine, alpha and omega—which of course is exactly who we understand Christ to be.

The two natures of Christ hold up for us his divinity and his humanity. It is the anguished prayer he desires to make and the promise he refuses to release. “’And what should I say—‘Father save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’” Jesus knows what lies ahead, and his humanity would reject that suffering and death even as his divinity knows the promise that lies within his sacrifice. It is the wrestling of the ego with the soul. And though we may forgive his humanity and be tempted to make our apologetic argument one that relies on his divinity as reason for his preference of the promise of salvation, I think we lessen Jesus, our relationship to him, and his sacrifice for us, if we do so.

Our collect today prays that the unruly wills and affections of sinful men be ordered. The prayer recognizes that we cannot do that ordering, it is God’s work to order us—but we can pray for that ordering. Every time our desires and wants come in conflict with what we ought to do, we come face to face with that which Jesus wrestled even unto his last hour—save me from this hour. No, not my will but thine be done. 

Our collect raises up for us the antithesis between our unruly wills and the love for God’s commandments and desire for God’s promises that we make as Christians. We are caught in that place where we love our lives and so lose them. Our desires for the things of this world distract and denigrate our greater passions. We believe we will find joy only in the happy places of the world or if we have acquired enough security for ourselves financially, professionally, personally, emotionally. We take a transactional approach to our happiness—the next great vacation, the perfect house or car, that new pair of shoes—these are the things we so often believe will bring us joy and yet, true joys are not found in the things of this world.

For a hot second, Jesus allows himself to be distracted as he faces the cross, as he faces his own suffering and death. It is the image of Galadriel when Frodo offers her the ring and she turns dark and terrible declaring that, “In place of a dark lord you would have a queen, not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn! Tempestuous as the sea, and stronger than the foundations of the earth! All shall love me and despair!” How easy it would have been for Jesus to choose power over sacrifice.

And then Galadriel returns to her normal self, serenely remarking that she has, “passed the test.” 

“No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Our ego is always at odds with our soul. The ego is the human part of us, the part that drives our desires and wants and distracts us from God’s true purposes of loving one another in unconditional ways; encouraging and supporting each other even if we disagree; of lifting one another up not tearing each other down. The soul is the divine part of us—the part that trusts that even when we cannot see the end, we know the story always ends with hope. The soul knows the truth always lies in the purposes of God not those of humankind. To hate one’s life in this world is to reject the ego and embrace the soul-child within us, that is how we will keep it for eternal life.

To embrace the soul is to love the things which God commands us to love, to desire the promises of God and not be distracted by the sundry and manifold changes of the world, to fix our hearts upon the place where true joys are to be found. You won’t find those true joys on the soccer field or the tennis court or in the legislature or at Target—you will only find them in God. God is not exempt from all the places of the world, but when are hearts are not focused on the desires and purposes and joys of God—then we will live in ego; we will lose our life.

The eyes of the Pantocrator draw me in and wound me because I know that it is only when I am face to face with Jesus, that I can discover who I truly am. I am not created to serve the world; I am created to reflect the light of his life to a world in darkness. You and I are created to be an outpouring of his love, yet how often do we deny that love to friend and neighbor, family and stranger. To look into the eyes of Jesus as ruler of all, is to be “drawn where his eyes will lead us,” says Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury. In the Pantocrator icon, Jesus’ eyes draw us to ourselves—“we look at him looking at us, and try to understand that as he looks at us he looks at the Father.” Jesus sees the well-spring of love that lies deep in our very beingness, even when we cannot see it ourselves. 

The eyes of blessing and judgment gaze upon us, into us, and we are known by God at our most basic sense as an expression of God’s own love. This is the Pantocrator—the all-powerful—the one who will hesitate a moment in his ego and respond from his soul as the two become one unity, ordered in the divine/human offering he makes for us.