~ The Freedom of Questioning ~
Inquisitive ponderings of my own spiritual practices and rituals teach me a lot. The knowledge gained either affirms or expands my practices, and the additional questions raised are adventures into more knowledge.
For instance, the artists who depicted the body of Jesus hanging on the cross had always presented Him alive, with eyes open, often looking up. After a full millennium, starting in the 11th century, the artistic practice changed to presenting a dead Jesus, head hanging limp and eyes closed. Why the change after a thousand years? And why no change after another thousand?
And speaking of art, by the time Jesus was born, the Roman, Greek and Egyptian cultures, dominating and surrounding Jerusalem, had developed artforms and skills to the level where portraits and sculptures were near photographic and anatomical perfection. Although Jesus certainly would not have granted any artist a sitting, it is a certainty that many Gentiles would have recorded His image in sketches and paintings.
In the early 300s, bishop and historian Eusebius wrote a book titled History of the Church. While his own stance leaned toward religious depictions being pagan, others argued that although no images of God were permitted to be fashioned, Paul did state in Colossians (1:15) that Christ was the image or icon (Greek translation) “of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” So Eusebius did witness the recording of that image, stating in his book, “I have seen a great many portraits of the Savior, and of Peter and Paul, which have been preserved up to our time.” He also recorded a statue in bronze of Christ by the house of the family of the woman whom Jesus healed of a chronic hemorrhaging, in Caesarea Philippi. These first art works were destroyed during the Roman persecution of the first three hundred years until the reign of Constantine and during the 8th and 9th centuries of reactionary iconoclasm. Some early works did survive in the Roman catacombs long enough to be copied with little change except due to artistic styles and embellishments.
Then I wonder how the prayer posture of “bow your heads and close your eyes” became a gesture of humility and shutting off visual connection with God’s creation. The centuries old Hebrew practice, followed by Christ and the early Christians, was not marked by folded hands and closed eyes. Hands, arms, heads and open eyes were typically raised toward the sky in a gesture of worshipful connection to the heavenly Father and open receptivity of grace. Interestingly, this is how Jesus was depicted on the cross for a thousand years.
Many heresies developed within years of Christ’s ascension, some denying the full divinity of Christ, like Arianism, and some the full humanity of Christ, like Gnosticism. (Eusebius greatly suffered in defending the Gospel against the Arianists.) These were already being addressed by Paul in his letters and later in the Ecumenical Councils, the first of which was in Nicea (325 AD) from which came the Nicene Creed. Unfortunately, many of the denominational divisions were fostered by secular political alliances and what Augustine called “non-essentials” which did not impact on the Gospel: Redemption through faith in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, Yahweh Incarnate, fully God and fully human. So there were bitter conflicts over liturgy, use of images and art, modes of water baptism (immersion vs sprinkling), etc.
All this beckons some more pondering on Christ’s proclamation of being the Way, Truth and Life, and “the truth will set you free.” The question, “Free from what?” is quickly answered: “From sin and spiritual death, of course!” As true as that is, knowing Jesus and His wonderfully multilayered way of imparting wisdom always summons us to ruminating repeatedly on His words and not settling for only the immediately obvious.
As God and man, Jesus was truly free. His freedoms so numerous, only a sample can be listed: Freedom to sin and to be sinless, to be perfect in every way, to empty Himself in sacrificial love for us, to do the Father’s will or resist, to die voluntarily at His time of choosing or to abandon the Father’s mission, to choose His friends, disciples, and even His earthly parents.
The linguistic root of the word “free” is pri, which means “to love.” “Friends” derived from “free,” a meaning indicating “freedom to,” not “freedom from.” In the early English language, “free” meant a choice of responsibilities and relationships, not an absence of them. A free person worked voluntarily, not as a slave; served voluntarily, not out of obligation or pressure. His freedom was a life of sacrifice, submission, service, out of love. That freedom was cherished and true.
Christ’s freedoms are ours, including choosing our spiritual Parent and Brother. Because “He first loved us,” we love Him and love is the most magnificent of freedoms, unifying us with and in Him.
We are also free to question what all this means for us, forever. That freedom will never restrict us, only plunge us ecstatically deeper into the indescribable splendor of the grand mysteries of the kingdom of our God.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © September 14, 2002
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