I have seen the above icon of Christ as stern, gentle, or sorrowful in almost equal measure. I have witnessed Christ look at me with an almost unbearable countenance, and then, while I pray fervently before the icon, see His countenance soften. I have seen His face turn from anger to love! Yet I know that the icon did not change in front of my eyes. I changed, or rather God changed me. It is not Christ’s expression that softened, but I who melted before His unmoving expression. Through prayer, my hardened heart softened like wax and then became imprinted with the image of the Son. Yet all this could only happen because the Icon of Christ is unchanging. That isn’t to say that the icon is unchanging because it is made from dead wood, and paint: in fact the materials used for icons are ephemeral and so physically the icon is changing. The “unchanging” nature of the icon comes from it being a true depiction of the Eternal Christ. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and so His faithful image has the same property.
Knowing this doesn’t change how I see the miraculous beauty and truth of holy icons. Even today, the faces depicted of Christ and His Saints change with time. I will forever see the same faces displaying different emotions at different times. This is no longer surprising to me because I realize that these images depict the eternal aspect of their subject, be it Jesus, His Mother, or the Saints. I change, but they – having eternal life – do not. We on earth are in a state of flux, yet these images of Heaven show us the uncreated light with unwavering consistence. And light can illuminate some and blind others all at the same time.
I am not surprised, therefore, to see the same icon of Christ at different times as angry, sorrowful, gentle, or merciful. I am not surprised when some people look upon an icon of Christ with joy, while I can barely raise my eyes in its presence. And even when others see nothing in an icon of Christ except lifeless eyes and cracked paint, I am not surprised.
What we see in a Holy Icon is not an accurate description of the Icon, but a painfully accurate reflection of who we are. We do not define Holy Images, they define us.
Whether we are Orthodox or not, Christian or not, our relationship with icons is itself an image of our relationship with the Body of Christ. Walk into an Orthodox church and what do we feel? Do you feel drawn to the holy images with love? Do all those eyes make you feel uneasy? Or do you feel nothing at all?