Syrian War and Contrapposto
U.S. involvement in the war in Syria might come. I fear.
But, isn’t this the same fear as always? Isn’t it the fear that is sprouted from a weak or incomplete faith? Isn’t it, ultimately, a fear of suffering and death with fear being the opposite of faith? Fear exposes weak faith. How do I bolster weak faith or find faith at all? Orthodox Christians are offered many answers to this question.
I’ll try working with three of them, starting with Matins.
Each day in the service of Matins (Orthros), there is a time at which the Saints of the day are remembered, poetically (the Synaxarion). There is often a good measure of wit in these remembrances. These stanzas employ tools of alliteration and wordplay. Some examples:
The glass of thy pains brought the faith into focus:
Hence we magnify thee, O Phocas, for ever.(1)
As all of thy teeth are mercilessly uprooted,
The gnashing of teeth, Hermogenes, thou escapest.(2)
Castor was not cast down by threats of torments,
But was in his courage a cast bronze statue.(3)
Wenceslaus lost his life for the sake of Jesus,
Whence his loss was restored a hundred times over.(4)
Do these stanzas border on humor? Maybe, but I would at least call the phrasing an attempt to urge listeners to pause and to register what is being said. The poetry seems to want us to shift our opinions about death. This would be a shift towards believing that, just as death is a passageway for the Saints, suffering and death will be passageways for all believers.
A second, potentially faith bolstering, catalyst is the stories from the Old Testament. These stories are the original warble to the echo of the Synaxarion’s poetic orchestrations. The Old Testament sings of Daniel being spared from sure-death in the den of lions, Jonah being spared from sure-death from within the great fish, and Moses and the Israelites being spared from sure-death in the Red Sea. This literature musically rings a loud proclaiming bell that there will be a good end to things.
Thirdly, the supreme faith bolsterer is the Cross of Jesus! Human war, past, present, future, country vs. country, person vs. person, family member vs. family member, and the wars within ourselves all find a perfect resolution in the Cross, we are taught. Jesus’ suffering and death, just like in the Old Testament stories, leads to something better! Jesus’ Cross, says scripture, leads to resurrection and new life!
As an iconographer, I find an astonishing parallel between ancient renderings of Jesus on the Cross and the poetry of the Synaxarion! The peculiar attitude toward death of the Synaxarion’s poetry might almost be seen, as I mentioned, as humorous. Perhaps a more balanced, clearer description, though, might be…transfigured, hope-filled and light-hearted knowing. Light-hearted, not in a flippant way but like a heart that has had its burden lifted. This is the attitude or posture visible in Jesus in ancient depictions of Him on the Cross…Jesus, without burden.
These depictions are probably less familiar to many. Even to Orthodox Christians, these depictions of the Cross might be unfamiliar. Side by side, the ancient versions and the “newer” Renaissance-influenced versions may appear similar. The “new” versions employ a subtle bend in Jesus’ knees and body (known in esoteric, art terminology as “contrapposto”). This slight bending artistically captures Jesus’ deadness. The ancient icons of the Cross do not use this posture for Christ! In the ancient ones, He stands straight (and may even be clothed or have His eyes open!). This is important! This is where the Crucifixion icons of old and the Synaxarion are alike! They portray a subtext of victory and lifted burden. Even in the midst of the most horrible moment of all moments, Jesus’ passion and death, there is victory. This tiny detail…Jesus NOT being slumped over… proclaims that the passion, suffering, and Cross are conduits of resurrection! (Not coincidentally, this essence of victory is trumpeted in the Orthodox service of Good Friday! The hymn of this day peals, “We worship Thy passion Christ. Show us also Thy Holy Resurrection.”!)
These things, the Synaxarion’s poems, the Old Testament’s shadowy messages, and Jesus’ victorious depiction in ancient icons of the Cross, are bolsterers of faith in the face of war. These things help me/us to, hopefully, believe the ultimate “Yes…BUT…”
Yes… Mankind will war…
BUT…God will always win!
Maybe in those moments when anxiety builds, I should spend time in front of the ancient, good and Holy icon of Jesus affixed with paradoxical victory on the Cross. Maybe this will be a way by which the message of eternal peace and ultimate victories will wash into me.
In the end, maybe the lesson to be learned when struggling with the anxiety over war in faraway Syria is more about the war close, within me. Isn’t it a war between faith and unbelief? Do I believe that God will win if there is war in Syria? Do I believe that God will win the war within me?
1 Holy Transfiguration Monastery, “The Menaion”, Holy Transfiguration Monastery Press, 278 Warren St., Brookline, MA 02445, Saint Phocas, f. 7/23.
2 Ibid. Saint Hermogenes, f. 7/24.
3 Ibid. Saint Castor, f. 9/18.
4 Ibid. Saint Wenceslaus, f. 9/28.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons