As Muslim armies moved across Asia Minor a thousand years ago and conquered Christian towns and cities, they were confronted by the haunting gaze of Byzantine icons in the churches and monasteries they took for their own use. Their religion forbade any depiction of God or holy people, especially in areas where they worshipped. Eventually they covered offending frescos and mosaics with plaster. In the short term, however, they often scratched out the eyes of icons, thus ending the gaze that invited communion.
Communion is the central focus of all Byzantine theology, liturgical prayer, architecture and art. Byzantine churches are designed to be eschatological presences. Their walls and ceilings and decorative art all contribute to a worshipper’s sense that God and the saints are with us now, in vibrant communion, outside of time. In God’s presence, everything is NOW.
In a Byzantine icon, eyes are the most important feature. Holy persons in icons gaze intently at us. They invite us into communion with themselves, with one another, and with God. The only figures in icons who are shown in profile are evil persons who stand outside this communion.
In daily life, the eyes of the people who surround us are also extremely important. When we communicate with one another, we automatically try to look at the other person’s eyes to understand the truth of who they are and what they say. We speak of “shifty eyes.” When someone averts their eyes, we feel uncomfortable and wonder what they are hiding. We describe eyes as windows to a soul.
The first thing a person notices in the Maryknoll icon is Christ’s eyes, gazing directly through the barbed wire at us. Barbed wire is a particularly violent means of separating or confining human beings or animals. It tears and rips flesh, drawing blood like metal thorns. Apart from agricultural uses, it has surrounded prisons, concentration camps, and international borders in modern times.
When St. Paul was knocked off his horse on his way to Damascus, he heard a voice ask him, “Why are you persecuting me?” When he asked who was speaking, the voice responded, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The message was the same as what Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew: “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.” Our earth today is crisscrossed with our walls and fences. Our intention is to keep out undesirable people. If we took the time to gaze into the eyes of these people and recognize their humanity, we might be as surprised as St. Paul to find in them Christ.
Ironically, our fences imprison us. In the eyes of every person we try to exclude, Christ asks us “Why?” Will we avert our eyes in discomfort so that we escape his gaze? Perhaps, even worse, will we find some way to scratch out his eyes? When even our religion becomes a fence we use to protect ourselves from people who are different from us, when we stop seeing in one another God’s image and likeness, that is precisely what we do.