Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jesus and Mary of Ethiopia

An icon invites us to pray with our eyes

ETHIOPIA IS SUCH A TERRIBLY POOR COUNTRY its icons are more likely to be painted on sheets of cardboard than wood. Still, despite the crushing poverty, the images of this ancient Oriental Church reflect a brilliantly colored, exuberant, bright joy. Mary looks a little surprised here. What has Jesus just confided to her? Perhaps the news of the Resurrection and the secret of eternal life? Perhaps the role she will play as Mother of the new humanity whose fundamental invitation will be compassionate and merciful love?

Jesus looks playful here, doesn't he? He's got his book of teachings, but the book  is closed. At present he is more interested in bestowing his blessing and smile. Is this the "fragrance of the Gospel" Pope Francis had in mind when he gave his recent  interview which has gotten so much attention?

One of the most striking features of this icon is the nimbus around the heads of Jesus and Mary. A nimbus is usually golden or ochre, but these are highly decorated and even layered. Why the nimbus?

Theology distinguishes faith of two kinds. First there is the faith which simply and freely believes the doctrines or teachings of the Church: the teaching of God as Creator, that of the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation, the teachings regarding the Seven Sacraments and the moral teachings.

The second and higher kind of faith is possessed by those who have been illumined (enlightened) by God's energies and knowledge. This is the faith spoken of in the Letter to the Hebrews:

The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1

The first kind of faith, which is higher than simply human knowledge of a scientific or academic kind, is still merely believing. The second belongs to the person who can say from a personal place, I see, however that personal knowledge of the mysteries is still partial, like the dark glass St. Paul refers to in 1 Cor. 9-12.

The nimbus around the heads of Jesus, Mary, the saints and angels, symbolizes this second faith of illumination - the higher knowledge of heavenly things and personal holiness and even one's living in the Pascal Mystery of the Lord's dying and the victory of his rising. Isn't this the faith symbolized by the lighted candle given to us at Baptism?

I would add that while illumination may refer to knowledge of the heavenly mysteries (not at all the same as knowing a lot about religion) illumination also speaks to knowledge of human things as they are suffused with God's presence.

I was recently speaking with a contractor of home improvements and repairs who told me about the marvelous workers who form his team, almost all of whom are young men here legally from Mexico. He related that at times he is told by customers, "I don't want those people working in my house." Clearly there's no inner illumination in this kind of person - no knowledge of divine and deeply human things - and for all the church-going and even weekly professing of the Nicene Creed - maybe not even much of the simpler just believing kind of faith.

Young Jesus,
Ethiopian Christ,
turn your bright face
toward me -
the blaze of your
to penetrate my mind,
alive light -
the joy of
confident resting
in you -
the inner balance
of my emotions
like the autumn equinox -
the light of knowing
none of us brings God anywhere
nor to anyone,
but that God is already there.


  1. Thank you for bringing this different type of icon from Ethiopia. It is so interesting to see a take on the Theotokos from cultures other than Russia and Greece. I am appreciative for you lesson on theology also. I hope to strive to that second and higher kind of faith and be illuminated in the light of my Baptismal candle, when the plan that God had for me was put into motion. May His will be done.

    1. What brings us to the second faith of illumination? A Russian friend, who was raised an atheist under the Soviet System, was converted by repeated visits to the Rublev Trinity Icon in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. "What the Bible does for our ears, the icon does for our eyes."