(icon courtesy of Holy Transfiguration Monastery)
I came across this beautiful icon for the first time yesterday at the home of fellow parishioners from St. Mary’s Orthodox Church who are Chinese-American.
It reminded me of a church calendar that a Catholic Korean-American friend had hanging over her desk. In all the images, Mary and Jesus were depicted as Asian. It seemed to be a fairly run-of-the-mill item, so I am surprised not to be able to find a similar image online. But it looked something like this, just more stylized:
There are more than enough rants of all sorts in various corners of the Internet about ethnic representations of Jesus, and I don’t mean to fight my way into that over-saturated market. In the spirit of some earlier posts, however, I’d like to note that, while the desire to see one’s ethnicity represented in one’s religious imagery is a natural one, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to act upon it.
One can make Christianity into a local paganism and Christ into a local deity, outfitted to look just like the people hoping to acquire His special protection. That is, essentially, the achievement of the four images directly above. Today, this seems to come increasingly from theories of racial victimhood, touting the supposed disempowerment of certain ethnic groups wrought by religious imagery in which members of those groups cannot see themselves. If Jesus, Mary, etc. are often depicted as “white” (rather than Jewish) in traditional Christian art, it is due to a pagan spirit within Europe. Nothing Christian is achieved by replicating that pagan spirit in other cultural contexts.
But there is another way to see oneself and one’s group in religious imagery, of which the icon of the martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion reminds us. Jesus was a Jew, and salvation came from the Jews; it is a dangerous lie to deny or obscure this fact. But salvation came through Him to all people, God’s intention being to raise up saints from all nations and races, speaking all languages. To remember and venerate of the saints in our midst – whatever this “midst” happens to be, ethnically or otherwise, for a given individual – is to honor at once the universality of the Church and the particular origins of Christ.