Moved by the Holy Spirit, the Church throughout the centuries has sought to depict the reality of the faith and the mysteries of our redemption visually, through sacred images -- icons, sculptures, mosaics, paintings, and stained glass.
There's a reason why newspapers and magazines illustrate prominent articles with photographs, why Instagram is so popular, why smartphones double as cameras, why Shutterfly continues to grow, and why "selfies" have almost replaced handshakes and hugs. We are visual people and pictures speak thousands of words to us. They are, and are becoming ever more, a crucial form of communication and memory.
God created us with senses and not only ministers to us through the senses but seeks to incorporate our senses into our worship and our salvation. At the incarnation, Jesus became visible, audible, tangible, and odorific and in the sacramental economy miraculously made himself edible and potable. Taking on our humanity, he became and remains the living icon of the invisible God. In him we can behold the Lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world, the long-awaited Messiah who restores sight to the blind, the Light of the World shining in the midst of darkness, the Savior leading us to the beatific vision.
And so it's unsurprising that God would continue to incorporate our eyes into our redemption. Moved by the Holy Spirit, the Church throughout the centuries has sought to depict the reality of the faith and the mysteries of our redemption visually, through sacred images -- icons, sculptures, mosaics, paintings, and stained glass. For the Master, it wasn't enough that we know the truth of transubstantiation intellectually; he wanted us to come to worship him through our eyes in Eucharistic adoration. Similarly it wasn't enough for him to have us believe in the truth of his mercy and seek it sacramentally; he wanted us to behold that mercy in action.
In the apparitions in the 1930s to St. Faustina Kowalska, which the Church has found of worthy of belief, Jesus indicated that he wanted an image of his mercy made.
"One night when I was in my cell," St. Faustina wrote in her Diary, "I perceived the presence of the Lord Jesus dressed in a white tunic. One hand was raised in blessing, the other rested on his chest. From an opening in the tunic in the chest, two great rays were coming out, one red and the other clear... After some time, Jesus said to me, 'Paint an image in accordance with what you see, with the signature, "Jesus, I trust in you." I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel and [then] throughout the world.'"
A little later, our Lord explained to her the meaning of the two rays: "The two rays represent the Blood and the Water. The white ray represents the Water [baptism] that justifies souls; the red ray represents the Blood that is the life of souls [the Eucharist]. Both rays flow from the depths of my Mercy when, on the Cross, my Heart in agony was opened by the lance."
This is the famous Image of Divine Mercy that St. Faustina eventually had made, with the help of her spiritual director, Blessed Michael Sopocko, through the talents of the artist Eugene Kazimirowski. In it we see Jesus looking at us, with his right hand raised in blessing and his left hand pointing to his pierced heart from which flow brilliant rays of blood and water, pointing to the sacramental means by which Jesus continues to bathe us in his mercy. We see his left foot advancing toward us, as he comes as Light out of the dark background and gently enters our world.
His flowing white garment depicts him as the one who appeared with his wounds to the apostles in the Upper Room on Easter Sunday evening, when he breathed on them the power of the Holy Spirit, gave them the command to forgive and retain sins, and sent them forth just as the Father had sent him, to take away the sins of the world. It also shows him, in a sense, on Calvary, with his open side washing us in his blood and water as well as as the eternal High Priest, coming out of the Holy of Holies dressed in white linen.
The inscription Jesus desired as part of the image "Jesus, I trust in you!," is the response Jesus wants us to pray as we venerate him in his merciful love. Jesus through this image is communicating to us the message, "Do not be afraid! Trust in my mercy!," and he wants us to entrust ourselves to him as he blesses us with that gift through the Sacraments.
This sacred image ought to speak volumes to us as we celebrate this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
It's a little strange -- and perhaps a sign of some discomfort with devotional Catholicism among some in the Church -- that this image of Christ's blessing us with his mercy, this image requested by the Lord if we accept the revelations to St. Faustina, was not chosen or at least incorporated into the visual representation of this Jubilee Year.
Instead, Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik was commissioned to create an almond-shaped logo in which he attempted to show symbolically Christ as the Good Shepherd carrying the wounded Adam on his shoulders with Adam's left eye and Christ's right eye merging into one, showing how in Christ the divine and human way of seeing has become united and how he purifies our vision to look with mercy at others. Around the almond are the words, "Merciful like the Father," which is the motto for the Jubilee.
I generally like Fr. Rupnik's richly symbolic mosaics, which envelope St. Padre Pio's tomb in Italy, adorn the façade of the Basilica of the Rosary in Lourdes, and beautify the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the Vatican. But this image is flat and has been roundly criticized as inadequate, unattractive and even cartoonish.
That's the reason why many dioceses and parishes have looked elsewhere, with quite a few choosing as their visual representation for their Holy Year banners and prayer cards Rembrandt's famous Prodigal Son.
But as beautiful as Rembrandt's depiction of Christ's parable of the Father's merciful love is, it doesn't produce the same direct encounter with God's mercy as the icon that St. Faustina attests was explicitly desired by Mercy Incarnate, through which he invites us to trust in his mercy and through which he reminds us that he never ceases to bless us with the mercy pouring out from his Sacred Heart through the Sacraments.
The image of Divine Mercy is the one that I'm using for prayer each day of this Jubilee Year, and notwithstanding Rembrandt's and Rupnik's artistic creativity, the one I'd likewise recommend to you through this year and beyond.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.
Recent articles in the Faith & Family section
Refuse to baptize?Father Kenneth Doyle
High hopesJaymie Stuart Wolfe
Sinking fearScott Hahn
The secret to St. John Vianney's missionary priesthoodFather Steve Grunow
A Captivating Model of Marian Devotion and Christian CharityFather Roger J. Landry