In Which I Look at an Icon
It is very cold in our house, though not so cold as Not In Our House (where temperatures have soared into the double digits!), and Theodora and I have cocooned ourselves in her bedroom, which is approximately 8’ by 10’ and thus capable of being thoroughly heated by our landlady’s mother’s crappy space heater when the door is closed.
Theodora does not want to be here. She wants to go out and have adventures, or possibly to gnaw on the furniture with her budding molars. (She definitely does not want to take the baby Tylenol that will make her molars hurt less, because she has surprisingly high suffering theory for a one-year-old.)
She is driving me, quietly, nuts. By now I know what the problem is, at least. I had suspected an ear infection, as I always do when she’s inexplicably fussy, because I had had a dozen ear infections by her age, and as is always the case she does not have an ear infection at all but is perfectly explicably fussy because she has small, sharp, calcified whitish structures forcing their way up through the sore tissue of her gums. This hurts.
Theodora is grumpy. Her jaw hurts so she doesn’t want to eat anything that needs chewing, thank you very much, but she is a big girl so she doesn’t want Mommy to spoon things into her mouth – but then, she isn’t really all that big of a girl after all, so she can’t quite manage the spoon herself. Theodora has been grumpy for several days, and my house is cold, and I am rather grumpy myself.
Pinned to the wall in Theodora’s room is a small icon, a copy of the Hawaiian Myrrh-streaming Iveron Icon of the Theotokos. I put it up on a whim perhaps nine months ago, because it seemed like we should have something on the wall in there, and my eyes mostly skate over it. This morning I was looking at it with, I’ll admit, a hint of resentment.
The icon makes Him look like a tiny adult, robed and haloed, but He is held in one of His mother’s arms, perhaps against her hip, and because of that (and because, after all, I have a one-year-old) I think He looks like a toddler. He is holding one hand out to her, and she is reaching for His hand, and I imagine that he has something – a pebble, maybe – in his hand and she is about to smile at Him with big eyes and say, “Oh, thank you, Yeshua! What a lovely pebble!” the way that mothers do when they’re encouraging their children to hand them that fascinating little choking hazard.
So I looked at this icon and thought, Well, it’s all very nice for you, you’re the Mother of God, but my baby is grumpy and I am grumpy and there you are, just gazing at Him with adoration in your face like He is a pure and undeserved blessing who sleeps through the night and doesn’t get molars and would let you, I don’t know, talk to the nice HVAC repairmen without screeching for attention (if they had HVAC systems in Judea, which I think they did not).
But of course He got molars, and of course it hurt, and of course He cried, because He was a baby and that’s what babies do. He probably made big messes, too, and threw food on the floor like it was a joke He’d only just discovered, and woke His mother up in the night when He had a bad dream.
And yet here she is in this icon, looking at Him like he is pure and undeserved blessing, and He is looking back at her with love and awe. It’s an expression I recognize – a little more regal, perhaps, a little wiser because the icon is trying to show Him as God too and not just a baby – but it’s an expression that Theodora turns on me sometimes. And in His mother’s face, I see what I always know, even when I’m grumpy, which is that my daughter, too, is a pure and utterly undeserved blessing.
I am tempted to end with something flippant, about how she hit me in the knee with my phone because she had been playing with it but then the screen went to sleep and she wanted me to turn it back on (she did), or about how she is tired but reluctant to take a nap because of her teeth (she is), because I am a degenerate, deracinated modern who finds any experience of wonder not leavened with ironic distance from my own wonder to be a little, well, sappy. Not the sort of thing one discusses in polite company.
This may be at least a part of why I am not a Christian. But I want to be, and so I will end on that: I looked at an icon and I had a moment of wonder, and I’m still a little bit grumpy but I’m trying to hold onto the moment.