Icons are scripture in image. They are the power of the gospel spoken in silence directly to our hearts. One of the most revered icons in the world is the icon of Christ at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai in Egypt. Saved from the ravages of the iconoclastic period, this icon is reputed by art historians to be one of the oldest existing icons of Christ. More amazing than its age is that modern technology has shown that it shares the same facial structure and proportion which we know from the Shroud of Turin.
Several years ago, I was going on retreat up in the mountains of North Carolina. It had been a long year with only two pastors in a 2600 member church and I was weary, not just physically, but soul weary. I was delayed in leaving Charlotte and got caught in rush hour traffic. By the time I reached the interstate on the outskirts of the city, I decided I could not take anymore of the main roads – I was going to find another route. As the poet said, I took the road less traveled by and it made all the difference. I had several choices, but I chose the most out of the way.
Two miles off the interstate, I entered Bessemer City, a small town that was bypassed by the growth and development of the larger metro area. I passed Fat Possum’s gift shop. I passed the used car lot with bright yellow happy faces flapping in the breeze and there across from the car lot was a billboard. It was mostly a black background, but there in the center was the Christ of the Sinai, full height on the billboard, staring down at me. I pulled the car over and sat in awe. There were no words, just the face of Jesus confronting me with his penetrating gaze, piercing through to my soul.
I knew I could have chosen other roads – but here in this tiny town, the Lord of the Universe was confronting me. I was familiar with that particular image of Christ though never on that scale. Little pictures tend to shrink things down to a manageable concept, but Jesus was revealed that day with the full force of his glory. For the rest of the trip, all I could think about was the face of Jesus. For the next two weeks, that’s all I could think about. And as I thought about the billboard appearance of Jesus in Bessemer City, I thought about the little town of Bethlehem and the story that was told all over the world. Isn’t that the way Jesus comes to us – in unexpected ways, in out of the way places?