The Icon of Christ and His Friend

Christ and Saint MenaNowhere is this image of God drawing close to us more profoundly demonstrated than in this, the oldest known Coptic icon, written in the 8th century in Egypt and depicting Christ and Abba (Abbot) Mena (285-309 A.D.) currently hanging in the Louvre in Paris.

The French, however, do not call it ‘Christ and Abba Mena’ they title it ‘Christ and His Friend’. Reflection upon this icon can be used to demonstrate what it is to live the Christian life, to do pastoral work and, more specifically, how to form disciples in Christ.

Christ, to the right, is slightly taller than the figure on the left, the inscription ‘Saviour’ is written near him. In a sign of introduction and as a protective gesture, his right hand is placed on the left shoulder of Saint Mena who can be identified by the inscription placed to the left of his halo, ‘Apa Mena superior’.

In the icon we notice the unusual position of Christ with his arm around ‘the friend’. This embrace can be seen as demonstrating the change of status we have with Christ. He no longer calls us servants but rather friends.

No longer do I call you servants for the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I called you friends, for all that I have heard from the Father I have made known to you. John 15:15

The second thing this icon teaches about the relational love of the Lord for us is the position of the eyes. Christ has an eye on the friend and another looking out. We need to follow Christ’s example, we can have one eye on Christ and one eye on those under our care.

Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,

who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame,

and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2

This icon shows the Lord Jesus Christ holding the Book of the Gospels, symbolizing that He is the Word, the Truth. We are like the friend in the icon, we also have been given something to share, as signified by the small scroll that the friend is holding but we are only given a small part of the truth of God, our knowledge is always growing yet always remains incomplete.

The next detail of this icon to consider is that Christ has no feet. The fact that the friend has feet can be understood as being sent out like the Father sent the Son.

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.[1]

Finally, there is a silence found in this icon as in all icons. Christ and His friend have their mouths closed. The friend, however, is painted with very prominent ears. We are to primarily listeners of God. There is a silence in the icon; a prayerful silence where not a word is spoken. Mother Teresa was asked what her secret was and she said, “My secret is simple, I pray.” So someone asked her what she said when she prayed and she said, “nothing, I listen.” So the interviewer asked, “OK, when you pray what does God say?” And Mother Teresa answered, “Nothing, He listens.” Prayer is a mutual listening[2].

Perhaps as we look at this icon we might hear again the call of Christ to his ‘friends and brothers’ to join Him on pilgrimage; a call wonderfully expressed in an ancient English poem.

Vox ultima Crucis (The final voice from the cross) by John Lydgate. (1370?–1447)

TARYE no longer; toward thyn heritage

Haste on thy weye, and be of ryght good chere.

Go eche day onward on thy pilgrymage;

Thynke howe short tyme thou shalt abyde here.

Thy place is bigg’d above the sterres clere,

None erthly paleys wrought in so statly wyse.

Come on, my frend, my brother most entere!

For thee I offered my blood in sacryfice.[3]

[1] Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), Christ Has No Body

[2] Adapted from accessed on 13/089/15

[3] Arthur Quiller-Couch (ed.) The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1918, p15

The Noblesse Oblige of Salvation


The sermon on the nativity by St Leo the Great on the Nativity brought me up sharp as I read it this morning.

In it he is exhorting Christians to live out their faith in a committed and authentic way. He is encouraging them to go on in their discipleship and in the transformation of their lives in Christlikeness.

What gave me pause for thought was the rationale he employed to inspire and motivate them.

“O Christian, be aware of your nobility – it is God’s own nature that you share; do not them, by an ignoble life, fall back into your former baseness. Think of the Head, think of the Body of which you are a member.”

In the first instance Saint Leo reminds them of their true nature – they are no longer common men, ordinary humans, fleshly creatures, rather they are sons and daughters of God, they partake God’s own nature, they are spiritual beings imbued with eternal, divine life.

They are not individuals, but connected to Christ – the Head. An unworthy life or lifestyle will not only bring shame on themselves but also on their Lord and Saviour.

They are not individuals, but connected to the Universal Church – all those who have, or who will, accept Christ throughout the whole of time. Again, their conduct reflects on all those who surround, or who look on from glory, or who will follow.

Saint Leo then moves onto a different tack. He reminds them not merely of their new nature but the action that effected that transformation.

“Recall that you have been rescued from the power of darkness, and have been transferred to the light of God, the kingdom of God. Through the sacrament of baptism you have been made a temple of the Holy Spirit; do not by evil deeds, drive so great an Indweller away from you, submitting yourself once more to the slavery of the devil. For you were bought at the price of Christ’s blood.”

In the light of this great miracle of grace, effected in their salvation and by their baptism, they now have a choice. The Indwelling Spirit gives them the power to resist or to submit to evil.

Both resisting and submitting will have serious consequences for their spiritual life – one will take them backwards and under the influence of he who is the enemy of their souls; the other will take them ever closer in their relationship to the God who loves them and who has saved them.

Saint Leo closes by reminding them of their worth – God considered them are worth the life of a God.

So live like it!

(Citation from Nativity sermon of Saint Leo the Great, 440-461 A.D.)

Bare-naked Trust



I recently came across this great segment about the life of St Patrick that summarizes just about every aspect of Christian discipleship and spiritual pilgrimage.


“Yet, here in the silence,

the loneliness and the human deprivation,

in the land of his physical and spiritual captivity,

Patrick in his powerlessness found his God,

recalled what he had learned of him from Sacred Scripture in his youth,

made or renewed his baptismal covenant with him,

and gradually learned to rely on him alone”


(de Paor M. B. ‘Patrick the pilgrim apostle of Ireland’, p43, commenting on “Confessio of Saint Patrick” C5, 55-56)


The “learning to rely on God alone” is the essence of the successful spiritual life. A success that is not measured by any results – as if it were possible for us to know what God wishes to do through us and to accurately determine whether or not this happened – but rather by the quality of our relationship with God.


As a general rule,


 Human beings place their trust in God only when they have no other option.


Something I believe any close reading of scripture or Christian hagiography will bear out.


Therefore getting to a place of deep encounter with God will only be possible in the crucible of enduring difficulty.


Which is why many of our frantic prayers for God to take us out of difficult, unpleasant circumstances are misplaced and misdirected.


If God is to take us deeper into himself, he must take us through some deep waters.


St Patrick gives us clear guidance about how he managed to successfully make it through his own extended experience of suffering.


“…and many times a day I WAS PRAYING.

More and more the love of God and fear of him came to me,

and my faith was being increased,

and THE SPIRIT was being moved”


(‘Confessio’ 16:3-5, circa 590 AD)



Fear not the Lions, for they are chained


…looking very narrowly before him as he went, he espied two Lions in the way. Now, thought he, I see the dangers that Mistrust and Timorous were driven back by. (The Lions were chained, but he saw not the chains.)
Then he was afraid, and thought also himself to go back after them, for he thought nothing but death was before him: But the Porter at the lodge whose name is Watchful, perceiving that Christian made a halt as if he would go back, cried unto him saying,
“ Is thy strength so small? Fear not the Lions, for they are chained, and are placed there for trial of faith where it is, and for discovery of those that have none. Keep in the midst of the Path, and no hurt shall come unto thee”
…Then I saw he went on, trembling for fear of the Lions, but taking good heed to the directions of the Porter; he heard them roar, but they did him no harm.
(John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, London : Dent, 1954 (1678) page 47)

In John Bunyan’s inspired allegorical tale, the Christian life is represented as a journey towards the Celestial City. A journey full of dangers, temptations, snares. In order to arrive finally at his destination the pilgrim, “Christian”, must face up to all of these and conquer them. He is not without aid, but his struggle is real.

In the above quote he has to pass through a narrow ravine and it is getting dark. He sees two lions at either side of his path and they start to roar at him.

He is terrified and stops in his tracks.

But them a voice shouts out to him that he should not fear, keep to the centre of the path and no harm will come to him – the lions are chained.

This is an important spiritual lesson for all Christians. Our lions are chained.

Whatever danger, threat, worry assails us –all these are held in check and limited in action by God.

He allows them for the testing and strengthening of our faith, not to do us harm.

It is a great image – our lions are chained!

It is also a stark reminder that difficulty, fear and struggle are an integral part of the Christian life. As Bunyan concludes in a poetic couplet,

Difficulty is behind, Fear is before,
Though he’s got on the Hill, the Lions roar;
A Christian man is never long at ease,
When one fright’s gone, another doth him seize.

As such, any halcyon days we do experience are to be treasured and enjoyed. They are momentary gracelets of respite, but they are not to be considered our normal fare; they will not last.

(Painting by Florence Liley Young. Published in 1915)

The Encouragement of Struggling

From everyone who has been given much, much will be required,

and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked. (Luke 12:48)

Christian discipleship is not a fair game; we do not play on a level playing field.

Some people start out with many factors which give them an advantage.

Others find the odds against success stacked horrendously against them.

This would be unjust of God and unfair towards us , except for the fact that God’s evaluation of us at the end, will take all this into account.

All spiritual progress, all discipleship success will be measured relatively against the advantages we were given, or the obstacles we faced.

Which perhaps explained why Jesus was able to accept people whose lives were less than optimal in terms of their purity and holiness.

It also explains his warning to the comfortably religious ;

But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Mark 10:31)

This spiritual reality has some serious consequences.

It should give us pause for thought.

Whenever we are tempted to be complacent about our spiritual maturity, our advancement in the Christian life, we should remember this reality.

How much of any progress is merely the result of the advantages we have received? The prayers that are being prayed on our behalf? The environment in which we live which encourages and supports us?

Conversely, when we see fellow Christians struggling, falling into sin, failing to advance, beset by sins they do not manage to overcome – we should at least wonder if perhaps this isn’t due to factors beyond their control.

C.S. Lewis summed this up well;

“If you are a nice person – if virtue comes easily to you – beware!

Much is expected from those to whom much is given…

But if you are a poor creature – poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgur jealousies and senseless quarrels – saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion – nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends – do not despair. He knows all about it.

You are one of the poor whom He blessed.

He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive.

Keep on. Do what you can.

One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) He will fling it on the scrap heap and give you a new one.

And then you may astonish us all – not least yourself:
for you have learned your driving in a hard school.

Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last”
( C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity Book IV, chapter 10 )

Why was God not ashamed ?


 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.

Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
(Hebrews 11:16 NIV)

I was sent a tape of a man called Eugene Smith preaching on the above text recently.

He asked the very simple question

“Why wasn’t God ashamed to be their God?”

Which is actually a very good question.

This verse comes at the end of a list of people who are held up as heroes and heroines of faith. And yet if you examine their lives, you quickly find that they did some rather dubious, even colourful, things!

In fact, if we had been their friends, there would probably have been some times when we would have been uncomfortable to own up to that fact in public!

So why is God is not ashamed to be their God ?

Well, the answer is in the first half of the verse.

They had each been given a vision from God:

  • A vision and a calling to live in relationship with God.
  • A vision and a calling to be significant people in the plans and purposes of God.
  • A vision and a calling to prioritise the life to come over the life here and now.

They responded to that vision and that calling. They lived out their whole lives in that spirit and with that priority.

Some of them died, their vision still unfulfilled.

Oftentimes God’s plans are bigger than our lifetimes.

Can you devote yourself to a vision that is bigger than your lifetime?

That is the key question for any disciple of Jesus Christ.

It is this courageous decision to give themselves to this divine vision, even when they realised they would not see its completion, that is the reason why God is not ashamed to be called their God.

They weren’t always perfect. They failed – often.

They also misunderstood things – perhaps even most of the time.

But they embraced whole-heartedly that which God had revealed to them of His plans and His purposes and His desire for making their lives a part of those plans.

They made the conscious and continual choice to prioritise this over everything else.

They longed for a better country.

They lived their lives by its values.

They invested their time and resources in its coming.

They refused to be distracted by the glitter of ‘The Now’ from the glory of the ‘To Come’.

It is important to remember that the book of Hebrews was written to Christians who were struggling.

They were Christians of Jewish origin and had suffered persecution and exclusion from their Jewish communities because of their Christian faith.

They had lost family and friends, they had been excluded from the richness and the history of the Jewish religious life.

And what had they received in return?

Actually, their experience of life as Christians wasn’t that great.

They were forced to meet in each other’s homes with a cobbled together, rather common worship experience.

The Christian community was mostly comprised of people who were drawn from the lower classes. Very few great rabbis or eminent Jewish scholars had embraced the Christian faith.

The communities’ key leaders were mostly unschooled fishermen. In fact most of the theology of the Christian church had to be supplied by Saint Paul.

To these struggling, demoralised, persecuted people the book of Hebrews comes. The book reminds them that,

What we see is hardly ever a true expression of the spiritual reality.

The challenge of the Christian faith is to live in the light of what we don’t see.

To be like the heroes of chapter 11 – to prioritise in our hearts and lives the glorious inheritance that is ours and will be ours in Christ – a better country, a heavenly one.

In Hebrews chapter 6 verse 12 the heroic equation is succinctly, even mathematically expressed

Faith + Perseverance = Inheritance

Minds on heaven, hands on earth


 “And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” Heb 11:13b-16.

As someone who lives as a stranger and an alien in foreign country, I find these verses especially poignant.

At celebration times, such as Christmas and New Year, I particularly feel the separation from family and friends and my alien-ness compared to those whom I live amongst.

I think that it is good for me to feel this.

It helps me remember that this is the proper Christian state of mind. I should NOT feel comfortable or settled anywhere this side of glory.

I should be haunted by a hunger for something over the horizon. Because that is where I truly belong. That is where I will finally fit in.

That is where I shall know that my restless pilgrimage is over.

I will find myself back in my Father’s house.

I will finally be home.

The second aspect to living as a pilgrim is that you don’t invest in what you can’t take with you.

In his book “The Waters of Silence”, Thomas Merton wrote,

“A monk is a man who has given up everything in order to possess everything.”

If we are convinced of our status as pilgrims, we will hold lightly the possessions we have.

We will enjoy them and use them as we can to do good, but they will have no hold on us. Deep down we will be convinced of the truth that every possible possession in this world has ultimately no more substance or value than a disposable paper cup.

Which is the paradox of heavenly-mindedness.

Those Christians who have often been the most fixed on their heavenly destination,

have often made the most difference here on earth.

Their focus on heaven as their goal, meant that they held lightly to their earthly existence, resources, time – they were prepared to give these things up, to invest them, in advancing God’s Kingdom on earth.

As C.S. Lewis said,

“Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Lewis gives the illustration of those who make health their number one preoccupation in life – it only serves to turn them into raging hypochondriacs.

It is far better to focus on living in a balanced and reasonable way, having good nutrition, taking regular exercise, having fun.

If you include these things in your life you are likely to get health as a side-effect. But make health your goal and you are likely to become a self-obsessed crank.

In terms of Christian discipleship, focussing on heaven will put us in a place where we are far more likely to do good on earth.

“We shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main goal.

We must learn to want something even more”

I think it is good for all of us to experience home-sickness once in a while. It helps to remind us that the church is a community of home-sick people.

We should all be living with a longing for Home.

C.S. Lewis quotes from Mere Christianity Book III, Chapter 10