Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Not Caesar?s Icon” first appeared in the January/February 2002 issue of Touchstone.
Not Caesar’s Icon
The differences between the secular world and the Christian world are often difficult to keep before us. For example, on the first of January we celebrated the beginning of a New Year. But for Christians in the West, the New Year historically commenced with the first Sunday of Advent, while for the Orthodox, it started in September.
The secularization of our society has changed the way many Christians view Christian events. For example, the Christmas season did not historically begin on Halloween and end on December 25. Instead, it began on Christmas Day and ended on Epiphany, a time that is now referred to as the “After Christmas Sale Season.” Of course, Halloween has completely overshadowed All Saints’ Day (have you ever seen a “Happy All Saints’ Day!” card?). And that other day that makes confectioners’ pocketbooks bloat is what used to be called the celebration of the Resurrection. I am sure at that time of year more people think about marshmallow chicks and chocolate eggs than about the Body and Blood of our Lord.
But events on the calendar aren’t the only things that we Christians need to see differently. As recorded in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus differentiated between the things of Caesar and the things of God. He did this by looking at a coin. “Whose icon is on this coin?” he asked. Icon, of course, is the Greek word for image. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” Jesus drew clear distinctions between the secular and the sacred.
But what are the things of God to which he was referring?
The fourth-century saint Hilary of Poitiers once pointed out that just as a coin is made by taking a piece of metal and stamping the icon of Caesar upon it, man is stamped with an icon of God. In some of us, this icon is blurry, like that of a coin whose image has been obscured through abrasive contact with other objects over the years. In others—the saints—the stamp of God is like the image on a freshly minted coin.
We are that which is God’s—marked with his stamp. What I am to render to God is myself—wholly, completely, unreservedly; for I am not my own. I am made in his image—his icon. When others see me, they should see a reflection of God.
Being an icon of God and not being an icon of Caesar is difficult, for it is far too easy to reflect the new and shiny values and markings of the world and far more difficult to reflect the ancient light of Christ. At times it seems that the reflection of the world is seen everywhere—it can seem difficult to escape. But when this happens, it is only because our eyes are closed spiritually. For God is everywhere and his radiance exceeds that of the world and can be readily seen if we stop, take a deep breath, and look again.
We who take the name of Christ should take care to keep his image, his icon, his stamp, upon us as though it were freshly minted. We need to be radiant icons of God and, as such, render ourselves to him.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
“Not Caesar?s Icon” first appeared in the January/February 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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