I wonder sometimes what Russian in the throes of the Revolution nailed St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of Christ the Savior into the stairs. I think it couldn’t have been a Christ-hater, because it would have been easy to destroy the image along with so many of the icons, vestments, liturgical items and churches that fed the flames during those early Soviet years.
It might have been someone indifferent to the faith, someone who happened to be fixing the stairs and said to himself, “Here’s a board with paint on it. It’s as good as any.” It might have been someone like that, but it seems unlikely.
For one thing, who could be neutral about religion at that time, when the choices were so clear and the consequences so heavy. For that matter, who could see that face, so full of strength and compassion, and not respond to the Person depicted there? Only someone wearied or hurried or frightened into a blanket of indifference. There were many such people, but when I imagine this unknowable event, that’s not what I see.
I see a believer who turns over a board in a pile of rubble and sees the face of Christ looking at him. He carefully places the icon with the building materials he’s carrying to work on the broken stairs. When he gets there, he glances over his shoulder, reverences the icon one last time, and nails it into place on one of the risers.
For 70 or so years the icon was part of a stairway, kicked, trampled and forgotten until someone found it. It was broken and damaged but miraculously preserved and bearing vertical marks of wear that look like tears.
When I see that icon in the center of the church, I think of the stairs in my house. I run up to get something, run down to go out, run up for this, down for that. If my life were a stairway, sometimes Christ would be as invisible as if I had turned His face toward the darkness and hidden Him underfoot.
It’s not hatred that put him there, nor the loving protection I’ve imagined in that long-ago Soviet worker, but more like the indifferent middle way. I’m too harried and hurried to see Him in the midst of everything I do and in the face of every person I meet.
It comforts me that the icon was still intact in the stairway after all those decades. In a way, the story parallels the parable of the Prodigal Son. Christ is not far away, and even if we have turned His face away from us, he knows how badly we need Him, and He returns to us when we are ready to receive Him. And when I return Him to the center of my life, I see that He has suffered the loss on my behalf.