One of my favorite discoveries in the city of Thessaloniki was a tiny, ancient chapel in the middle of the a rather poor hilltop neighborhood called Ano Poli. The chapel is dedicated to St David of Thessaloniki, the Tree-Dweller, a monk that lived his entire life in the branches of an almond tree The church was destroyed in the 15th century and converted into a mosque when Turkey conquered Greece. In the 1930’s, after Greece achieved independence from Turkey, the church was rebuilt by Asia Minor Greeks fleeing to Thessaloniki.
In the middle of the small chapel is a most beautiful 5th century mosaic, pictured here. It’s hard to imagine it has even survived to this day as many Christian symbols and artwork were destroyed in the churches that were converted to mosques in the 15th century. But the Christians in the neighborhood apparently covered the ancient mosaic with sheepskin and plastered over it before the church was taken. The mosaic was rediscovered in the 1930s when it was rebuilt.
What makes this mosaic so special? Certainly part of it is the youthful depiction of Jesus in the middle. We know it’s Jesus, in part because he in surrounded by the four figures that symbolize the gospels – Matthew the man, Mark the lion, Luke the ox and John the eagle. On either side of these figures are two prophets, Ezekiel and Habakkuk. The prophet on the left is bowed with his head in his hands in awe. The prophet to the right has one hand on a book (scroll) and the other thoughtfully on his head. Together the two represent two ways we come to God, sometimes by a movement of emotion (the heart) and sometimes by logical deduction (the head).
I, however, am fascinated by the depiction of Jesus because he lacks a beard which would have been unheard of for a Jewish youth, let alone a Rabbi. I don’t think this beardlessness can simply be attributed to youth. I think it may be intentional. While Mike and I were looking at the mosaic, a tour happened into the church, and we listened in with interest. The guide speculated that in the fifth century the church was still wanting to curry the favor of the Roman empire. So since the Romans prided themselves in being clean shaven, the artist decided to depicted Jesus as clean shaven like the Romans.
I have thought for a long time that Christianity needs to strike a balance between holding fast to the articles of faith that are critical to our identity and letting go of things that are not so important in order to make the faith more accessible to the culture. Was Jesus’ beard an essential article of faith in the fifth century or expendable for the sake of outreach? Apparently someone thought Jesus would be ok without it.
I wonder what things we could do without to make Christian faith more accessible in our day?
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