Seventy years ago today, 33-year-old Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, having being rejected from serving in the Army due to poor eyesight, took a photograph that would become widely recognized and reproduced. The image records U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman raising an American flag atop Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, site of the only Marine battle where the American casualties, 26,000, exceeded the Japanese. Not surprisingly, today’s USA Today headline describes this war photo as “iconic.”
“Iconic” is one of the most overused words in the English vocabulary, perhaps more overworked than “wonderful” ever was. Sports heroes, movie stars, political leaders, buildings, and landmarks are all candidates for this tired adjective.
Computer users refer to symbols appearing on their monitor to represent a command as icons. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, icons are representations of some sacred personage, as Christ or a saint or angel, painted on a wood surface and venerated itself as sacred. The core meaning of icon is a picture or image.
The greatest image maker throughout human history has been the church. Long before literacy, theology, or philosophy, there were images—symbols that taught lessons about God, stained-glass windows that preached messages to people who couldn’t read, icons that spoke volumes without words.
The ultimate icon is the cross—site of the fierce battle between heaven and hell won by Light beyond light, the apparent defeat of goodness transformed by the triumph of vicarious Love, and the bloody sacrifice of the flawless Lamb who saves all who kneel before him in repentance. The serpent sunk his poisonous fangs into Christ’s heel, but the Son of God crushed the head of the snake. Victory over death—our greatest enemy, and victory over sin—our lifelong problem, were both accomplished at the cross.
After seventy years, Joe Rosenthal’s picture of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima still stirs the hearts of patriotic Americans. After more than two thousand years, the raising of the cross on Skull Hill and Christ’s words, “Father, forgive them” still echoes in the hearts of Christ-followers. The image of the cross burned into our consciousness is powerful enough to change our everyday demeanor and eternal destiny.
“God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT)
Johnny R. Almond
Author, Gentle Whispers from Eternity
Interim Pastor, Nomini Baptist Church; Montross, Virginia