11 February 2019
Praying with icons and the Jesus Prayer:
(1) Praying with Icons
11 February 2019,
Ministry Education Workshop,
‘Praying with icons and the Jesus Prayer’
Saint Mary’s Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick,
11 a.m.: Part 1, Praying with Icons
Readings: Colossians 1: 13-20;
The Collect of Trinity Sunday:
Almighty and everlasting God,
you have given us your servants grace,
by the confession of a true faith,
to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity
and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity:
Keep us steadfast in this faith,
that we may evermore be defended from all adversities;
for you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever.
For many people on these islands, their first impression of icons may come during a Mediterranean holiday when they stumble by accident into an Orthodox church in Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Egypt or parts of Italy, and are blinded by the beauty of the church interior, filled with frescoes and icons.
But in recent years, Western spirituality has become more inquisitive about the place of icons in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Orthodoxy has had a remarkable influence, not just on aesthetic considerations, but on theological journeys in the west too.
Our understanding of the Trinity, for example, has grown by the way in which many influential, contemporary theologians have come to a fresh way of talking about the Trinity because of insights received through Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham.
But we are often in danger of seeing icons as mere decorative additions to churches, or as paintings in a style that is curious and engaging.
For the Orthodox, on the other hand, icons are never decorative, nor are they ever seen as paintings. For them, the whole edifice of a church building is one great icon of the Kingdom of God. The frescoes, the icons and the icon screen (iconostasis) separating the congregation in main body of the church from the sacred mysteries behind the royal doors are there not to make a church more pretty or beautiful, but are central to worship, liturgy and praying.
Tradition says Pilate made an image of Christ and that the first icon was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist, the first Christian icons may have been produced in the 4th century, and the earliest surviving icons, found in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, date from the 6th or 7th century.
Although in some Western traditions of the Church icons are seen as foreign or exotic, the dispute over the doctrinal orthodoxy of icons and their place in the life of the Church was settled at the Ecumenical Councils in Nicaea in 787 and Constantinople in 843, so that icons are part of the heritage of the undivided church, before the Great Schism of 1054.
In recent years, Western Christians have been introduced to the spiritual riches of icons through the writings of writers such as John Baggley, Richard Temple and, more recently, Archbishop Rowan Williams.
Today, icons are an attractive part of the spiritual experience of visiting many cathedrals in the Church of Ireland, including Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, among many, as well as many cathedrals in the Church of England.
So, icons are fast becoming an integral part of Anglican spirituality today.
There is a small number of icon writers in Ireland, and increasingly icons are becoming commonplace in many churches on these islands. Yet, despite the resurgent interest in the Orthodox tradition of icons and icon writing, many people today think of an icon only as an image on their computer screens.
The Biblical foundations
I was invited the year before last [22 June 2017] to open the summer exhibition of icons by Adrienne Lord in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Later, someone commented on one of my postings on this exhibition: ‘I can’t differentiate between an icon and a graven image in my head. Maybe for others it is ok.’
So, what are icons, how do they find a place in our spirituality, is it appropriate to use them in prayer, and how can we understand them as more than pious art but not quite the ‘graven image’ that many evangelicals fear.
The word ‘icon’ comes from the Greek word (eikon, εἰκών) which simply means a depiction or pictorial representation. However, the theological foundation for the use of icons rests in Scripture: the New Testament describes Christ as the eikon, namely the image and exact representation of God (Hebrews 1: 3).
If Christ makes the invisible God visible, then visual theology is as much a requirement for the Church as is verbal theology. And so, the Orthodox say that an icon is written rather than painted, and they speak of icon writers rather than icon painters. Icons as they are used in Orthodox liturgy and prayer life are no more worshipped than the pages, ink and typeface of a prayer book are worshipped in prayer.
The Orthodox believer prays through but not to an icon, and the reverence given to an icon is not worship but the reverence that given to the sacred person depicted or represented in the icon.
The word εἰκών (eikon, image) refers to a religious image or representation of a sacred figure or event. Originally, in Greek, the word eikon denoted a depiction of an object without the necessity of sanctity or veneration. Over time, however, icons became popular religious object, used to evoke veneration and to educate people.
A dominant theme in Orthodox icons is the depiction of faces, particularly of Christ and the Virgin Mary, but also of saints and angels. In the Bible, the Hebrew Old Testament uses several words for face – panim, aph, ayin and anpin – when referring to the face or the presence of God.
Of these four words, panim is the most frequently used. In the Greek New Testament, the word προσοπον (prosopon) is used in most cases, with the exception of one verse that uses οψις (opsis).
Of course, the word ‘face’ has other uses in the Bible, as when the earth’s surface is described as ‘the face of the earth,’ or for body directions or postures, such as to set your face against something as an expression of opposition, or to fall on your face as an expression of worship.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul speaks of ‘the glory of Christ, who is the image (εικονα, eikona) of God’ (and says Christ himself is the ‘icon’ (εἰκὼν, eikon) or ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1: 15):
ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως,
He is the image (icon) of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
In one sense, therefore, Christ is an icon, the perfect icon of God.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says something similar when he says Christ ‘is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint (χαρακτηρ, character) of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1: 3).
As people, we are also made in God’s images. Saint Paul writes: ‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (εικονα, eikona) from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’ (II Corinthians 3: 18).
In Romans 8: 29, Saint Paul tells how God has predestined us ‘to be conformed to the likeness (εικονος) of his Son.’ In I Corinthians 15: 49, he tells how on the day of resurrection we will ‘bear the likeness (εικονα, eikona) of the man from heaven.’
Where the New International Version (NIV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) to a lesser degree tend to use the rather vague ‘into his likeness,’ the KJV had the more vivid ‘into the same image.’ The same image as what? The answer seems to be: the same image as Christ. In other words, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit within us results in our being made into ‘icons’ of Christ.
Saint Paul writes: ‘Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image (εικονα) of its Creator’ (Colossians 3: 9-10). So, we too are living icons, and it is for this reason that people as well as icons are censed in the Orthodox liturgy and public prayers.
The Biblical motif of the icon is important for understanding the Christian life. God is at work in our lives, conforming us into the image of his Son. We become icons of Christ just as Christ is the icon of God. Orthodox theology described this process of Christian growth as θέωσις (theosis) – becoming partakers of the divine nature (see II Peter 1: 4).
The NIV is one of the most widely used among Evangelicals. However, a reading of these Greek texts suggests the NIV has an inbuilt bias towards iconoclasm. In the texts I have cited, the NIV is inconsistent in its translation of the Greek word εικων (eikon), using the vague ‘likeness’ when referring to Christ but the more direct ‘image’ in reference to Christians.
There is an Italian saying, traduttore, traditore. If the translations we read allow the translators’ own theology to interpret the text rather than allowing the text to shape the translators’ theology, then it becomes difficult to develop a theology that has a biblical foundation and that is not biased towards reaching one particular conclusion.
God is present although we cannot see him, but the day is coming when we shall see God face to face. Thus, the icon points to the end of the present age and to the coming of the eternal kingdom of Christ. The icon of Christ is a promise that we will one day see God face-to-face.
The traditions of Icons:
Icons are embedded with symbolism that conveys far more meaning than simply the identity of the person represented, and that symbolism and style is handed on from generation to generation.
The personal, idiosyncratic and creative traditions of Western European religious art are largely lacking in Orthodox iconography before the 17th century, when Russian icon writing was strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Catholic Europe.
Greek icon writing also began to take on a strong romantic western influence for a period and the difference between some Orthodox icons and western religious art began to vanish.
On the other hand, the Orthodox tradition of iconography from Mount Sinai and Crete had a strong influence on Western art after Michael Damaskinos and his pupil El Greco moved from Crete to Italy in the 16th century.
Icons are designed to capture the spiritual aspects of Christ and the Saints, not just the material human form. Large icons can be found adorning the walls of churches and icon-style frescoes usually cover the inside walls completely.
They begin with more worldly scenes at ground level, and work their way up through the Gospel stories and the stories of salvation, so that as we are distracted by worldly thoughts during the liturgy, we are called back to the purpose of worship, until our eyes are drawn ever upwards, so that at the height of dome we see the evangelists and angels surrounding the highest and holiest of all in the dome, Christ the Pantocrator, the one through whom all things are made.
Orthodox homes have icons on the wall, usually together on an eastern facing wall, not as decorations but to help the family to pray together. Every Orthodox believer will also have an icon of his/her saint after whom they have been named beside their bed or in a private place at home. They are always understood within the context of the liturgy, the teaching and the prayers of the Church.
I have spent time viewing icons, and being enriched spiritually, in their traditional settings in Orthodox churches, monasteries and homes, especially throughout Greece, but also in Romania, Cyprus and even on Mount Sinai. I have visited icons in museums and exhibitions in Mount Athos, Mount Sinai, Patmos, Athens, Thessaloniki, Crete, Bucharest, Nicosia, Venice, and many other places, and been involved in icon exhibitions in Dublin and Derry.
One of favourite places to spend time is the exhibition of Cretan icons in the Museum of Christian Art, housed in the former Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in the Centre of Iraklion. This museum houses one of the most priceless collection of icons in Greece.
Crete has an important place in the tradition of iconography, that links the tradition of iconography on Mount Sinai and in Byzantium through the great Cretan School of Icons, based in Iraklion, and the works of Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559), Michael Damaskinos (1535-1593), Giorgios Klontzas (ca 1540-1608), and Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), known worldwide as El Greco, with Western art and painting.
As I watch tourists visiting churches in Rethymnon, Iraklion, Piskopianó, Koutouloufari and other towns and villages in Crete, I notice how easily they are captivated by the beauty of the icons and frescoes, although most are obviously unaware of their significance or their underlying theology.
An introduction to five icons:
This morning, we may get an opportunity to look at five icons with well-known, traditional themes: Christ the Pantocrator, the Visitation of Abraham, the Transfiguration, the traditional icons of the Nativity, and the Apostles Peter and Paul.
1, Christ the Pantocrator:
The dome in most Orthodox churches is filled with an image of Christ the Pantocrator (Χριστὸς Παντοκράτωρ), although this is an image that is not familiar or well-known to many in Western Christianity.
When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek as the Septuagint, the word Pantokrator was often used both for the Lord of Hosts and for God Almighty. In the New Testament, the word Pantokrator is used once by Saint Paul (II Corinthians 6: 18) and nine times in the Book of Revelation (1: 8, 4: 8, 11: 17, 15: 3, 16: 7, 16: 14, 19: 6, 19: 15 and 21: 22).
The most common translation of Pantocrator is ‘Almighty’ or ‘All-powerful.’ Other translations include ‘Ruler of All’ and ‘Sustainer of the World.’
The icon of Christ Pantokrator is one of the most common religious images in Orthodoxy. It was one of the first images of Christ developed in the Early Church and remains a central icon in the Orthodox Church. In half-length images, Christ holds the New Testament in his left hand and makes the gesture of teaching or of blessing with his right hand.
The oldest surviving example of the icon of Christ Pantocrator is seen on a panel from the sixth or seventh century, and survived the period of destruction of images during the two major Iconoclastic disputes in 726-787 and 814-842. It was probably produced in Constantinople and is now in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.
An icon where Christ has an open book is called Christ the Teacher, a variant of the Pantocrator. Christ is bearded, his brown hair centrally parted, and his head is surrounded by a halo. The icon is usually shown against a gold background.
Often, the name of Christ is written on each side of the halo, as IC and XC. Christ’s fingers are depicted in a pose that represents the letters IC, X and C, so making the Christogram ICXC (for ‘Jesus Christ’). The IC is composed of the Greek characters iota (Ι) and sigma (C rather than Σ) – the first and last letters of ‘Jesus’ in Greek (Ἰησοῦς); in XC the letters are chi (Χ) and sigma – the first and last letters of ‘Christ’ in Greek (Χριστός).
In many cases, Christ has a cruciform halo inscribed with the letters Ο Ω Ν, meaning ὁ ὢν, ‘He Who Is,’ or ‘I AM who I AM’.
2, The Visitation of Abraham:
One of the best-known presentations of the Trinity is found in Andrei Rublev’s icon, the Old Testament Trinity or the Hospitality of Abraham. This icon recalls the passage in Genesis 18, in which God visits Abraham and Sarah at Mamre. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Abraham’s guests – now only a single guest – is God.
Rublev’s icon itself is a masterpiece of composition: The viewer is being invited to join the meal; the doctrine of the Trinity as a community of Love into which the believer is invited to enter is depicted with clarity and simplicity; the icon communicates the idea that basis of the divine life is hospitality. The vanishing point in the sacred space is placed in front of the icon, inviting the viewer to enter into the holy mystery.
Andrei Rublev (Андре́й Рублёв) is regarded as the greatest mediaeval Russian author of Orthodox icons and frescos. Tradition says he was born in the 1360s, but we have little information about his life, and we do not know when or where he was born.
He probably lived in the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius near Moscow under Nikon of Radonezh, who became the hegumen or abbot after the death of Saint Sergius of Radonezh in 1392.
Rublev is first referred to in 1405 when he decorated icons and frescos for the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin in Moscow, working alongside Theophanes the Greek and Prokhor of Gorodets.
Theophanes the Greek was an important Byzantine master who moved to Russia, and is considered to have trained Rublev. Rublev’s name is the last on the list of the masters because he was the junior among them, both by rank and by age.
Rublev and Daniil Cherni painted the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir in 1408 as well as the Trinity Cathedral in the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius between 1425 and 1427.
After Daniil’s death, Rublev came to the Andronikov Monastery in Moscow where he painted his last work, the frescoes of the Saviour Cathedral. He is also believed to have painted at least one of the miniatures in the Khitrovo Gospels.
Rublev died at the Andronikov Monastery in Moscow on 29 January 1427 or 1430, although some sources give the date of his death as 17 October 1428.
In his icon of ‘The Visitation of Abraham,’ Rublev depicts the three visitors who arrive at Abraham’s door. The guests become the hosts, the host becomes the guest, and Abraham is invited to a meal that is past, present and future. It is every domestic meal, it is a foretaste of the Eucharist, it is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. In welcoming strangers, he is entertaining angels; but in entertaining angels, he is invited into communion with God as Trinity.
It is a moment in the past, a moment in the present and a moment in the future, when we shall all be restored to being in the image and likeness of God our Creator. God, in creating us, creates out of love, making our destiny eternal life with him. We are created to experience life within the Trinitarian communion of persons.
3, The Transfiguration:
The first set of readings provided in the Lectionary this year for the First Sunday before lent [3 March 2019] take the theme of The Transfiguration, and the Gospel reading is Saint Luke’s account of the Transfiguration: Luke 9: 28-36 (37-43).
Traditional icons of the Transfiguration seek to convey how this is a moment that brings the experience of the past and the promise of the future together in the moment of the present.
I saw this recently in two icons of the Transfiguration in two different places.
I was visiting a new church built in a village in the mountains above the tourist resorts in Crete. There I was shown an icon of the Transfiguration presented to that Church in 2007, shortly after it opened 12 years ago. A few weeks earlier, I was invited to open the summer exhibition in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, of icons by Adrienne Lord. The poster for this exhibition, and one of the principal exhibits, is an icon of the Transfiguration.
In both icons, we see on the left, Christ leading the three disciples, Peter, James and John, up the mountain; in the centre, we see these three disciples stumbling and falling as they witness and experience the Transfiguration; and then, to the right, Christ is depicted leading these three back down the side of the mountain.
In other words, we are invited to see the Transfiguration not as a static moment but as a dynamic event. It is a living event in which we are invited to move from all in the past that weighs us down, to experience the full life that Christ offers us today, and to bring this into how we live our lives as Disciples in the future, a future that begins here and now.
The Transfiguration is both an event and a process. The original Greek word for Transfiguration in the Gospels is μεταμόρφωσις (metamorphosis), which means ‘to progress from one state of being to another.’ Consider the metamorphosis of the chrysalis into the butterfly. Saint Paul uses the same word (μεταμόρφωσις) when he describes how the Christian is to be transfigured, transformed, into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3: 18).
This metamorphosis invites us into the event of becoming what we have been created to be. This is what Orthodox writers call deification. Transfiguration is a profound change, by God, in Christ, through the Spirit. And so, the Transfiguration reveals to us our ultimate destiny as Christians, the ultimate destiny of all people and all creation – to be transformed and glorified by the majestic splendour of God himself.
The Transfiguration points to Christ’s great and glorious Second Coming and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, when all of creation shall be transfigured and filled with light.
According to Saint Gregory Palamas, the light of the Transfiguration ‘is not something that comes to be and then vanishes.’ It not only prefigures the eternal blessedness that all Christians look forward to, but also the Kingdom of God already revealed, realised and come.
In a lecture in Cambridge some years ago , Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware], the pre-eminent Orthodox theologian in England, spoke of the Transfiguration as a disclosure not only of what God is but of what we are. The Transfiguration looks back to the beginning, but also looks forward to the end, to the final glory of Christ’s second coming, because through the incarnation Christ raises our human nature to a new level, opens new possibilities.
The Incarnation is a new beginning for the human race, and in the Transfiguration we see not only our human nature at the beginning, but as it can be in and through Christ at the end, he told us.
But with the Transfiguration comes the invitation to bear the cross with Christ. Peter, James and John are with Christ on Mount Tabor, and they are with him in Gethsemane. We must understand the Passion of Christ and the Transfiguration in the light of each other, not as two separate mysteries, but aspects of the one single mystery. Mount Tabor and Mount Calvary go together; and glory and suffering go together.
If we are to become part of the Transfiguration, we cannot leave our cross behind. If we are to bring the secular, fallen world into the glory of Christ, that has to be through self-emptying (κένωσις, kenosis), cross-bearing and suffering. There is no answer to secularism that does not take account of the Cross, as well as taking account of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection.
The Transfiguration provides a guideline for confronting the secular world, he said. And Metropolitan Kalistos reminded us of the story from Leo Tolstoy, Three Questions. The central figure is set a task of answering three questions:
What is the most important time?
The most important time is now, the past is gone, and the future does not exist yet.
Who is the most important person?
The person who is with you at this very instant.
What is the most important task?
‘This task is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!’
The light that shone from Christ on the mountaintop is not a physical and created light, but an eternal and uncreated light, a divine light, the light of the Godhead, the light of the Holy Trinity.
The experience on Mount Tabor confirms Saint Peter’s confession of faith which reveals Christ as the Son of the Living God. Yet Christ remains fully human as ever he was, as fully human as you or me, and his humanity is not abolished. But the Godhead shines through his body and from it.
In Christ dwells all the fullness of the Godhead. But at other points in his life, the glory is hidden beneath the veil of his flesh. What we see in Christ on Mount Tabor is human nature, our human nature, taken up into God and filled with the light of God. ‘So, this should be our attitude to the secular world,’ Metropolitan Kallistos said.
Or, as the Revd Dr Kenneth Leech (1939-2015) once said: ‘Transfiguration can and does occur ‘just around the corner,’ occurs in the midst of perplexity, imperfection, and disastrous misunderstanding.’
Metropolitan Kallistos spoke that day of the Transfiguration as a disclosure not only of what God is but of what we are. The Transfiguration looks back to the beginning, but also looks forward to the end, opening new possibilities.
The Transfiguration shows us what we can be in and through Christ, he told us.
In secular life, there is a temptation to accept our human nature as it is now. But the Transfiguration of Christ offers the opportunity to look at ourselves not only as we are now, but take stock of what happened in the past that made us so, and to grasp the promise of what we can be in the future.
The Transfiguration is not just an Epiphany or a Theophany moment for Christ, with Peter, James and John as onlookers. The Transfiguration reminds us of how God sees us in God’s own image and likeness, sees us for who we were, who we are and who we are going to be, no matter how others see us, no matter how others dismiss us.
The Transfiguration is a challenge to remember always that we are made in the image and likeness of God. And, no matter what others say about you, how others judge you, how others gossip or talk about you, how others treat you, God sees your potential, God sees in you God’s own image and likeness, God knows you are beautiful inside and loves you, loves you for ever, as though you are God’s only child. You are his beloved child in whom he is well pleased.
4, Traditional icons of the Nativity:
A traditional Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Christ
In traditional icons of the Nativity, the five main characters or sets of characters in the Christmas story – Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Angels, and the Wise Men – offer a very different take on the Christmas story than the ones found on popular Christmas cards.
In the Orthodox tradition, the icon of the Nativity of Christ shows the Creator of the Universe entering history as a new-born babe, and the impact of his birth on the natural life of the world.
The background of the icon traditionally displays an inhospitable world, the world since our expulsion from Paradise. In the centre of the icon are Mary, the central and disproportionately large figure, who is see resting in a cave, and the Christ Child as a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Around the icon, we can see details from the Christmas story.
The icon is rich with theological symbolism.
An icon of the Nativity of Christ … rich with theological symbolism
The Christ Child
The little helpless figure in swaddling clothes represents the complete submission of Christ to the physical conditions governing the human race.
The earth provides him with a cave. The animals watch over him in silent wonder and we humans offer him one of us, the Virgin Mother. His manger is like a coffin and his swaddling clothes are very much like the grave clothes, for this child is born to die.
Far from the Christmas-card image of being born in a sweet, cosy stable, surrounded by cuddly animals and adoring fans, Christ is born in a dark cave. The craggy rocks above the cave form the shadow of the cross on which he dies.
One very old version of the Christmas story has it that Christ was born in a cave outside Bethlehem, which is why the icon shows him that way, in the midst of jagged rocks and pitch dark. Christ has come into the world to save it, but that means he has come into a place of darkness and danger. He is in the depths. His birth anticipates his death, just as the gift of myrrh (a spice used in burials) points us to Christ’s death and burial.
So, while the nativity is a joyful event, it carries a serious message. Jesus Christ is God with us, God come to live the life of a human being on earth. But he has also come to die, to set us free from our slavery to evil, poverty and injustice. As one writer puts it: ‘God became a human child so that we might become children of God.’
The Virgin Mary
The Virgin Mary is known in Orthodoxy as the Theotokos, the God-bearer or Mother of God. Although Mary is the most dominant figure in the icon, she is not the most important. Sometimes she is shown kneeling, still concerned.
Mary is right at the centre of the Christmas story, which is why she is at the centre of this icon. It was her ‘yes’ spoken to the angel who told her she would give birth to Christ which set the whole story in motion. It was her belief that God could do what he promised that made it all possible. And it was she who gave birth and laid her son in a feeding trough for cattle, due to overcrowding in Bethlehem.
In this icon, we see Mary lying on a sort of long, red cushion – it almost looks like a bean bag – with the Christ Child in his makeshift cot by her side. She is pulling her cloak around her for warmth, and perhaps she is trying to catch some sleep after the exhaustion of giving birth. The icon-writer presents Mary like this to remind us that the birth of Christ – like any birth – was hard work and that it was a human event. Jesus Christ was fully human. The way Mary wraps herself in her cloak and turns to get some sleep tells us that.
But Jesus Christ was more than just a human being, as we are told in the words of the nativity narratives in the Gospels, and through the images in this icon.
The sky salutes the Christ Child with a star, the light of wisdom. This is a sign that Christ came for everyone. Some icons have three rays from the star, representing the Holy Trinity.
The shepherds and the Wise Men or Magi bring their gifts as signs that Christ has come for everyone.
Saint Luke’s Gospel has a special emphasis on the poor and disadvantaged, on people living on the margins of society. While Saint Matthew’s Gospel focuses on the wise men who travelled from the East, Saint Luke’s spotlight falls on these working men, who hear the news about the birth of Christ from heaven itself.
There shepherds are on the right-hand side of the icon, and one young shepherd is wearing a wreath as he plays his flute, showing the joy of the Good News.
Below the shepherds, their sheep drink in a river. One of the shepherds looks up and is blessed by an angel looking down on him. Saint Luke is the only evangelist to mention the shepherds in his Gospel.
Christ later says: ‘I have come to bring good news to the poor.’ The shepherds in the story remind us of God’s love for those who are forgotten and left behind in our world.
The Wise Men
The Wise Men are on horseback on the left-hand side of the icon, galloping uphill, their faces turned up looking for the star which has led them there. The wise men are also part of the Christmas story, and they bring not just their strange and exotic gifts but they also bring the world of politics and military power into the story.
King Herod, a violent and cunning ruler who was paranoid about holding on to his power, is alarmed by his unexpected visitors. Eventually, he orders the horrific massacre of all new-born baby boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to liquidate any rival to his throne, no matter how young he may be.
In this icon, the uphill angle of the horses tells of the long, hard journey of the wise men, and how important the event was to them. Perhaps they alone in this story have realised something of what was truly happening. And the speed of their horses tells us of the urgency and danger in their part of the story.
They show how the story of the incarnation of Christ was rooted in the real world of political corruption and intrigue, with a ruler who was prepared to kill anyone who stood in his way. It is this real world of oppression, death and danger that Christ has come to save.
The women on the bottom right of the icon are midwives. They tell us that Christ was born in the normal way and would have needed washing, as a regular human baby does.
Below the centre of the icon is a tree, representing the Jesse Tree in Old Testament prophecy, which says that a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse, the father of King David: ‘A shoot shall sprout from the stump (tree) of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him’ (Isaiah 11: 1-2). But the tree is also a reminder of the Cross on Calvary and the Crucifixion.
The ox and ass
Christ comes into the world that does not recognise him for who he is. The ox and the ass below the centre of the icon are also referred to in an Old Testament prophecy: ‘The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand’ (Isaiah 1: 3). In some icons, the ox and ass are shown near the Christ child, providing warmth from their breath.
The Righteous Joseph is shown away from the Christ Child and the Virgin Mary, to the bottom left. This is to show that he was not involved in the miracle of the Incarnation of the Son of God, but that he was the protector of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.
Saint Joseph reminds us of a very human dilemma in the Nativity stories: how could the Virgin Mary be pregnant? It was a scandalous thing (see Matthew 1: 18-24).
From Saint Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that Joseph did not believe the Virgin Mary’s explanation of how she had conceived. It was only after a dream that he accepted the Virgin Mary as his wife.
In the icon, Saint Joseph has his back to the Virgin Mary, listening to his doubts and fears. He cuts an isolated figure, right at the bottom of the picture, and he looks thoroughly fed up with everything. And yet, despite any lingering doubts he may have harboured, Saint Joseph has an important place in the whole icon. Doubt can help us get honest with God and with ourselves.
The tempting old man
The old man speaking to Saint Joseph represents the devil bringing new doubts to Saint Joseph. The devil suggests that if the infant were truly divine he would not have been born in the human way. This argument, presented in different forms, keeps on reappearing throughout the history of the Church, and is the foundation of many heresies.
In the person of Saint Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all humanity, the difficulty of accepting that which is beyond reason, the Incarnation of God. But the Virgin Mary in the centre, from her reclining position at the centre of the icon, looks at Saint Joseph as if trying to overcome his doubts and temptations.
The angels in the icon are glorifying God, tending to the action, and ministering. They are announcing the Good News to the shepherds, or singing. The angels in the middle group are kneeling or bowing in worship before Christ, lying in his cave, while the angels on the left of the icon are standing like a choir, singing.
5, The Apostles Peter and Paul:
The main doors into many Greek churches are flanked by icons of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. We all know how they argued in the first debates in the Apostolic Church. So, these icons represent not division in the church, but the unity of the Church.
Two of the icons in the museum in Iraklion show the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter holding the Church in balance between them. These are icons of Christian unity. But we could also see the Church itself as an icon of the world to heaven, and the Church as an icon of the world presented to heaven.
Next: Praying with icons and the Jesus Prayer: (2) Praying with the Jesus Prayer.
An icon of Christ seen in an antique shop in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)