Icons: Pictures of God for the Heart reflection by larry

On her last day as our Rector, Elizabeth gave us a gift of an icon painted by Andrei Rublev in the 15th century (not the original). While the subject of the icon is the Hospitality of Abraham, it also is a represents of the Holy Trinity. Three angels being hosted by Abraham at the Oak of Mamre announce that barren Sarah is to have a child in her old age. But what is most impressive in this icon is the posture of the angels which speaks of extreme intimacy. Western descriptions of the Trinity tend toward the mind in describing the Son, “begotten of the Father”, of “one substance,” and the Holy Spirit “proceeding from the Father (and the Son).” There’s not much heart there.

In contrast some of the early theologians, especially in the Eastern Church, described the Trinity as a perichorisis – a dance – an on-going, non-static relationship. In the Rublev icon the Holy Trinity is the embodiment of spiritual unity, peace, harmony, mutual love and humility. The more you look at it, the more it seems to be in motion.

Icons are theology. We usually think of theology as “head.” Simply, it is the study of God. The other trend, especially in the East, was to describe God in pictures—icons. As visual people, we should understand that. . .  But we are slow of heart.

By a tradition passed on to Elizabeth, an icon is blessed by anointing with Holy Oil, and then placed on the altar for four weeks. This is what establishes a relationship. Like the Trinity in Rublev’s icon, it is about relationship within God’s self, and within God’s creation in all its wonderful forms.

This coming Sunday will be the fourth Sunday that Elizabeth’s icon gift will have been on our altar. We are still discerning the appropriate place for it—where can we be reminded of the wonderful gift that Elizabeth was to us, and where we are reminded that we are invited into the dance—the gift that is the dance of the Trinity.

Henri Nouwen in his book on praying with icons comments on the Rublev icon:

The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we come to realize that it is painted not as a lovely decoration for a convent church, nor as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place to enter and stay within…. We come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table… We come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle the house of perfect love.

Working with Elizabeth for these past years has taught me that the dance is a good metaphor for relationships on all sorts of levels. The dance is always an invitation. Like the Holy Trinity, we are invited to join the continual outpouring of love that is the true nature of God. With gratitude we receive this gift from Elizabeth. May it be a continual reminder of the love and relationship we shared with her and an invitation into a deeper relationship with God.
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