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Andrei Rublev – Br. Curtis Almquist

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Br. Curtis Almquist

In the calendar of the church we today commemorate Adrei Rublev, the 15th century Russian monk, generally acknowledged as Russia’s greatest iconographer.  He was born around 1365 near Moscow, and while very young he entered monastic life and later studied iconography.  The icon you see before you here in this chapel is a reproduction of Adrei Rublev’s most famous icon called “The Hospitality of Abraham.”  This reproduction was written by our own SSJE brother Eldridge Pendleton.  I say, “written” by Br. Eldridge, not “painted” by him, but written because icons tell a story.

The “Hospitality of Abraham”  icon was inspired by the three
angels’ visitation of Abraham and Sarah in a wilderness called “Mamre.” [i]

Trinity - EHP

The story in the Book of Genesis speaks of the oaks at Mamre, and so you see a rendition of an oak tree (at the top, center) soaring high.  Abraham and Sarah were living in a tent, and the tent has here been stylized (on the upper left) into a significant structure, a depiction of God being like a castle we read about in the psalms: “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold.”[ii]  A mountain rises high (on the upper right), the mountain on which Moses would receive the Ten Commandments.  The three angelic visitors were served a feast of lamb, prepared by Sarah and Abraham, and so we see the three angels sitting, not in the desert sand but at a banquet table.  The icon Rublev named “The Hospitality of Abraham.”

There is another interpretation of this icon, and that is with a Christian overlay.  And this interpretation names the icon “The Holy Trinity.”  This second interpretation is not unlike how we, as Christians, look back on the Hebrew scriptures with a new eye, in light of the revelation we experience in Jesus Christ.  We see in the New Testament what was promised in the Old Testament.  As for the three angels, this is a depiction of the Holy Trinity, perhaps the Holy Trinity disguised as angels.  The tree – the oak at Mamre –  is the tree of life which foreshadows the cross.  If you gaze closely and imaginatively, you can even see the body of Christ on this tree, the cross.  The tent depicted as the castle structure (on your left) is now the dwelling place in heaven Jesus is preparing for us all.  The mountain (on your right) has become the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus’ face shone with the light of God’s blessing.  The meal that was served has here become eucharistic: the lamb of God served in a chaliced ciborium.

Some of you may come from a tradition where icons – these windows to God – were very much a part of your religious formation, your prayer, and your worship.  For some of you, icons may offer new and welcoming windows to gaze on God and God’s company, and to experience the light of God’s countenance shining upon you.  For others of you, icons may seem to skirt the Old Testament prohibition against creating  “graven images.”  We read in the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath….”[iii]  If we read the Scriptures backwards, that is, to take our experience of Jesus Christ, and then look backwards in the scriptures, we have a new reading of the old.  There’s this revealing phrase in the Letter to the Colossians: “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God.”[iv]  The actual Greek reads, “[Jesus] is the icon of the invisible God.”[v]  Jesus puts a name, a face, hands, feet, and a heart to the “invisible God.”  Jesus, the icon of God.

These three Persons all hold staffs of authority.  On your left, there is God whom Jesus calls  abba, “papa.”  God, the Father: the blue garment almost hidden by a translucent, ethereal robe.  Jesus prayed to the Father:  “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one… so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”[vi]  This is Jesus, depicted at the center, wearing a blue garment almost hidden by a shimmering robe.  The golden sash over his right shoulder ascribes his kingly power.  As Isaiah prophesied: “the government shall be upon his shoulder.”[vii] This is Jesus, the surprising, sometimes disap­pointing, long-awaited Messiah who is created in the very image of the God whose image was not to be created: Jesus the innocent, af­flic­ted, saving, salving, all-so-human incarnation of God.  Jesus, the Son, embodies God with us, God Emmanuel.  And then Jesus leaves us.  At least he leaves the earth in bodily form.  In his leaving, he prom­ises not to leave us  “comfortless.”  He says we shall experience even more of what we’ve seen in him through God the Spirit, who will come to us.  The Holy Spirit is shown on our right, wearing a garment of blue, depicting eternity, and green, depicting new life.  This is God the Spirit, whom we experience as unifying, sus­taining, empowering, reminding, interrupting, truth-revealing, who comes on Pentecost, and who keeps coming to us day by day.

Icons are typically written in reverse perspective.  We who gaze on the icon are drawn into the icon.  The invitation with this icon is to see our own place at the table.  There are the three Persons… and then, a space for the fourth.  You are the fourth guest welcomed to this table of fellowship.  God gives us all an invitation to the table, to share in the life of God.  For some of us, that invitation may be wonderful and immediate, like someone who loves us greeting us with the words, “Welcome home.  There’s a place for you here.”  For others of us, we may find some resistance to this welcome by God.  The resistance may have to do with your sense of “unworthiness” to receive God’s welcome, to know God’s love.  You might think you’ve got too much stuff in your past, too many screw-ups in life, too much brokenness, too much inconsistency for God to love you.  But God knows better, and God knows you better.  God really does love you.  And God’s love for you is not ultimately because of you.  God’s love for you is because of God.  God loves whom God creates.  And if there’s any question about your “worthiness” in God’s eye, not to worry.  Jesus covers for you.  Jesus puts in the good word for you, intercedes for you, saves you.  You actually are the apple of God’s eye.[viii]

Accept God’s invitation to be loved by God, and forever. Here in this beautiful icon before us we gaze upon God as a Holy Trinity, three Persons in a circle of adoring love, welcoming us, welcome you, adoring you. Welcome to the eucharistic table, set for you.


[i] See Genesis 18:1-15.

[ii] Psalm 31:3 and 71:3.

[iii] Quoted from Exodus 20:4  “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

[iv] Quoted from Colossians 1:15   “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”  See also Colossians 3:10.

[v] εἰκών: icon.

[vi] John 17:22-26.

[vii] Isaiah 9:4,6.

[viii] Psalm 17:8.

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5 Comments

  1. Ruth West on February 18, 2017 at 17:19

    Br. Curtis, thank you for this good message. I have not been attracted by icons, no doubt because of my strict Protestant raising, but you explained this one so well. I’ve seen it many times.

    I’m quite sure you have heard the story about Karl Barth, that Swiss outstanding theologian, who has written so many books, and is known as such a deeply intelligent and devout person. At the end of a session with a group of young people, he opened it up for questions. One student stood and asked, “Of all the truths you have explored, which one is most important?” Looking straight in the eyes of that young person, he replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
    Yes, God truly DOES love us! Regardless of the many many truths we learn from scripture, none is so important than that He loves us. His very nature is love.

  2. Marie on February 18, 2017 at 07:53

    This is a beautiful sermon. May I add that there are some who think the rectangle on the front of the tablecloth in the original icon was made as a space for a mirror, which eventually fell off. The mirror was the brilliant theological understanding of Rublev that we see ourselves in the persons of the Trinity and they are present in us. We are actually mirrored by God and we mirror our love back to God in the holy gaze. The love between God and each of us is meant to be a continual mirroring. Amazing and lovely! Thanks for the other things I learned about this icon today that I hadn’t known before.

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  4. Paula Pryce on February 6, 2013 at 02:15

    Dear Br. Curtis, Thank you from Switzerland, where I feel a little in exile. Your teachings on the incarnational qualities of icon-gazing give me another way to return home even as I feel adrift. Blessings, Paula

  5. Ken Strickler on February 3, 2013 at 09:35

    Thank you Br. Curtis for that helpful exegesis of the icon. It leads me to think further and to meditate centering on the icon and on your explanation.

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