Holy God, we bless you for the gift of your monk and icon writer Andrei Rublev, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, provided a window into heaven for generations to come, revealing the majesty and mystery of the holy and blessed Trinity; who lives and reigns through ages of ages. Amen.
You will know the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” We have before us an icon depicting God, the Holy Trinity, whose description is beyond words. This icon was actually painted (or “written”) by our own departed brother Eldridge Pendleton.[i]The icon is in the school of Andrei Rublev, whom we commemorate today. Andrei Rublev, born around 1365 near Moscow, became a monk at a young age, and is generally recognized as Russia’s greatest iconographer.[ii]
Some of you may come from a tradition where icons – these windows to God – were very much a part of your own religious formation. For some of us, icons offer new and inviting ways to gaze on God and God’s company. For others of us, 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]However 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. The New Testament Letter to the Colossiansbegins with a description of Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God.”[iv]The actual Greek is, “He is the icon [eikon] of the invisible God.” Jesus puts a face, a body, a name, a heart, and hands to the otherwise “invisible God.” Jesus is the icon of the invisible God.
We don’t pray to the icons. We pray in their presence. Rather than always closing our eyes and folding our hands in prayer, we lift up the eyes of our hearts in the presence of an icon. Icons feed the imagination in a very good way. The word “icon” has, of course, been added to our online vocabulary and use. So be it. The ubiquitous use of “icons” in marketing only shows how powerful a “capturing image” can be. There’s no reason for the word “icon” to be completely coopted. We can share. Keep the traditional use of this word, icon, as an important word in the vocabulary of your soul.
Let’s consider this Rublev icon, which could be a great help for your own pondering and prayer. Pay attention here to what captures your attention.
We see Three Persons, all with a nimbus, a halo, depicting their holiness. On our left is the image of the Father, wearing a blue garment, the color of eternity, and a golden robe, symbolizing light. God is light. Both of his hands clasp a staff, a sign of authority: all authority in heaven and on earth.
Behind the Father is a house, a dwelling place. We remember Jesus’ saying, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. I go to prepare a place for you.”[v]What, for you, would be heaven, and what would that dwelling place be like, for you?
We remember Jesus’ saying, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”[vi]So this heavenly dwelling place is being custom-made for us, for you, where you will be companioned by God. A companion is, etymologically speaking, a “bread mate,” someone with whom to share meals and share life.[vii]This is symbolized by the three heavenly beings sitting at table, with an open place waiting for you.
On the right, we see the Spirit, wearing an undergarment of blue, the color of eternity, with a green robe, the color of new life. The Spirit points to the table. We remember Jesus’ last words, that he was sending us the Spirit “to lead us into all truth.”[viii]What is the touch of the Spirit to you? How have you known God’s presence, God’s leading? When have you been sure, how is it you aresure of God’s presence? What, for you, are the markers for the Spirit’s leading, the Spirit’s pointing?
Behind the Spirit, on the right, is a mountain, the intersection of earth and heaven. Moses was irradiated by God’s light while on the mountain. Jesus was transfigured by God’s light while on the mountain. What do you know about “mountaintop experiences,” when you have been left aglow with God’s light, and life, and love? Those are hugely important experiences to remember, especially in the bleak mid-winter of life. We draw the gift of hope from our memory. What do you know about a mountaintop experience with God? If you can remember an experience, the experience is still with you. Reclaim the experience.
In the center, Christ is depicted wearing a blue garment, the color of eternity, and a brown garment, the color of his earthly humanity: human and divine. Both. His two fingers to the table.
Behind Christ is a tree. What is this tree? It’s the oak at Mamre. Mamre is remembered in the Book of Genesis, where Abraham and Sarah pitched their tent under an oak tree.[ix]They were visited by three angels, who gave them the promise of life to come. And then they shared a festive lamb dinner. So were the three angels actually God, the Trinity? And is the table actually the altar, and the meal, prefiguring Holy Communion? This is how icons are often quite liminal, with a thin divide between earth and heaven, a thin divide in time between Cronosand Kairos: created time and eternal time. Everything is simply now.
What do you know about being visited by a messenger of God? There’s no other explanation for what happened, or what did nothappen. Do you have any experience with this? If you do, that visitation will be very present to you, still; that past is still very present. Icons capture this sense of timelessness.
Is the tree the oak of Mamre? Or is it the tree in the Garden of Eden? Or is it the wood of the crèche? Or is it the wood of the cross? Or is this the tree of life remembered in the Book of Revelation, “the leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations.”[x] What would be your answer? What’s the tree? Whatever your answer, that’stheanswer. Whatever the tree, a blooming tree is a symbol of fruitfulness. What is bearing fruit in your life just now, for which you can give many thanks. And you should. What is not bearing fruit in your life just now, where pruning is needed. And you should. You’re worth it.
Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity gives us such a welcoming picture of our place in God’s presence, in God’s past, and in God’s future. Blessed Andrei Rublev, whom we remember with thanksgiving today.
[i]When we hear of an icon being created, the verb we often use is “write,” i.e., an icon is written, not painted, but written. Western tradition has it that the verb “to write” an icon is used because an icon tells a story, or an icon invites the viewer into a story. Though that is true, the English verb, “to write” is used, not for theological reasons but for linguistic reasons. In Russian, to verb pisat means both “to paint” and “to write,” a distinction made clear by context. We can come up with a reasonable theological explanation for why icons are “written,” not “painted,” but the etiology of “writing” icons is not theological or spiritual, but linguistic.
[ii]Andrei Rublev wrote “The Holy Trinity” ca.1410-20, and is displayed at the Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow. The work was created for the abbot of the Trinity Monastery, Nikon of Radonezh, a disciple of the famous Sergius, one of the leaders of the monastic revival in the 14th-century Russia.
[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.
[vii]Companion, from the Latin com “with, together” + panis“bread>”
[ix]Genesis 13 and 18.
[x]Revelation 2:7; 22:2,14,19.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.