Retreat on Icons
on 31 August 2013
East and West have expressed central truths of Christianity. They have responded with great devotion and creativity to the mystery of the Incarnation. The Annunciation is a great event in the history of our redemption. Images communicate the beauty of the Christian Mystery, of God made flesh in Mary’s womb. In addition, Scripture and Tradition give us a theological reflection on our faith that we want to express by images. The Gospel of Luke especially permits a good reflection of this event, not merely by giving us the brute facts but providing us with wonderful imagery in prose, hymns and poems within a liturgical context. Tradition gives Mary a title: in the light of the incarnation, she is called the Theotokos (God’s bearer). She is also the bridge that leads to heaven, the Burning Bush, the Lamp, the Throne, the Ladder, the Gate, the Temple, the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant and the Chalice.
Mary plays a very important role in this mystery of the Incarnation because the Revelation given through Christ shows that what was given in the past, in the Old Testament, was fulfilled in the New Testament. Only in the fullness of revelation given found in Christ, can the separate mysteries of the Annunciation, Nativity and so on find their real meaning, be understood and be expressed in images. So, in the Annunciation, Adam and Even are kept in mind. This mystery involves the whole humanity.
Icons of the Annunciation are very numerous. In the Orthodox and Eastern Churches they are frequently seen on the walls or pillars, on the iconostasis of the Church which depicts the main feasts by a series of icons, on the Royal Doors as well as in icons provided for veneration on the day of the feast.
The earliest existing image of the Annunciation seems to be a third century one in the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome; then it became widespread as iconography developed. In the following centuries details such as the ray of light descending on Mary and the dove suspended above her as a symbol of the Holy Spirit became familiar. Some details in the depiction of the Annunciation icon come from the apocryphal book of James: It refers to the life of Mary. At the well, she hears a voice calling her, highly-favoured and blessed among women. She moves away in fear, and is then approached by the angel as she is working on the veil for the Temple. According to this apocryphal book the young Mary had been chosen to fulfil the task of preparing the purple and scarlet material to be used in the making of the veil.
2nd Century Image Annunciation XIV century, Ohrid, Bulgaria.
It is not certain that the veil was for the Holy of Holies, but it may refer to the veil at the time of Christ’s death, a barrier between human and divine. So, this is why Mary appears in icons holding the yarn; other icons show that this yarn is falling to the ground as she hears the message of the Archangel. It can also mean that Mary is called to a higher vocation and becomes herself the Temple of God, the Theotokos, the God’s bearer. Through this icon, Mary teaches us to be detached, to let things go in order to receive a greater gift because, as we experience in our own lives, attitudes and anxieties can impede the work of God at a deeper interior level.
Christians from the first four centuries used many sources to help them understand the mystery related to Christ because the cannon of Scriptures was not strictly defined at that time. Hence, the names of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, come from an apocryphal gospel. However, the Gospel of St Luke is the principal source. The way in which the scene was depicted at that time has influenced all future art and has become part of the heritage, part of the Christian tradition down the ages.
In the Divine Liturgy, Mass for the West, is celebrated as a meeting of the human and divine. The icon of the Annunciation at the Royal Door, reflects the living dynamic of how the assembly enter into the mystery that has been revealed in Christ. All this begins with Mary’s response to God at the Annunciation. So the Annunciation shapes our approach to worship; it calls us to collaborate in the reception of the gift of Christ, in order to seek and do his will. So, frequently the Royal Doors of the iconostasis have the figures of the four Evangelists, because it means that the Gospel record has to be heard and lived. Thus, the Annunciation icon emphasised the attitude of the worshipper in response to the Holy Spirit. It is not just an intellectual response; it requires mind, heart and will, a new beginning in Christ.
The two standing figures, Mary and the Archangel Gabriel, make an impact on the viewer and bring us into that moment in which God enters into human life to renew and transfigure his creation. The significance of the event goes beyond particular time and place; although it is celebrated as a specific event in history. It opens new possibilities, a reality of the divine presence seeking to enter in to this particular person, the one that contemplates the icon. Thus, if Annunciation is closely related to the Incarnation, when humanity has been taken back and united to God, the celebration of this feast cannot be regarded simply as an event in the past.
The icon of the annunciation is connected with the Crucifixion. To receive God, as Mary did at the annunciation, also means the way to Calvary. The seventh canticle for Compline on Good Friday in the Eastern Church, the lament of the Mother of God reflects this relationship: “Where, O my Son and God are the good tidings of the Annunciation that Gabriel brought me. He called you King and God and Son of the Most High; and now, o my sweet Light, I behold you naked, wounded and lifeless.” Mary was chosen to be the Mother of God, and it implied the cross. The same emptiness and self-living love of God are manifested in these two events. Mary receives the love and cherishes that love in the person of Christ.
The icon of the Nativity reveals what the First Council of Nicea in 325 discussed on the Divinity-humanity of Christ. The focus is not on Christ’s human birth as a mere historical fact. It is about strongly emphasising Christ’s divinity. It is about the human birth of the Second Person of the Trinity. It shows the invisible reality of Son of God that takes place in the womb of Mary and is born in Bethlehem.
As we know in the West, under the Franciscan influence, Christmas has a different character with the manger scene. Popular devotion focused on a human side of the mystery: Joseph the carpenter, the Child Jesus and his mother Mary. These images of the Holy family became widespread in the West but which was totally unknown in the East. The emphasis was put in the celebration of Man-God (Christology from below), different from the Eastern view of God-Man (Christology from above). Icons are not principally sentimental. They reflect on the mystery in order to increase the faith of the people.
The Liturgy talks about God becoming flesh; God coming down to fill the virgin womb of Mary as the answer to the fiat on behalf of the whole of humanity, in order that man can become God (the deification of man). This is a central truth of Christianity.
The icon here is a 16th century Novgorod school. The type of this icon goes back probably to an image in a church built by Constantine in the site thought where the Nativity of Jesus took place.
This image does not look busy: it has sober colours and lines, and the spaces within it are perfectly separated.
The three rayed light and the dove appears in this icon as well as in the icons of the Annunciation and Baptism showing the manifestation of the Holy Trinity in different but related events. The dove represents the Holy Spirit because it recalls the Archangel’s words: “the Power of the Most High will take you under his shadow (Lk 1:35). St Gregory of Naziansus on the feast of Nativity: “O world, […] with angels and shepherds glorify the eternal God…Let us cry glory to God in the Trinity.” This single ray signifies the one essence of God, and the division within the ray signifies the participation of the three persons in the economy of salvation.
Under the descending ray is placed the child Jesus as the centre of the icon. The True Bread is placed in the centre, in the house of Bread; that it what Bethlehem means. The star serves to reveal Christ who might not be recognised in a humble place. He is in a dark cave symbolizing that Christ is the light that comes into the world: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”, as John refers in his prologue. The darkness is dispersed by the power of the light. The depiction of the darkness symbolizes that the human ignorance has been replaced by the knowledge brought by Christ, the light of truth. Adam and Eve turn their back on God and hid themselves.
They are called back from that exile of darkness and sin. Christ calls them back though his entire life: birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection. It is reflected by the way he is depicted in the cave at Bethlehem. He is covered with swaddling cloth prefiguring his death. His strange immobility recalls Holy Saturday, the day of great rest. Birth implies death; his mission was already depicted at his birth.
The animals, ox and ass are shown adoring the incarnate Lord. It calls Scriptures one more in the book of Isaiah: “the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib.” In the New Testament, in the Gospel of Mathew 11:30 Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The yoke is carried by the ox; the burden by the ass. These animals reflect what Jesus offers to the believer. In that cave with the animals the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as the apostle John says. Thus icons contain a lot of symbolism and we can explore them in many way. We can also say that the cave is a place of a new life. It is a place of death and burial and also a place of birth and resurrection.
The figure of Mary, a Virgin Mother is reclining on a mattress, after having truly given birth to the Incarnate Son. Many icons depict Mary marked by three stars symbolizing her virginity before, during and after the birth of Christ. The Virginity of Mary is a dogmatic truth of the Church. Her half-seated position implies an easy birth because, unlike Eve, she was not under condemnation. She is the Eve, the Mother of all the living. As the New Eve, she pronounced her fiat for everyone. This is why she is the image of the Church because she represents the whole humanity.
Joseph, on the other hand, has an anxious pose because he still trying to comprehend the mystery of the Incarnation. He knew he was not the father of the child Jesus. By looking at this scene of Joseph, we also identify ourselves every time we don’t understand or are tempted to neglect a central truth of our faith. Joseph was tempted by the devil as it is shown at the bottom-left of this icon. On the bottom-right are the midwives helping Mary with the child. This comes from the Apocryphal book from the first centuries. This washing of the child anticipates the baptismal bath at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
In the higher part, are the angels, Magi and shepherds. The angels fulfil different functions. Two of them, by looking toward the Source of Light are contemplating God face to face, in eternity. They represent the unending praise of God in the heavenly liturgy. The third on the right and lower part is fulfilling his role as messenger, which is what the word “angel” means. He is bent towards mankind and watching like the guardian angel. The other three by the cave are contemplating the Incarnate Son of God, in human and divine natures. In addition, the magi are led by God to worship him by predicting not only his death but his resurrection, through the gold, the myrrh and the incense. Gold as the king of the ages; incense because he is the God of the universe; myrrh because the Immortal one was going to suffer death for three days and then rise again to save the world. Finally the shepherds remind us of the Good Shepherd, Christ himself. They are receiving the message from the angel. However, another figure like the shepherd is placed in a lower part. He is Satan who tries to convince Joseph about the event related to Christ.
Thus, angels, Magi and shepherds fulfil a role in revealing the mystery of the Nativity of Christ. They manifest our faith in a symbolic world and allow us to connect our heart, mind and spirit to the mystery of the Incarnation. Icons of the Annunciation and Nativity have put together heaven and earth, divinity and humanity depicted in one unity.