Sunday 22 May 2016

God’s Selfie: a sermon on Rublev’s icon of the Trinity

Icons. Nowadays “icons” are mega-celebrities of one sort or another: pop idols, movie stars, royalty: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana – they are modern icons par excellence. In his brilliant reflection on contemporary culture, Lost Icons, Rowan Williams situates this “iconography” “in the complex realm of public presentation … [and] the marketing of personalities.” It is a travesty, he observes, of the “traditional icon of the Eastern [Orthodox] Christian world,” which “is never meant to be a reproduction of the world you see around you.” Rather, “the point of the icon is to give us a window into an alien frame of reference that is at the same time the structure that will make definitive sense of the world we inhabit.” And many Western Christians have also discovered that, prayerfully contemplated, these exquisite, evocative paintings of holy figures may awaken our spiritual senses and grace us with glimpses of God.

Here is one of the most famous of all icons. It was painted in the late 14th century by Andrei Rublev, a monk at the monastery of Zagorsk, near Moscow. It’s called “The Hospitality of Abraham”, narratively based as it is on the story in Genesis 18 about the three mysterious figures entertained by Abraham and Sarah who announce to them the birth of Isaac. But what do you suppose this icon is really all about? Here is a hint: its more common name is – “The Trinity.” But I reckon you could call it “God’s Selfie.”

But let’s take a step back and first ask how on earth – how on earth – can you picture the Trinity? Well, you can have a go at the Son – at least he becomes incarnate in the man Jesus. But what about the Father and the Holy Spirit? Perhaps an old man with a beard for the Father, and a dove for the Spirit? That’s been the tradition in Western art, the best of it quite sublime. But a dove lacks the “personhood” of the Holy Spirit, and while such imagery might tell us something about God’s work in creation and redemption – God as God reveals Godself to us (what theologians call the “economic” Trinity) – it tells us virtually nothing about God as God is in Godself (what theologian call the “imminent” or “eternal” Trinity).

Any other possibilities? Well, there is the venerable tradition of biblical interpretation known as typology, which re-reads the story of Israel in the light of the story of Jesus, hearing echoes of the former in the latter. It sees connections and explores correspondences between persons, events, and themes in the Old Testament and persons, events, and themes in the New Testament: sees the Old Testament prefiguring the New Testament and the New Testament reconfiguring the Old Testament. For example: in Romans 5 Paul writes of Adam as “a figure of the one who is to come”, namely Christ, the Second Adam; and in 1 Peter 3 the author sees the floodwaters in Noah’s day as anticipating Christian baptism in his own day.

Now: back to this strange tale in Genesis 18 about Abraham, Sarah, and the three mysterious visitors. Rublev is by no means the first Christian to have taken this story as a foreshadowing of the Trinity. It is certainly a strange story, full of suggestive ambiguity. Are there really three visitors, or only one? The text jumps between both possibilities. And who are these travellers? Are they human, angelic, divine? Certainly they bring the promise of the miraculous birth of a child. You can see how the story resonates with trinitarian themes. Perhaps, then, you can understand why it became the basis of attempts by Eastern Orthodox Christians to create a compelling visual aid to help us understand and worship God as Trinity.

So Rublev focuses our attention on these three persons imaged as angels – you can tell they are angels because they’ve got wings! (Abraham and Sarah don’t appear in the picture, although the tree rising over the left wing of the central angel reminds us of the oak of Mamre, where they entertained their visitors.) The angels are linked together by their common blue garments – blue, the colour of the sky, the heavens, and therefore symbolic of eternity. (The building above the angel on the left probably represents the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem.) And the whole scene is suffused with regal gold.

The angel on the right, introducing us to the Godhead, represents the Holy Spirit. His blue robe is covered by a green cloak – green, the colour of life, because the Holy Spirit (in the words of the Nicene Creed) is “the Lord, the Giver of Life”, including the earthly life of the Son through the Virgin Birth. The angel in the middle represents the Son. His blue cloak overlays a dark red robe – red, the colour of earth, the colour of blood, symbolising, respectively, the incarnation and the crucifixion. And the angel on the left represents the Father, his blue robe covered with a translucent cloak, symbolising the eternal divine glory.

What else? Observe that a circle can be traced around the angels, emphasising their divine unity and perfection. Note that each angel has a halo, symbolising their co-equality, and that each has a staff, representing their co-authority. And observe that they are sitting around a table, not round but rectangular, representing the world of time and space. But more, the table is clearly a Communion table – there is a chalice on it. And the angel of the Son is pointing to it with two fingers on his right hand, reflecting his two natures, human and divine, and yet, at the same time – such is Rublev’s artistry – also pointing beyond the table to the Spirit on his left, the Spirit sent by the Father through the Son. And in the chalice, though it is almost impossible to make out, there is a lamb: Behold the Lamb of God! – slain on the cross, but also slain before the foundations of the world.

Now look closely again at the three figures. They are certainly three distinct figures. But look at the way they are sitting, angled towards each other. And look at the way they are gazing – the Spirit on the right at the Father across the table, the Son in the middle at the Father to his right, the Father on the left at the Spirit across the Table – or is it at the Son to his left? The ambiguity is no doubt intended. But look too at the family resemblance – they could almost be triplets – no old man, young man, and a bird! – which suggests not only their equality but also their indivisibility. They seem to be giving themselves to each other, absorbed in each other, living in and for each other – one-in-three, three-in-one, the perfect expression of love. And the Son is central – why? Because he is the key that opens the door to the reality of God as Trinity, as it was by reflecting on his person and work that the early church came to understand and express that God is Trinity.

It has been observed that “this image of God does not always square with our understanding of personal relationships, whether with God or with each other. Often we do not link together the person on the one hand and the relationship on the other, because in modern western societies when we say ‘personal’ we usually mean ‘individual’ without any necessary sense of mutuality, interdependency, and inseparability. The Holy Trinity is not personal in our western sense at all. The personal nature of God, God’s very being, is relatedness, is Father, Son, and Spirit in the unity of communion. And so, in turn, for us to have a personal relationship with God is not a matter of two separate individuals, creature and creator, becoming ‘pals’. It is much deeper than that. It is a matter of being caught up into the very life of God, which is always personal but never individualistic. The Trinity reminds us that Christianity is not about having a one-to-one relationship with an isolated God, nor is it about having a private relationship with God to the exclusion of others. No, from start to finish Christianity is about participating in the trinitarian life of God, and it’s about participating in the community of the church, its human reflection” (from James White, The Forgotten Trinity, much adapted).

One last look at Rublev’s astonishing icon. I’ve left something out. I’ve missed what’s missing. Can you see how the scene, reversing the perspective we’re used to in Western art, seems to beckon towards us? Observe the empty space at the front of the table: the perfect circle is also an open circle. Could it be that Rublev is inviting us, the observers, to stop being observers and step into the frame, to approach the table, to share in the holy communion of Father, Son, and Spirit? For is that not the meaning and purpose of worship, of being church, of being Christian – to be drawn into, to indwell, the very life and being of God, as we lift up our hearts to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit? Yes, it is so. It is certainly so.

Finally this. Observe – none of the figures is speaking, they sit in silent, prayerful contemplation. So let us, like them, be quiet for a moment – in silent, prayerful contemplation …

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Love this. Here's my take:

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