II Corinthians 3:17-18
“All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (icon).”
Last week there was an Icon Writing course on Volmoed. The first such course was held ten years ago, also led by our friend and highly regarded icon writing teacher Ana-Marie Bands. Icons, the Greek NT word for images, are an integral part of the spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, but have become widely appreciated by many other Christians as an aid to contemplative prayer, even among some Dutch Reformed and Pentecostal congregations in South Africa, due to the teaching of Ana-Marie.
Icons are neither idols nor works of art, they are another way of writing the gospel, which is why some call them the “fifth gospel,” calling to mind the words of the first letter of John that “what we have heard” we have also “seen with our eyes” concerning the word of life. “(I John 1:1-4) Or Paul’s words in Colossians that Christ “is the icon of the invisible God,” (1:15), or in his second letter to the Corinthians, that God’s light “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor.4:6) Jesus is the “human face of God,” the one in whom we have seen God’s grace, beauty and truth revealed.
Fans of Richard Rohr, the well-known Catholic teacher on matters spiritual, and the author of many books, recently wrote one called “The Divine Dance”. On its cover is a copy of Andre Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, the same icon that stands in front of us today. Significantly the subtitle of the book is “the trinity and your transformation.” I am not an avid fan of Rohr’s writings, though he says many good things, but I am enthusiastic about “The Divine Dance” because in his chatty kind of way he helps us understand why the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity is so fundamental to Christianity, and so important for our daily lives as a transforming symbol.
Rublev wrote his icon of the Holy Trinity in fifteenth century Russia when the country was being torn apart by war and violence, not unlike our world today, and he did so in order to provide a focus for prayers and conversations for peace and reconciliation. That is, to facilitate transformation in society. The icon is based on the OT story of the three strangers who visit Abraham and Sarah in Mamre, and to whom they give hospitality.(Gen. 18:1-8) Afterwards the strangers announce that the aged Sarah will give birth to a son in fulfilment of God’s promise. But Rublev also had in that intriguing verse in the letter to the Hebrews where we are told to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so we may well entertain angels unaware! (13: 2) And finally, the story becomes a symbol of the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son and Spirit. It is not we who offer hospitality to strangers or entertain angels unaware, but God who shows us hospitality by welcoming us into communion with him, and embracing us in the transforming love that unites the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is what is meant by the “divine dance,” a dance of transforming love, which is an ancient Christian metaphor for our participation in the dynamic life of God.
Icons are often referred to as windows. They help us see beyond ourselves in order to see reality differently and so be drawn into the mystery of the love of God. Like stained glass windows in churches they enable us to see the light filtered through the story of the gospel, bringing us as it were face to face with the crucified and risen Christ. I have studied Rublev’s icon for a long time, but Rohr has told me something I never knew before. If “you look on the front of the table,” he says, “there appears to be a little rectangular hole painted there” which you can hardly notice. So many people, Rohr says, “just pass right over it, but art historians say that …there was perhaps once a mirror glued onto the front of the table!” If so, then maybe Rublev had in mind the words of St. Paul: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (icon).” Those who looked at the icon when it was first written would have seen themselves reflected in the icon. They would not just be looking at an icon, or looking beyond it as through a window, but they would see themselves being invited to join those already gathered around the table. It was an invitation to a dance, a dance of transforming love.
Imagine a group of people from warring factions, or an estranged husband and wife, or anyone people who in need of being reconciled, standing before this icon. Imagine them sitting at the negotiating table or the kitchen table trying to overcome their enmity and find a solution to their strife. Imagine them now looking at this icon and seeing themselves in the mirror. Suddenly the table around which they are sitting becomes an altar, God’s table of reconciliation, and they are being invited to join God together at God’s table, no longer trying to try and overcome their problems on their own, but by participating with God in his dance of reconciling love.
When we come to this table we first share the peace with each other. This is not just a moment in the eucharist when we catch up on each other’s news, it is a moment when we join the divine dance around the altar in order to be reconciled to each other through participating in God’s reconciling love. In this way, this table becomes the place where broken relationships are healed within the embrace of God’s love, the love of the Father for Son in the unity of the Spirit. To participate in the divine dance around the altar is to participate in the transforming love of God revealed in the face of Christ and experienced in the fellowship of the Spirit. In doing so we discover one another no longer as enemies but as brothers and sisters, participants together in the life and love of God and, in the process being transformed..
“All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed, 15 June 2017