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The Old Testament Trinity

What is an Icon?

The Hospitality of Abraham by Andrei Rublev

During His ministry Jesus told short stories which we call parables. The old definition of a parable is that “It is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”. In other words, while they are superb short stories, they can show you something of the nature of God and His Kingdom if you listen carefully.

An icon is a painting, usually a part of the religious tradition of Eastern Christianity, you can look at it as just a painting or looking carefully you can see something of the nature of God and His Kingdom, just as with a parable.

(left) The Hospitality of Abraham by Andrei Rublev

Let Brother Alex Adkin of Burford Priory help you look at this one.

Andrei Rublev is one of the best known icon painters of the Russian Church. This is probably his most famous icon. In chapter 8 of Genesis we read the story of Abraham’s meeting with the three angels at the Oaks of Mamre. He greets them and offers the hospitality of a meal. They bring good news to Abraham and his wife Sarah. Though he is old and she is barren, they promise her a son. I say “they” but there are strange ambiguities in the story, for those three messengers speak the words of the one God, so sometimes it is three and sometimes it is one. The early fathers of the Church were fascinated by the story. They saw it as prefiguring our belief in a God who is the Holy Trinity – One but three. When God met Abraham and his angels, Abraham experienced three but also one.

Rublev takes up this theme. This isn’t a picture of God of course. It’s a picture of three angels, but the painter is saying come prayerfully to this icon and in it you will see something of a mystery of God. Just as music can often be the vehicle for our worship, so can icons be, for God gave us eyes as well as ears. The icon is a window onto God and the life of heaven. So what can we see through this window? There is so much to see, but we have time only for a little bit.

See how the three figures are drawn within a perfect circle. Here is unity and completeness. See each figure, far from being absorbed in his own thoughts, is gently aware of his companions. There is communication within this circle; there is giving and receiving. It’s very still, and yet there’s nothing rigid or fixed about the group. The figures are poised, composed, relaxed. Here is perfect balance as they communicate with each other around the table.

It is a square table and on it is a golden vessel. Here then, within this circle of love, is the grace of the shared meal, the grace of the Eucharist – the life of God offered in the sacrament of Christs’ body and blood. God’s love feast.

Now perhaps you will notice something else? For although this is a complete, a perfect circle, it is also an open circle. As you look, you see that there is a place for you in the circle of love. See how open this circle is; see how easy it is to come in. We, the Church, are called to be icons of the life of God in the world. This is how we are to be for one another; this is how we are to be for the world that it might be saved.

So with grateful thanks to God for being God, for being like this, let us offer Him our penitence for our closed off lives, for our preoccupation with self for all the things that make it difficult for others to come in – for all our sins as churches separated one from another; as churches out of touch with the world’s anguish. Pray that He will renew us by His grace, that we may the better reflect His life and love to one another and to those outside the circle, who cry out for salvation. That we may become better icons of the life of God, let us pray to the Lord.

As Brother Alex says, the Early Christians were fascinated by this story, which also seemed a parallel of the story of Jesus revealing himself to two of his disciples that first Easter Day when they invited a stranger for a meal in their Emmaus home. You can read the story in St Luke’s Gospel chapter 24: 13-32.

Is there a message for us as we think of the familiarity of the home as a symbol of God’s welcoming presence and love? Can our homes be like that? In New Testament Times one Christian leader wrote, “Remember to welcome strangers into your homes. There are some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it”. (Hebrews 13:2)

What about you?

As you quietly and prayerfully look into this picture, does it speak to you in some way that we have not mentioned? If it does and you think it would help us, please write a note and leave it for us so that we may share your insights.

“May God bless you, with eyes that see, and a heart that responds”.