On Sunday, December 18, 2022, Advent IV, at the altar is an icon, one dear to my heart and the hearts of many in our Church. We sometimes are mistaken in thinking that the beginning of the visual age occurred recently. However in ancient times, icons, and later stained glass, were used in churches to tell the narratives of the gospels. In fact icons date back to second century of the Christian era.
By definition, icons (from Greek word meaning ‘image’) are religious works of art, most commonly paintings from Eastern Christianity. In a wider context an icon is an image, picture, or representation; it is a sign or likeness that stands for an object by signifying or representing it either concretely or by analogy. So an icon of Mary (sometimes with the Christ-child, sometimes without) was not meant as a portrait, but rather a representation of what Mary means for the church and for the world. It helps us to understand the nature and devotion of Mary, and thereby allows us to seek to emulate her faith and practice.
This specific icon is ancient in origin and can be traced back to 1125; and it is often referred to as Our Lady of Vladimir or Our Lady of Tenderness. This is a city in Ukraine, north of Lviv, as we have learned to call it. The icon was commissioned in Constantinople by a Russian who had the icon taken from city to city for people to see during the period of united Ukrainian-Russian history. Later it was moved from Kiev to the new cathedral in Vladimir. In 1395 the icon was brought to Moscow where it presently is housed. The icon became the sign of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Henri Nouwen (Behold the Beauty of the Lord) writes of this icon and focuses specifically on Mary’s eyes and hands. He says that although she looks outward she isn’t looking at us. Her expression is both thoughtful and mysterious; truly seeing us, because she sees us with the same eyes that she sees Jesus. Mary looks at Jesus with the eyes of a mother and a disciple, with tenderness and with faith and hope.
Mary holds Jesus with one hand, and with her other gestures to us, those who look upon the icon. For one commentator (Sister Sophie Boffa CSFN) it is this hand which is at the heart of icon as Mary invites to let go of all our fears and challenges and simply come to Jesus. As Nouwen says: she invites someone who fully knows our fears, hesitations, agonies, suspicious and insecurities. The qualities of love, trust, invitation and patience lie at the heart of motherhood (says Boffa). As some of us were encouraged by our own mothers, Mary invites all of us to come and see, to come and be with Christ.
Mary herself was first and foremost faithful to God. As a young women Mary, (as we read in Luke’s gospel account), was asked to carry the child Jesus, and told by the angel to not be afraid.
Mary is such an excellent role model for Christians; because she followed the path God had prepared for her, and did so with faith and obedience. Her life must never have been easy, not least because she lived to see her son die on the cross. But Mary remained faithful to God and as such was never afraid. The figure of Mary is linked to the Magnificat (our canticle this morning) which begins as a hymn of praise but has other important themes. It speaks of God: casting down the mighty from their thrones, lifting up the lowly. It goes on: God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.
This canticle is not a message of comfort for a sentimental holiday season, it is a reminder that as we support PWDRF, or the Surrey Food Bank, we are doing the work of God. As we approach this Christmas we need to remember that call. To know that we should not so much be hungry for the good things in life, but hungry for God and God’s peace, justice and righteousness. For God is with those who mourn the loss of those taken from them in the very advent of their lives. God is there in the senseless, numbing violence we see in the world as Christ was on the cross suffering at the hands of sinful humanity.
And God took the world in a new direction when he sent first John, then Jesus, and it was Elizabeth and Mary (their respective mothers) who were the means by which God made that change.
At Christmas we are reminded of the reality of a bringing a child into the world, it is never easy and at times can be very hard. So as we cannot ever sentimentalise any baby, neither should we do the same with Jesus. Jesus came to change the world not to excuse us in overindulgence and over spending.
Mary in the Magnificat names the key characteristics of God: justice, mercy, caring for the poor and lowly. In the Magnificat, Mary speaks her faith, and we all should be willing to accompany her in doing just that. For our faith comes through its expression, in other words our actions will demonstrate our love of God long before our words do.
So let Mary invite you now to come and see, to come and be with Christ. For it is Mary who draws us back to Christ so that we can place once again all our hopes and our dreams in the one who refreshes, inspires and sustains all our lives.