Sunday, July 05, 2009

Training Week – The Icon of the Trinity

by Marie Prosser (July 1, 2009)

Currently, I am sitting in the van by myself watching clouds rise like mist from the beautiful mountains of New Hampshire on the third day of our walk. But a week ago, I was sitting in a conference room painted like a forest at St. Vincent’s Archabbey in Latrobe, PA (the home of Rolling Rock, incidentally) learning about the symbolism of a beautiful icon of the Trinity. Icons are to Eastern Christians what statues are to Western Christians – beautiful reminders of truths of our faith, with characteristic attributes to help people understand what is depicted. Eastern Christians give great reverence to their icons, and the artists who paint them are not simply artists, but traditionally monks who devote much time to prayer and meditation to develop the images before attempting to paint them.

Most of the rest of what I’m going to say is not going to be very helpful without a reference image, so I hope a link to a picture of the icon will make it into the blog at some point. (I don’t exactly have internet access at the moment). It was on the cover of the misslettes at the church we visited yesterday, but again…not helpful. Oh well - in the meantime, do an image search for an icon of the Trinity, and pick one that looks like three angels sitting around a table.

Fr. Justin Matro, the rector of St. Vincent’s Seminary, walked us through the meanings of this icon, and then showed us some of the art on display in the halls. This particular icon was commissioned, and the assignment was to depict the Trinity. As if that weren’t difficult enough already, Eucharistic symbolism was also expected. (The name of the monk who rose to the occasion and gave us this icon is escaping me, but if you are reading this, you have internet access, so you can look it up for me.)
The Bible passage the artist turned to was the visit of three angels with Abraham. While there are three angels, and there is a meal, I would not immediately see the connection. But there is an ambiguity present in the passage – when the angels speak, are they one, or three? This is considered to be the first place in the Bible where God is referenced in a way that hints at the mystery of the Trinity. While some people can see how each Person of the Trinity played a role in the story of creation, God is One God throughout the Old Testament. But here…well, judge for yourself:
And the Lord appeared to [Abraham] in the vale of Mambre as he was sitting at the door of his tent, in the heat of the day. And when he had lifted up his eyes, there appeared to him three men standing near to him: and as soon as he saw them, he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground.
And he said, ‘Lord, if I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away from thy servant. But I will fetch a little water, and wash ye your feet, and rest ye under the tree. And I will set a morsel of bread, and strengthen ye your heart, afterwards ye shall pass on: for therefore as you come aside to your servant.’
And they said, ‘Do as thou hast spoken.’
Abraham made haste into the tent to Sara, and said to her, ‘Make haste, Three seahs of fine flour. Knead it and make rolls.’ He ran to the herd, picked out a tender choice steer, and gave it to a servant who quickly prepared it. Then he got some curds and milk, as well as the steer that had been prepared, and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree while they ate.
‘Where is your wife Sara?’ they asked him.
‘There in the tent,’ he replied.
One of them said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.’
Sara was listening at the entrance of the tent, just behind him. Now Abraham and Sara were old, advanced in years, and Sara had stopped having her womanly periods. So Sara laughed to herself and said, ‘Now that I am so withered and my husband is so old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?’
But the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sara laugh and say “Shall I really bear a child, old as I am?” Is anything too marvelous for the Lord to do? At the appointed time, about this time next year, I will return to you, and Sarah will have a son.”
Because she was afraid, Sara dissembled, saying, ‘I didn’t laugh.’
But he said, ‘Yes you did.’
Genesis 18:1-16 (sorry to switch translations midstream)
See how it starts out as three of them and then switches to just the one? It would be clearer if I’d kept the Douay-Rheims translation throughout, I think. But on to the picture.

The outline of the figures suggests a cup, which references the Eucharist. [Eastern Christians receive the Eucharist by intinction, dipping the crouton-like host into the wine and serving it to the communicant on a spoon.] The meal on the table also has the same outline. God the Father (on the far left) looks at Jesus (in the center), and points to him with two fingers, symbolizing the dual nature of Christ, human and divine. Jesus accepts, and raises two fingers. He wears the traditional red and blue of Eastern iconography, while His Father wears a shimmery rose robe, veiling His majesty. The Holy Spirit wears green for hope. The meaning of these colors is the same as the liturgical colors for Ordinary Time and Laetere and Gaudete Sunday (pink for joy at making it past the halfway point for the third week of Advent and the fourth week of Lent.) The altar (which is of course what this table really is) is missing a brick in the front center, showing that it is not complete without our participation. Even the scenery behind them is symbolic.
So, if you were wondering how a picture of three angels could teach us something about the Trinity, now you know! Religious artwork is much more meaningful if we understand the symbolism the artists use. For instance, Fr. Justin also explained why Mary is often depicted with a sunburst on her shoulder – all the individual sparks of light are being gathered together into one in her Son.

July 5th update – This icon is following me! It is also displayed at St. Monica’s in Barre, Vermont, where we are spending this weekend. It’s beautiful. ☺


prosser100 said...

Very Interesting.


Marie said...

Ah ha! Now I've got internet access.

The icon:

One detail I forgot to mention...the standard of whether an icon is any good is if it inexorably draws a viewer to prayer. So, no pressure on the artist or anything!

Who we are?

Every summer we, the Missionaries of the Eucharist, are walking from Lewiston, Maine to Washington, DC to proclaim the beauty of the Catholic faith to everyone we meet, specifically through the Theology of the Body.

Conversion begins in our own hearts,which is why prayer is so important to our ministry. For this reason, everyday of our ten week walk begins with daily Mass. By receiving Christ in the Eucharist, we are given the grace to be the Love of Christ not only to those in our community but also to those we meet in the streets.

We walk throughout the day to be a witness of love. We are grounded in prayer-we pray with our lips, our hearts, and our bodies. In walking an average of twenty-five miles per day, we offer our fatigue as a gift of love to Christ and the people we meet. Our walking is both sacrifice and prayer.