Saturday, 28 January 2012

1 Timothy 2: on prayer, unity and the role of women in church

1 Timothy 2:1-15

Timothy has been urged to hold on to faith and to keep a good conscience.

Now Paul turns his attention to the God who desires all people to be saved.

Salvation is the big idea which controls this passage. Paul begins by speaking about the God who desires for all people to be saved (2:4), he speaks of the one mediator between God and men (2:5), and he finishes the chapter speaking about how specifically women will saved (2:15) - which is really rather odd.

And it is important to remember that for Paul salvation is both a moment, when a person is saved and passes from death to life, but it is also a process. So, for instance, in 1 Timothy he writes, "Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers." (1 Timothy 4:16)

And it is important that we hold this big idea in mind as we look at a passage about which there are fundamental disagreements.

There are three sub-themes in this chapter

The peaceful life
The role of women in the church


Paul urges us to pray for all people and especially for leaders so that we might lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

There are two possible ways to read these verses.

The first is that we are to pray for all people and leaders, so that we can lead peaceful and quiet lives, with the assumption from the following verses that, as a result, the work of the gospel can advance. That is how I have always read these verses.

However, I think on reflection, there is a different way to read them: We are to pray for all people and for leaders, that they might be saved, so that - as a result - we will lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

In other words, the peaceful and quiet life is not a condition for the advancement of the good news about Jesus. It is the result. It is the fruit of salvation. God's desire is that all people will be saved so that we can live peaceful and godly lives.

And that ties in with experience. Often the gospel is most readily accepted when people are not living peaceful and quiet lives. It often is most easily received when there is mild persecution of the church. And often it is when people and particularly rulers turn to Christ that societies begin to be transformed.

And Paul continues this theme of prayer by turning his attention specifically to the men in the congregation in Ephesus.

He wants them to pray. It is interesting that he urges the believing men to pray.

Often it seems to be women who pray easier than men. In prayer meetings there will usually be more women than men. That may say something about our prayer meetings, but it may also say something about men. Men prefer to do something, to be in control, or at least pretend that we are in control. We don't like to ask.

My son gave me a mug for Christmas. I'm fairly protective of it, because it says 'Dads' on it! Underneath the word 'Dads',it has the words, 'Proudly refusing to ask for directions since 1648'. And men typically are not very good at talking face to face with each other, and I wonder whether we are all that good at talking face to face with God. Having said that, we do as a rule find it easier to talk about something, usually when we are working together on something.

But Paul says, 'No; you men have also got to pray'.

So I urge the men here to pray. We meet for breakfast. We should also be praying together. And we are told what we are to pray for: that all people, especially leaders, will be saved.

We have, as a church, seen a significant growth in numbers attending some of our services. That is very exciting. However I am less encouraged when I think through how many people have actually been converted, how many people started coming as non-believers but have now turned to Christ.

And the problem is that we are trying to do this all by ourself. But we can't. We need God. It is God who desires all people to be saved, and it is God who converts. We can preach, we can invite people along to church, we can talk with them about faith, but it is God who does the work. Only he can change a person's mind and heart. And so we really do need to pray. And I know that happens in homes, in our services and home groups, but I would ask - if you are able to come - that you do try and make the parish prayer meeting.


This is a sub-theme running through both through this chapter and through the letter.
We have seen that one of the fruits of salvation is that we live peaceful, quiet, godly and dignified lives.

And so it is obvious that Paul desires the men to lift holy hands (the custom was for people to pray with their hands raised - it was rather a good custom because it prevented people from praying really really long prayers! - and Paul is saying that these hands need to be hands that have been given to God) without anger or quarrelling (v8), and that the women are not to be trying to outdo one another in their outfits or accessories (v9).

I read an article in the Times (6th January 2012) which was helpful. The writer was having a go at all those people who dissed women for having breast implants. She wrote,
"The simple point is that if beauty (along with youth) is power, then the loss of beauty and youth is the loss of power. To seek beauty — exchanging an ugly nose for a pretty one, say — is to seek power in life, or to try to retain power."
And so, she continued, you cannot blame women for desiring cosmetic surgery.

That is the way of the world. But the church really should be different. The men should not be arguing, trying to get one over on their rivals and competitors; and the women should not be seeking to outdo one another.

If people are to be saved, then there has to be a unity among the believers, and that means that we need to be willing, whether we are men or women, not to try and retain power, but to give it up so that others can grow. Otherwise the visitor coming in is going to feel the tensions as we posture in front of each other and they are going to say: 'this salvation should lead to peaceful and quiet lives, and yet look what these Christians are like. I want none of it'.

And so Paul says to the men, 'stop playing this power game; what really matters is prayer and having holy hands'; And he says to the women, 'stop playing the power game; what really matters is what you do, 'the good works' (v10). And he urges them to be submissive.

Of course, this means that there needs to be a bit of humility and submission, by both men and women. We need to recognise that because we are beloved by God we have nothing to prove; we need to be prepared to stop thinking that we know all the answers and that everyone else needs to listen to me (and I include in that our theories about the roles of men and women). And we need to realise that fighting for status in the church, or for the status of a group of people over against another group of people in the church, is anathema to the gospel.


And here we have two options, both of which, in my view, could be justified biblically.

The first view is that Paul is stating an eternal truth in verse 12. Women should not teach in church, or in any context where there are men. They should remain silent. The only people who they are permitted to teach are other women, girls and boys who are not yet considered adult (which, at the time, was about age 11). And Paul says that there are two reasons why women should not exercise authority over a man. Number 1: Adam was formed first, and number 2: it was Eve, the woman, who was deceived.

As an aside, I would point out that if we do take this line we need to be consistent. I was brought up in churches which did not permit women to exercise authority, but which did permit them to teach. And yet Paul writes, 'I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man' (and he is talking about men and women and not husbands and wives; we know that because later Paul talks about the role of widows in the church).

The second view, which you will realise is the one that I adopt, is that Paul is not laying down an eternal truth but is speaking to a specific church in a specific context. The fact that women were taking authority roles in the church of Ephesus, and that the men were opting out, was causing scandal in the wider society (just as it would do in say Saudi Arabia today). Also it seems that some of those women were 'gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not' (5:13).

You see, and here I come back to the big idea of chapter 2, Paul's desire was God's desire: that all people should be saved. And so for Paul there could be no scandal which would prevent people hearing the good news and coming to Jesus. We are to give the adversary 'no occasion for slander' (5:14), and the reason, for example, that there are such strict requirements for the person serving as an overseer (bishop) is so that, 'he must be well thought of by outsiders' (3:7)

But what then of the reasons that Paul gives for his prohibition on women teaching in 2:13-14? Are they not for all time? Adam was formed first and then Eve. And it was the woman who was first deceived by the serpent.

And if you simply look back to creation, then there really are no grounds for interpreting this passage in any other way than as a universal prohibition on women teaching or exercising authority in a church context. Clearly in creation there is a hierarchical order: man first, then woman. And men, despite what people would love to believe today, are generally physically bigger and physically stronger than women. And quite simply, if not held back by law or by gospel. they will use that strength to get what they desire. And so, for example, in the part of North London where we used to live, in many communities the men were non-existent in family or community life. Why? Because they could always find someone who would let them have sex when they wanted sex, but otherwise they lived exactly as they chose, taking no responsibility for their children or for the mothers of their children.

But Paul does not simply look back to the creation. He looks forward to the day when we all will be saved. He writes in verse 15 that 'she' (woman, eve) will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self control'. The second part is very similar to the instructions that he has given the men in verse 8, that they should lift up holy hands. But the bit about being saved through childbearing .. Is he saying that they will be kept safe in childbirth? Unlikely, and it is not true. Is he saying that they will be saved by having children? But that is a denial of justification by faith and by the fact that there is one mediator who gave himself as a ransom for all. So the option that many commentators take is that they will be saved through childbearing, through the birth of a child - the mediator himself, Jesus Christ.

In other words, even in the context of the Ephesian church where Paul insists on a strict division in the role of men and women, he looks forward to the day when we will be fully saved. Elsewhere the bible describes that day as a new creation, when all will be one in Christ Jesus and there will be neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28), when people will not marry or be given in marriage 'for they will be like the angels' (Matthew 22:30 cf Luke 20:36), and we will all be sons of God (Galatians 4:4f).

And my own view, for what it is worth, is that we can read the prohibition on women teaching and exercising authority in 1 Timothy 2 as cultural. The church can be the anticipation of that new creation; Christ has defeated the curse (and part of the curse was the statement to Eve, 'Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you' (Genesis 3:16).

Indeed, I would go further, and argue that in our own society today, for churches to restrict the role of women is as much a scandal in the biblical sense of the word (meaning stumbling block) for people to come to Jesus to be saved as it would have been, in Ephesus, for women to have been exercising positions of authority.

So there you have it: one take on 1 Timothy 2! As I said earlier, I know that some people here will take a different approach.

But what I do hope that we can agree on is what I would identify as the big idea of the chapter: That we are to pray for people to be saved because 'God our Saviour desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' (2:4) that we are to live lives that are of complete integrity to that good news, and not do anything that might prevent people from coming to Christ. (2:4).

Saturday, 21 January 2012

How to become radiant

2 Corinthians 3:7-18

We are looking through the book of 2 Corinthians. And forgive me for spending a bit of time explaining a bit about the background to 2 Corinthians

It is a letter written by Paul to the church in Corinth. It is possibly 2 of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth put together.

It is principally a defence of his ministry.
It is the most personal of all the letters. We glimpse Paul the man. He shares some of his deepest trials and some of his most profound experiences.

But if it is a defence of the messengers, it is even more a proclamation of the message and the person who the message is about. And so, in our reading next week, we have those fantastic words: “For what we preach is not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).

So Paul defends his ministry

He affirms that he is trustworthy.

His accusers were saying – we see this in chapter 1 – that he had said in an earlier letter that he was going to come and visit them (it is possible that chapter 13 might be part of that earlier letter). But in chapter 1 Paul says that although he wanted to come and visit them, he knew it would be a painful visit. He would need to come to bring discipline to the church. It appeared that the Corinthian church was tolerating a sin (probably of a relationship issue – it appears that a man was living in a relationship with his father’s wife cf 1 Corinthians 5:1), and the church was proud of it, because it showed that they really were free from the requirements of the Old Testament law. The problem, says Paul, is that that sort of behaviour is not loving because it is not right, and because it is making the church an object of ridicule – and so causing people not to listen to the message and come to Jesus.

And Paul was angry. And because of that, even though he had said that he would come and visit the church, he knew he had to wait and not come. And in fact it seems that that was wise. The church listens to what he says, exercises discipline, and the people involved repent. And now in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul urges them to welcome those people back into the fellowship.

But Paul is saying, ‘I am trustworthy. Even though I said I would come and did not come, it was because I loved you, and there are times when love requires us to break our word'. Interestingly he goes on to say that God never breaks his word. When God says ‘yes’, he means ‘yes’.

He affirms that he is competent

His accusers are saying that Paul is not a real apostle. They want leaders to be leaders. They need to be charismatic, impressive, miracle workers and successful. They need to come with letters of recommendation from other churches, saying how impressive they are. And Paul, they say, just doesn’t fit the bill. He is not up to the job.

And much of the letter is Paul’s response to those who say that he doesn’t behave like an apostle. 'No', he says, 'I don't have letters of recommendation. Why? Because you are my letter of recommendation. You came to faith through my ministry. And I love you.' And that really is the best letter of recommendation: the life of a believer.

Ignatius [Epistle to the Ephesians, 10] writes, "Give unbelievers the chance of believing through you. Consider yourselves employed by God; your lives the form of language in which He addresses them. Be mild when they are angry, humble when they are haughty; to their blasphemy oppose prayer without ceasing; to their inconsistency, a steadfast adherence to your faith."

And his answer in the later part of the letter, as we will see, is that actually it is our weakness and our dependence on God that qualify us for ministry - for then our competence does not lie in our own ability, but in the power of God. And ultimately it is God who calls and God who equips. Paul writes in 3:5, “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant.”

He affirms that when it comes to preaching Jesus he is bold.

His accusers are saying that the reason he did not come to Corinth to personally challenge the church, or that – for instance - he doesn’t demand the rights of a senior church leader (such as a higher salary from them), is because he is a coward.
Paul replies and says that the reason he didn’t come to Corinth and that he does not wish to overburden the church financially is because he loves them, and he is not in the business of lording it over them.

In fact, here – and we finally get to our passage today – he says he is bold in his preaching: 'Since we have such a hope we are very bold' (3:12). And he explains why he is bold (later on in chapter 11 he tells us what has happened to him, the cost he has had to pay, because he is bold for Jesus).

As an aside, it is very easy to accuse our bishops and public church leaders today of not being bold. Why don’t they denounce Islam? Why don’t they tell it as it is? Why don’t they publicly say that there is only one way to salvation and that is through Jesus Christ? Why are they so wishy washy?

Well actually there are reasons. Not every community in our country is like Bury St Edmunds. There are places where there are deep deep rifts running within communities and the serious threat of violence; and there are times when a love for people means that we have to restrain what we say. Not because we are not passionate about Jesus. Not because we do not wish moslems, or atheists, or the millions who have been deceived by our secular western values to find Jesus. No, there are other ways of doing that: more costly ways than standing on a pedestal and denouncing them out there and being called bold by the in-crowd. It is the way of our friends who chose to move from Norwich to Leicester so that they could live among people of other faith, and so that they could befriend them, care for them and be cared for by them, and so that they could talk with them and share with them about Jesus. That takes far more courage, and is far more costly.

And that is the sort of courage, of boldness that Paul is speaking about.

And Paul here continues and explains why we can be confident in Christ, and why we can be bold in our speaking and living.

He writes, ‘Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold’ (2 Corinthians 3:12)

Our hope is the hope of Glory.

Do you see how glory saturates this passage?

And Glory here is so physical. It can be touched. It could be seen on the face of Moses after Moses had been speaking with God.

I wonder whether, after our times of prayer and bible study, after receiving communion, our faces are radiant. If they are not, we should be praying that they will be. There are some people who read the bible and after they’ve read it, their faces become colder and harder and sterner. If that is the case, then ‘our minds have been made dull’ (3:14), we are reading it wrong, we are encountering our demons through its pages and not the Lord of glory.

Paul compares the ministry of Moses with the ministry of the Lord.

The ministry of Moses brought glory, astonishing glory. It says that the people could not look on the face of Moses because it was so glorious (3:7). I find it very difficult to look into the face of one who is both absolutely pure and who can see right through me. I want to look and I want to turn away at the same time. That was how it was with Moses.

But the glory on Moses’ face was transitory. It faded. It was a sign that it was not a permanent ministry, that it pointed forward to something else. And that was why Moses wore a veil (3:13). Both so that people would not see the fading glory and as a way of showing the people that they were separated from the presence of God.

And so the ministry that God gave through Moses was a ministry – which although glorious - actually brought condemnation. It was a ministry of the letter, of external law. It showed us simply how far we had fallen from God, the extent to which we are sinners. It was a ministry that ultimately brought death. But it was also a ministry that pointed forward to something different, to something new.

But that is not our ministry. Our ministry is a ministry of life. It is a ministry of freedom. It is not a ministry of the letter but of the Spirit. We are not teaching a law, a list of do this and do that and you will get to God; be obedient, be good, be generous, be kind, be self-controlled and disciplined and God will like you, and things will go well for you and you’ll go to heaven; be bad and God will hate you and bad things will happen and you’ll go to hell. That way leads to proud faces, crushed faces, tired faces, anxious faces, defiant faces – it does not lead to radiant faces.

But the ministry of the Spirit is different. It comes when we turn away from the rule book and we turn to the Lord Jesus, to the one who loves us, who died for us, who gives us his Spirit. And his Spirit will come and live in us. And the law of God, the ways of God, the wisdom of God, the love of God, will be poured into our minds and our hearts.

And we do not need to be like Moses. We do not need to put a veil over our faces, because this glory will never fade away. If we continue to look to Jesus that glory will never fade. It is permanent. The ministry of the Spirit will not lead to death, but to life.

If you are a Christian, and you have spent much time with Jesus, looking at the Lord, it will show. It will show in your face.

It showed in the face of Stephen when they were about to stone him: ‘He had the face of an angel’.
It showed in the face of a Christian lady who I met in Nottingham many years ago. She had been a police officer and had gone to a call out at a bank. She walked in and was smashed over the head with a stick. For 12 years she had been paralysed from the neck down. We went with a home group to sing carols at her bedside. And although she experienced great pain, her face shone.
It showed in the face of an elderly priest in the St Petersburg seminary. He had been sentence to hard labour in the gulags for 10 years, not once, not twice, but three times. He could have been so bitter and twisted, and yet his face shone.
There is such a thing as the beauty of holiness.

Paul went to hell and back. He had to defend his ministry against those who said that he could not be trusted, that he was not confident, that he was a coward.

He didn’t defend his ministry because he was worried about what they said about him; he knew that the only thing that matters is what God thinks about us. That is part of the freedom that he writes about in v17. But he defends his ministry passionately because the message that he had been entrusted with mattered desperately.

He was abused, he was beaten up, he spent many years in prison, he was stoned (on several occasions) and left for dead, and finally he was executed. But he could write this, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit”. (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Monday, 16 January 2012

on Icons: their origins, meaning and use


For two years my wife and I had the great privilege to live in the Orthodox Theological Academy in St Petersburg. We were sent from 1993-1995 by the Church Mission Society, an Anglican mission agency, to establish links with the Orthodox Church which was beginning to emerge from 70 years of persecution under the communist regime.

When we went, I had a very western and Protestant suspicion of icons; and yet by the end of our time I had come to cherish both icons and the tradition for which they stand. I could, did and do now venerate icons (the Orthodox make a clear distinction between the veneration of an icon and the worship which is due to the divine person which they may represent). Occasionally, when I am away from home, I may take out a photograph of my wife and kiss it. I do not confuse the photograph with her, but it is a way of expressing my love for her.

We became very aware of how significant icons were to the people among whom we prayed. We were taken to icons that ‘wept’ and to miracle working icons (I never was completely comfortable with that!). We heard stories of how God had brought about great deliverance through icons, and about the part that they played in the history of Russia.

And we also shared in the horror of those we were among when we heard about the destruction of the churches and of images venerated by the faithful for hundreds of years.

Video clips of the destruction of the Church of Christ the Saviour and icons
This is an attempt to give a glimpse into the origins, meaning and use of sacred icons. It is by no means original, although may contain some original ideas. This was initially presented as a lecture at St Edmundsbury Cathedral. I have tried to use images which are in the public domain. However, if images that are not have crept in, I apologise, and sincerely hope that people will go to the sources of the documents to which I draw attention, where these images can be seen clearly.

The first part considers the earliest origins of Christian icons, and the second part considers four icons in detail: an icon of Christ, of Mary, of the descent of the Holy Spirit and of the Trinity.

The first Christian images appear about 200AD. They are found mainly in the catacombs and on sarcophagi (from 230). There are also the remarkable images from the church at Dura-Europos, which we can date with some confidence at about 230AD.

But we can go back a little further: The earliest Christian symbols seem to be the image sign of the Tau-rho and Chi-rho

example from the Gospel of Thomas of the tau-rho being used in the word stauros, cross. Larry Hurtado argues that this is a sign that is used to refer to the crucified Jesus.
[see The staurogram in early christian manuscripts: the earliest visual reference to the crucified Jesus? Larry W. Hurtado, accessed at]

For instance: the chi-rho, anchor, fish, ship and dove

Sign images:
People and stories: often associated with catacombs. Images of salvation from the Old Testament dominate: Daniel, Noah, Jonah. Also Christ healing the paralysed man and the raising of Lazarus. [The catacombs and sarcophagi of C4th multiply miracles of Jesus]

Faithful: Adoration of the Magi [catacombs, C3rd Sarcophagus?]. Orants (people with their hands raised in prayer), communal meals (these are often ambiguous. They could refer to multiplication of loaves, to last supper or to heavenly banquet), fish and loaves, baptisms (again, these are ambiguous: do they show us the baptism of Jesus or of a new disciple?).

Early images of Jesus
Based on Christian Iconography, A study of its origins, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969, Andre Grabar,

The Good Shepherd [in ancient Roman art the figure of the shepherd carrying a lamb was a symbol of philanthropy]. To the left: Good Shepherd, Vatican museum, late C4th

The philosopher. Christ is represented in the same way that ancient philosophers were represented in pagan images. [The church moved away from representing Christ as a philosopher, and focused instead on the pastoral images and on the image of the Saviour. In more recent times there has been a resurgence of the wisdom tradition, and people are rediscovering Christ the philosopher. This could be a positive impulse driven by a desire to make the teachings of Christ known in a multi-faith world, but it could also lead to a downplaying of the uniqueness of Christ for our salvation]

The clean shaven and young Jesus (Grabar shows how the earliest Christian images were using the language of images of the time, and often the hero figure was represented in pagan art as a child).

The semitic Jesus, with beard (this image is taken from a wall painting in the the Commodilla Catacomb, C4th)

Grabar is open to the suggestion that there might be some connection with the historical Jesus (or that some of the images of the apostles are connected with the historical apostles. The earliest known images of Peter and Paul appear around C4th).

He quotes Eusebius (263-330), who was no fan of images: “They say that the statue is a portrait of Jesus .. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things [that is, erected statues], since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honour indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.” (Historiae ecclesiasticae, VII xviii; Quoted Grabar, 68)

The apocryphal Acts of St John the Evangelist (C2nd) speak of how an image was made of St John the Evangelist, although in the Acts of St John, the apostle disapproves of images and forbids the veneration of images.

There is also the tradition, although purely based on a legend, that when Veronica offered Christ a towel on his way to the cross, the imprint of his face was left on the hand. And so it became known as the image of The Saviour, not made with human hands.

Certainly by early C5th, image makers grew increasingly conscious of the idea of a more personal image of Jesus, and Augustine and Chrysostom speak of the multiplication of images.

One of very few surviving pre-iconoclastic icons of Jesus (from St Catherine’s monastery, Sinai)

As the images multiplied, so different traditions began to develop. For instance the Constantinople tradition is more severe, while the Russian tradition is much softer. But there is, within all the traditions, a faithfulness to a particular image.

1. Reluctance to use images, based on the Jewish prohibition on images
2. Eschatological hope. If the return of Christ was imminent, why was there a need for images?
3. The early Christian communities were often poor (compare poverty of images in Christian church with complexity of images in Jewish synagogue at Dura Europus)
4. The early Christians may have used more images, but these were destroyed in the period of the iconoclasts.

1. Grabar argues that they were there from the beginning, but become much more popular as Christianity grew in significance and began to compete seriously with other religions.

2. My own suggestion is that they appear with the theological focus on Christology.
The theology of icons is tied in with the theology of the incarnation. We cannot make any representation of God because God is unseen and beyond all our categories. But if Jesus Christ was God made flesh, then he can be portrayed in an image.
The period of Iconoclasm and destruction of images (730-787AD), ended with the 2nd Council of Nicaea)
... we declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another's message. ... we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects”.[13] (2nd Council of Nicaea)

St. John of Damascus. In his treatise "On the Divine Images" he writes: "If we've made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error... but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact we make the image of God incarnate Who appeared on earth in the flesh, Who in His ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume and the color the flesh.”

"Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of Him whom you saw. Since He who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, Who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of His nature, He, being of divine nature, took on the condition of slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to become visible."

[I am focusing on the four icons which Henri J.M. Nouwen selects in his book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana; The following comments use some of his notes as my starting point for reflection.]

1. Rublev’s image of Jesus: the Saviour of Zvenigorod

Nouwen draws our attention to the fact that the icon is damaged, and the image scarred. And yet despite the damage that humans have done, there is something still astonishingly powerful about this image.

The face is shown as having a long nose and small mouth. The icon does not portray exactly the historical person, but the person as they are when glorified. The long nose and small mouth were seen as ideal characteristics, and the pinnacle of human beauty.
Christ is shown as having a thick neck. This is the image of the breath of God. He turns towards the observer. You look at him, but actually he is looking at you.

He wears a blue covering over a red undergarment. This is similar in Rublev’s icon of the Trinity (see below). Red is often the colour of martyrdom and blue the colour of divinity.

When looking at this icon, the observer is struck by the eyes, which see you, the observer, but which also see GodThey are also often struck by the mouth, which is the centre of the image. It is small, closed and beautiful (at first you think that Christ has his tongue out, but on closer inspection realize it is his top lip). Even though he is silent, he speaks. Often icons of Jesus show him with an open bible and a text, often with the words: ‘Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden’, or ‘Judge not that you be not judged, for the judgement you give will be the judgement you receive’)

2. Images of Mary
There are three different types of icons of Mary, 'the mother of God', or God-bearer, which find their roots in early Christian images (for many Orthodox a denial that Mary is the 'mother of God' is heard as a denial that her Son was truly God)

1. Virgin of the sign

Image of unknown woman and child from catacomb of Cimitero Maggiore, Rome. Note how the C13th icon of our lady of the sign from Yaroslavl follows the very early tradition.

2. Hodegetria
The Virgin of Tikhvin. She points to Jesus.

3. Virgin of tenderness 
The Virgin of Vladimir is one of the best known examples of this style. Mary regarded as Holy Protector of Russia, partly because of the icon. Notice the similarity in this style with the with the pagan sarcophagus, S, Sebastiano, Lapidary Museum (right).

This is one of the most venerated Russian icons, which originated in Constantinople. In about 1131 the Greek Patriarch gave the icon to the Grand Duke of Kiev. The icon was moved to Vladimir and then to Moscow. For an account of how a tradition and legend grows up about an icon, go to

Reflections on the icon.
     1. The robe/mantle. She is robed in red. Red is the colour of martyrdom. The mantle with the stars point to Mary’s virginity, suffering and the fact that she is ‘God-bearer’ (theotokos)
2. The eyes: There is a profound sorrow in her eyes which reflects the pain which she had to bear: the scandal surrounding Jesus’ birth, the misunderstanding and at times, sense of rejection, that came from his ministry, and of course the pain that came to her from his death on the cross. Perhaps there is also the pain that she sees when she looks out at the world.
In Vassily Grossman’s, Life and Fate: Viktor’s mother says: “I’m used to looking into people’s eyes for symptoms of diseases - glaucoma, cataract. Now I can no longer look at people’s eyes like that; what I see now is the reflection of the soul. A good soul, Vityenka! A sad, good-natured soul, defeated by violence, but at the same time triumphant over violence. A strong soul, Vitya!” (ch 19)
The eyes look in to herself: “Mary pondered these things in her heart”. In the Feast of the Nativity we sing: ‘Why do you wonder, O Mary, and why do you ponder so within yourself?' The icon gives a sense of profound stillness

But the eyes also look out, but not at you the viewer. Henri Nouwen, in Sacred Images, writes of how he, as a child of our psychologised society, longs to be looked at. As he stands in front of this icon, he wants Mary to look at him. But she doesn’t. She does not look at you the viewer, but she does see you. She is looking at your heart. And there is a profound challenge to us: what does purity see when it looks in your heart?
3. Her hands: Her right hand is supporting the child, while her left hand does not point to the child, but invites us to come closer to him. This is not exclusive between mother and child. Many images we observe from the outside. What makes this different is that the viewer is invited to be part of this.
4. The child: At first we think that this icon is about Mary. But the more we look at it, the more we realize it is about the child. He is fully robed in gold. His face, while being that of a young man, also reflects timelessness and wisdom. His arms embrace her neck (they are well out of proportion). She does not hold him. He holds her. His eyes look to her eyes. Her mouth is almost an extension of his mouth, and her head is an extension of his head (the way that the golden ribbon on the edge of her mantle merges with the royal robe of her son; the thickness of his neck). He is the one who breathes life into her.

In fact Mary always appears with Jesus (apart from historic icons, and icons in which she is praying to the Saviour)

So what is going on here?
At a simple level, this icon says something about mother and child, and particularly mother and son. The relationship between a Russian mother and her son could, we discovered, be quite complex. But it is more than an icon to stand in front of with a prayer list, or an icon to process around a city. It is a window into eternity. It is an invitation to communion, to intimacy with God.

It reveals the eternal relationship between the Mary, the God-bearer, and her son. We might pray to Mary, but what Mary is saying is that we should come to her son.

Mary is revealed as the type, the image, of the church, the people of God (cf Revelation 12).
She hears the word of God, she obeys, Christ is born in her. The church, beloved of Christ, is the focus of his gaze. He looks and he sees. The task of the church is to know him (and to know him is to love him), to be still in him, to suffer, to invite people to come to him.

3. The icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit (15th Century Russian)
We cannot separate icons from the worshiping community, the church.

1. The layout of the Orthodox Church
Porch - place of outsiders, narthex - place of catechumenates, nave (navy, ship = ark) - place of faithful, sanctuary - place of God.
The liturgy is a drama. It tells the story of creation, fall, redemption and salvation.
There are three movements:
1. A movement of closing and opening of the doors to paradise (the central ‘royal doors’). Vespers begins with the doors open; they close, and they remain closed until Jesus goes into the sanctuary and communion is distributed. The gates to heaven and intimacy with God were closed at the fall, but are now opened with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
2. A movement of divine grace: the small entrance (gospel), and the great entrance (elements). Both come out from the sanctuary to the people and back into sanctuary. It represents the self-offering of God.
3. A movement of the faithful: from the porch, through the narthex, to the nave and the place of receiving communion in front of the royal doors, which are now open. God and man meet at the royal doors surrounded by the iconostasis. The faithful on earth and the saints in glory gather together.

2. The Iconostasis

There is a pattern to the iconostasis. In this portable iconostasis (Russian mid C16th), the top row is the row of prophets who ‘presage’ Christ. The middle row is the festival row (the Holy days of the church, beginning here with the birth of the Virgin and finishing with the Trinity), and the lower row is the deisis row: a row of icons of saints facing in to Christ the ruler of all with their hands raised in prayer.

Sometime there is a fourth row, called the local row, in which icons of the saints who are important for that church are located.

We are focusing here on the festival row. This is the row of icons which tell the story of Christ. There is not a pattern that all follow. However, they often begin with the annunciation (or conception of Anna) and end with the Trinity or transfiguration or assumption of Mary (these three icons speak of the final communion of God and humanity)

The icon of the descent of the Holy Spirit draws on earlier graphic traditions. There is, for instance, an image of Aristotle surrounded by a semi-circle of disciples. Early cathedral churches would also have had the bishop seated on a throne at the apex, and the clergy seated in a semi-circle in the sanctuary (still reflected in the shape of many of our chapter houses). In this early wooden icon from Mt Sinai, we see the Holy Spirit proceeding from Christ.

Looking at the 15th Century Russian icon we notice that it appears that the disciples are meeting in the open air surrounded by buildings. This is a traditional way of presenting what is going on in a building. An inverse perspective is also used. The figures of the disciples get larger the deeper you go into the picture.

At the top of the image is a circle. God is often represented by this circle, and you will notice that in other icons, such as the transfiguration, the circle is often depicted behind Jesus on the mountain top, and in the icon of the harrowing of hell, the circle is behind Jesus, but now right among us.

The rays represent the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father, and you can see small tongues of fire on the head of each of the disciples.

This icon is not a depiction of the actual events of the first Pentecost (which, from the account in Acts 2, was quite chaotic), but at the inner meaning. God for us, who became God with us in Christ, is now God within and among us. The Spirit comes and the apostles confess Jesus as Lord, cry out Abba Father; they are given words to speak, wisdom to guide their decisions; the Spirit empowers them to forgive sins and bring good news of God’s love.

But first, the Spirit creates the church.
We live in a world of individualism. I worry about my prayer life, my ministry, my fruitfulness, my faith. Here it is very different. The 12 (although we note that the 12 include Paul, Luke and Mark - Pentecost is an event which transcends time and is for the whole church) are shown both in community and in their individuality and uniqueness.
On the left are Peter, Matthew, Luke, Andrew, Bartholomew and a very young Thomas
On the right are Paul, John, Mark, Simon, James and Philip
Each is an individual and each has story to tell. For instance the four gospel writers and Paul hold a bible in their hands.

But if they are shown as specific individuals, they are united not by the compatibility of their personalities, but by the absent but present centre, and by the rays of divine Spirit.

Standing at the door, and holding in his towel 12 scrolls is the figure of Cosmos, who now represents the multitudes who come on the day of Pentecost. He stands outside, and ‘represents all the people living in darkness to whom the gift of the apostles teaching has been brought’. (Henri Nouwen). The white of the scrolls is in contrast to the black behind him. [In icons, black is the symbol of death and sin and the tomb. It can also be the symbol of the place of meeting with God].

4. The icon of the Trinity
The church followed a very ancient tradition which saw the three visitors to Abraham in Genesis 18 as the three persons of the Trinity. That is represented in both early writings and also in early images. The image to the left is a wall painting on catacombs under the Via Latina, Rome.

Over time those images became more complex.

However, Andrei Rublev (c1360-c1427) gave the image a profound simplicity as he focused on the three figures.

These three figures are angels representing the three persons. This is the nearest that traditional iconography comes to representing the Father (elsewhere His presence is represented by a hand reaching down from the sky or the divine circle.)

However, the angel on the left represents the Father. He is wearing gold. Behind the angel is a house: ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms’. Behind the angel representing the Son (wearing the red of martyrdom and the priestly stole) is a tree: the tree of life, the tree of the cross. Behind the Spirit, who wears green, is a rock: the wilderness, the place of meeting with God.
And yet, although there are differences in the figures, there is also a unity. They are the same age; they have the same face and hairstyle (apparently quite a chic hairstyle in Byzantium!)
They all wear the blue of divinity, and hold a staff of authority.

This is not a static icon. There are movements within the icon.
There is a movement of love. The son and the Father gaze at each other. The Spirit looks at the Father, but also has that inward look that we have seen above.
There is a movement, a circle, of submission. The Spirit and the Son incline their heads to the Father (and the tree and the rock are inclined toward the house)
There is a movement, a circle, of blessing, beginning with the hand of the Father, going through that of the Son and proceeding out to the observer through the Spirit. .

And this is where this icon becomes so powerful. Rublev uses an inverted perspective, so that the focus of the image is not in the distance (as we are normally used to see), but in the person standing before the icon. This is not just an image of three, but an image of four. The observer becomes the fourth person. They can stand outside, or they can join in with the movement of submission, and in the movement of blessing, as they draw near in surrender. The small opening in the table around which the figures are seated indicates that this is a tomb, and offerings for the deceased would be placed in that opening. As we come forward to offer ourselves and to receive from the cup (and the outline shape of the Father and Spirit make the shape of a chalice in which we find the Son), so we too are invited into this relationship of love.

CONCLUSION: What do icons mean for the faithful?
For believing Orthodox, the images represented in the icons are not just images, but ‘re-present’ the person who they depict. When one stands in front of an icon of the Trinity, one stands in the presence of the Trinity.

But the images and icons that we have looked at are also:

A witness to the reality of the incarnation. They are only possible because God became flesh, and therefore can be represented.

Icons are a witness to how God can use matter. Because the invisible became visible and God became matter and used matter to save us, so things of matter can acquire the power to bring his salvation to us.

Icons are a witness to the tradition of the church: to the scriptures and writings and traditions of the church. Much more recent art rejoices in the triumph of individualism. I am invited to stand before an empty canvas and express myself. But painting (it is called ‘writing’) an icon is of a completely different order. The writer has to follow tradition: prepare themselves with particular prayers, use a well established formula of wood and paints, and follow the tradition for the particular icon which they are writing. There is a place for some individuality, but it is limited. Icons are a witness to the fact that the church, the people of God throughout time and space, is a bigger reality than any individual.

Icons are a witness to another world: a world of beauty (although we might find the figures strange, to the classical world the figures represented humanity at its most glorious), and of intimacy with God. They also witness to a world that is so much bigger than the world that we conceive of around us. The flat perspective that we find in many icons, and certainly the reverse perspective that we have seen, take us through the image to a world that either goes beyond us for eternity or grows bigger and bigger. And yet it begins with a concrete person, Jesus Christ. CS Lewis imagines this in an astonishingly powerful way in his The Last Battle. As the children journey further and deeper into the real Narnia, beyond the last battle and the final judgement, so they discover it gets larger and larger. This makes the world of the tardis look positively tame

      Icons are not just a vision of another world. They are a window and a door into that world. As we stand and pray to the reality of Christ represented in the image, so that world breaks into this world. We glimpse that world, but we are also offered an entry point into that world. In the end it really is all about communion, a relationship, with God.