Every time I looked at the icon, I felt a jolt that caused me to look away immediately. It wasn’t a sudden feeling of conviction or fear, but that there was something there that simply should not be seen, at least not in church, in the altar area, every Sunday. One day, after Liturgy, I finally made myself stare at the icon to figure out what felt so wrong about it. It took me a moment before it hit me: the Mother of God had no mouth. The spot where her mouth should be was … empty. Since this seemed outrageous to me, I walked close enough to see more clearly the icon hung high upon the wall. It turns out that Mary did indeed have a mouth, it was just painted so thinly and with such little contrast that it blended in to her face from any distance. My stomach dropped as I realized that my reaction to this image was of a woman silenced, a woman incapable of speech. As a woman who comes from a tradition where the greatest tool to ensure her silence was to simply ignore her speech, the presence of a mouthless woman hung in the sacred space of the altar was too much to bear.
Mary, the Theotokos, is my patroness, my name-saint, and my love for her was a long time in coming. So often the rhetoric around her was of the meek and mild woman who quietly and humbly receives God’s fiat in her life. It took the fiat of my dissertation director who strongly ‘suggested’ that perhaps I should go meditate on the Theotokos, a mediation that resulted in a core element in an argument for the ordination of women to the sacramental priesthood in Eastern Orthodoxy. But that is a different story. The story here is that for me, an icon of Mary, or any saint, is the presence of that person with me. Mary does not simply hang on a wall, but she sits with me when I pray, stands with me when I sing, and now, raises her hands with me as I celebrate the Eucharist.
Which is why I find the Lenten practice of covering icons in some Episcopal parishes so jarring. The practice appears to derive from 9th century Roman Catholic practices of veiling the entire altar. Christopher Yoder suggests that it is done perhaps in reference to the text of the 5th Sunday of Lent in which Jesus hides himself from the people, perhaps as a way to hide all “liturgical elements suggestive of ‘joy and happiness’” during Lent, and thereby focusing attention on the penitential character of Lent, the separation caused by sin, its “deception and shame”, or like Moses, veiling “conceals a glory we are not yet able to bear.” I think the practice of veiling of crosses is worth a revisit, as suggested by Lionel Mitchell in his handy book on Lenten Liturgies. But icons, not crosses, are the point of this essay. I suspect that icons, relatively recently introduced in Episcopal parishes, are included because they are viewed as simply one of the church decorations that are to be covered.
Yet icons are not merely decorations. They make present the person or persons depicted. My experience of Mary being present with me in and through her icon is not simply my personal mystical sentiment (I am really not a terribly mystical person, that is a gift God has given to others), but is formed by the theology which gave rise to icons. This theology is as much about the saints who are present with us as it is about the icons themselves.
Icons are, first and foremost, about being accompanied by friends. The experience of the faithful who have preceded (‘the church’) us is that we are accompanied by friends of God who so clearly and uniquely embodied something of God’s love in the world that their memory cannot be erased. In the Christian East, these friends, who we call saints, were made present through the painting of icons. In the 8th century, Theodore the Studite observed that when we see Christ “materially depicted in different ways, we praise His greatness more magnificently” (On Holy Icons). For Theodore, this meant that the more icons, and the more unique each one was, the more we saw of God’s glorious greatness (Theodore actually thinks that icons are necessary, not just an atmospheric addition to our worship space). This argument extends from diverse images of Jesus to the diversity of God’s image in each and every one of us, particularly (but not exclusively) reflected in those whose lives and deaths were so uniquely and distinctly filled with God’s love. Each one of these unique, beautiful, prophetic, humble, bizarre, wise, kind, patient, hope-filled and utterly embodied images of God accompanies us as we too become more and more like God in our own unique way.
Icons are also a reminder that our time is merely a small part of God’s time. The icon is not merely “a window into heaven” but are visual reminder that we are surrounded, now, by a great cloud of witnesses who accompany us on our journey, just as they were accompanied by those who preceded them. When I was in seminary, I heard Madeline L’Engle remind us that eternity is not simply time that goes on without end. Rather, the time which we experience as a line with beginning, middle, and inevitable end, lives within the swirling, ever-presence of eternity. Eternity, all of it, touches us all of our time (that isn’t mis-typed, read it again). This means that those who have gone before us, and those who will follow, are with us now, and we are with them. If this sounds strange, well, the final apokatastasis, the resurrection, and its timing is mysterious (“mystery” really means the “more” of God that we cannot express in words or concepts, like the love of God that both is, and is more than, our love). God’s eternity is certainly more than what we can grasp and understand of our time.
In part, it is the stylistic characterization of the eyes of an icon, and its often strange sense of two-dimensionality, that visually draws us into the presence of the one depicted. The eyes of saints in icons are often large, and our eyes are drawn to them, we see them as they see us. Further, a well-done icon appears two-dimensional until you stand in front of it and realize that you are the third dimension, that you are meant to be included. Certainly the most famous example of this is Rublev’s “Troitsa” (Trinity, otherwise known as the “The Hospitality of Abraham”) where the circle of the three angelic visitors is painted in such a way that it includes the one standing before it. Yet images of the Virgin Mary often draw us in through her eyes, and, following the gesture of her arm, we are then directed by her to her Son, who has his hand raised in blessing of us, completing the circle.
Icons are meant to help us be in the presence of God’s friends so that we too can become friends of God. They remind us, convict us, challenge us, comfort us, invite us, to be more like God. When, on his feast day, I placed an image of Absalom Jones next to the altar steps, I was not simply evoking the memory of this first Black male priest in the Episcopal Church. I was inviting him to stand with my parishioners as they struggle with being a historically African-American parish in the whitest major U.S. city, in a utterly gentrified neighborhood. I was inviting him to remind us of the time and persistence required to convince even our fellow Christians that all human beings are dignified with God’s image. I placed an image of Archbishop Oscar Romero in that spot where every communicating member of our parish passes as a reminder that the love of God is present in the body and blood of Jesus even as it is spilled, at the hand of a state-supported gunman, on an altar like the one at which they are about to give thanks.
Which is all really just to say this: covering over an icon is like covering the face and eyes of your best friend, of a wise elder, of a comforting confessor, of a partner on the journey. We must see, and be seen, by these wise ancestors who precede us. As we conclude Lent and begin Holy Week, this time of joyful sorrow, my prayer is that we allow ourselves to see, and be seen, by these friends, that we allow them to accompany us as we are called to accompany others.
Recently, I finally got around to doing what I meant to do since Advent. During Advent, I placed an icon (painted for me by a wonderful friend and nun) of the Theotokos, surrounded by a dancing Miriam, a tamborine-playing Esther, a baby-bearing Hannah, and a head-holding Judith, in that spot next to our altar steps. For Lent one Sunday, I added a bowl of sand, candles, and matches in front of her. By the end of the service, I really don’t know when it happened, a few candles had been lit and placed in the bowl. Someone had prayed with her; she had prayed with someone.