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There is an icon which has always intrigued me and attracted
me, it is the icon of Our Lady of the Sign (1) which shows
the Holy Virgin Mary standing up with both arms raised up and the palms of her
hands open, in a traditional praying position, staring straight at us, and Jesus
is there at the center of the icon, staring straight at us too. What I have
always found so fascinating is that Jesus is painted within an oval "window"
just as if we were allowed to look inside the pregnant Mother of God and see
this blessed child she is carrying. "We hail you, who held in your virginal
womb him whom the heavens cannot contain" (2).
Icons are made to help us on the journey and should be approached with the utmost attention and love and devotion. They are stepping stones for our souls! There are many icons (and paintings, statues and stained glass windows) of Mary and Jesus. But in most of them, Mary, when standing, is holding the infant Jesus in her arms or, when sitting, is holding the child Jesus on her lap. But in the icon of the Sign, the depiction of both Mary standing and Jesus held within her, in a sort of window within her bosom, is like an icon within an icon. There is a perfect movement of the folds of her mantle from her raised hands gently falling down and encircling Jesus to protect, shelter and highlight him. The composition of the icon is perfectly balanced, with Mary's face exactly above Jesus' face, with the circle of the divine child at the heart of the triangle created by her raised arms. It is an amazing description of the mystery of the Incarnation and this is why I loved it so much. It offers us a glimpse of eternity - and eternity is not an easy subject for graphic description! It is not simple to describe what is beyond description. Jesus Christ is painted in the form of a child but with maturity and wisdom in his gaze and they both seem to be calling us and asking us: "What are you doing with your life"? By the way, in this icon, Jesus Christ is "the sign", Him who is the life, the way and the truth. We get to see in one glance the possibilities of time outside of time and it is very effective in opening up our minds and hearts and souls to the mystery of the Logos, the God made flesh, born of the Spirit and of one young Jewish girl in Palestine whose name was Mary and who is the Most Holy Theotokos.
I thought of this "window" recently as I was looking at one
of our modern technological achievement. It suddenly occurred to me that there
is a connection between the ultrasound photo I was looking at (which allows
us to "see" the baby in the womb) and the icon of the Sign (which helps us grasp
the invisible, the eternal). I have heard it
said that many parents are so moved by their first ultra sound photo that their
eyes get misty and their voices are changed, revealing the joy and awe they
are feeling. What happened? A few minutes ago, they already knew that there
is a little baby concealed in this round belly, didn't they? But suddenly, thanks
to this scientific progress, they are brought to a new and deeper level of awareness
of what is going on. The impact of one photo (or one work of art) can sometimes
jolt our minds into a deeper understanding. Thanks to ultra-sound technology,
you can see the pulsating of the heart in the tiny little chest, you can witness
them sucking their thumbs or turning on their side and it is quite an amazing
sight. You are getting a close-up look at the little baby as it is growing in
the womb. Such a sight holds so much hope that it is a gift to the parent. Just
as praying in front of an icon is a gift for the believer.
On Facebook, a friend of mine posted recently a great photo made of two shots of the very same "mother & child". The shot on the left must have been taken about one month before birth and the very pregnant woman has her hands wrapped around her bulging belly. The shot on the right shows the very same woman, dressed in the very same blouse, now holding a newborn infant. Both shots are taken from the same angle and to top it all off, the little baby has his mouth open and is actually yawning! You can see in one glance what it is to go from the stage of being 8 months in the womb to the stage of being 1 month in the world. This lovely double-shot drives home this reality with great strength.
In an effort to illustrate this amazing continuum of life, I decided to make
a collage: I put the ultra sound photo next to the double-shot photo of before
& after birth in a "family album" sort of way. And in an attempt to capture
even more of our life span, to show that life starts at conception and that
there is life after death, I added the Icon of the Sign in the center of my
collage. I thought it would be most appropriate to catalog life's stages under
the gaze of the One who transcends time and who is the Lord of time…
Once my digital collage was finished, I thought "There, I have it!" I have the whole continuum of life from conception to birth to growth to eternal life. And then I wanted to share it, because I find so much encouragement and elation in the Good News that there is no way I can keep it to myself. So I write and I post, I read and I get together with friends - and we talk and share, listen and learn. I have been the grateful recipient of much learning myself when I actually "listen". Because the truth is that whether we are in front of an icon or a Power Point slide, what matters is our own interior disposition, how much we are "open" to see, because if not, it will only be pixels on the screen, fleeting shadows on the wall of a cave… Our comprehension is limited. As Augustine said: "The human soul is indeed rational, even though in punishment for its sin it was bound by the chains of mortality and brought so low that it must try to understand invisible things by conjectures drawn from visible things". But thank God for these conjectures! Thanks to his love, mercy and wisdom, we can choose to look at human life with the highest respect, from its tiniest beginning, and we can set our eyes on the final goal, on eternal life. I take it all very seriously. There are consequences to what we look at (3). Saint Gregory the Great said: "We are changed into the one we see."
Copyright ©2011 Michèle Szekely
(1) In 1259, a hunter found an ancient icon, lying on a root, facing the ground. Thus was discovered one of the most ancient icons of the Russian Church: the Kursk Root Icon of the Mother of God "Of the Sign". The name is taken from the Prophet Isaiah: "Therefore the Lord will give this sign: The Virgin shall be with Child, and bear a Son, and shall call Him Emmanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
(2) From Cyril of Alexandria's homily at the Council of Ephesus (421) "We hail you, Mary, who held in your virginal womb him whom the heavens cannot contain; through whom the Trinity is glorified and worshipped throughout the earth; through whom the heavens exult; through whom the angels and archangels rejoice; through whom the demons are put to flight; through whom the tempter fell from heaven; through whom the fallen creation is raised to heavens; through whom the whole world held captive by idolatry has come to know the truth. "
(3) "Seeing is not simply beholding something that passes like a parade before the eyes; it is a form of discernment and identification with what is known. What one sees reflects back on the one who sees and transforms the beholder". Robert Louis Wilken "The Spirit of Early Christian Thought"