Today, we dedicate the new fresco Icon of the Theotokos of the Sign written by Efrem Carrasco on the wall behind the altar here at St Aidan’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Levenshulme, Manchester. Like all icons, its two dimensions draw us into a three-dimensional reality in which God communicates to each of us.
We are a Church community formed around Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. This icon is a sign for us, as adults and as children, that the prophecy in the the Book of Isaiah, chapter 7, verse 14, has come to pass here today when we walk into this church: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and you shall name him Emmanuel.” The Hebrew word Emmanuel, means “God is with us.” There are only two figures here—a youthful Jesus whose hands stretch out to bless us and a large, imposing Holy Mary whose arms stretch out not only to protect Jesus but to reach into our lives. We are each confronted with the possibility of linking our lives to the lives of both Holy Mary and Jesus Christ. Just as the Theotokos gave birth to Jesus Christ, so that birth of Jesus Christ can occur not only in the womb of Holy Mary but in our own lives.
Note that the hands of Jesus Christ rest close to white tassels—the threads that come from under the cloak of Holy Mary. Those tassels represent the attributes of God. At the time of the birth of Christ and still today Orthodox Jewish men wear these tassels attached to their prayer shawls during morning worship as a sign that they are sanctified by God’s commandments. The prayer on putting on the tallit is: “Blessed be Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who sanctified us with Thy commandments, and commanded us to wrap ourselves in the tallit.” Today, as Christians we no longer wear prayer shawls, but we can still wrap ourselves in the relationship of Holy Mary to Jesus Christ, to be accepted as we are, to be affirmed as we are, in the presence of God.
The question that Holy Mary poses to the Archangel Gabriel in the Gospel of St Luke, chapter 1, verse 34, begins with the words, “How can this be?” That is precisely the question with which this icon confronts us: How can this be that our limited abilities, our limited understanding of the life of the Holy Trinity, can become so deeply engrained in our own lives that Jesus Christ is truly born within us? We need to accept that this possibility of growing closer to God is a process that can begin from where we are now. God loves us as we are.
The process of transformation which this icon initiates is the same process that begins with the greeting of Archangel Gabriel to Holy Mary in the Gospel of St Luke, chapter 1, verse 28: “Hail O favoured one! The Lord is with you.” In some way that we do not yet fully understand, the Archangel Gabriel is also speaking to us. The seventeenth century mystical poet, Angelus Silesius, expressed the highly Orthodox idea that: “Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, But not within thyself, thy soul shall be forlorn.” In other words, the birth of Christ takes place not only in Bethlehem, but within each of us.
Perhaps our initial response to the idea that Jesus Christ is born within us is the same as that of Holy Mary: “How can this be?” Each of us knows that we are inadequate vessels to receive Jesus Christ. Yet in this icon Holy Mary presents the young man Jesus Christ to us. This is not a sentimental icon of the newly-born baby Jesus. This is Jesus Christ as a young man who will experience crucifixion on earth, resurrection from earth and ascension into heaven. It is precisely because the Theotokos has given birth to Jesus Christ that it is time for each of us to join the Thetokos in welcoming Jesus Christ into the world and into our lives.
Perhaps we think, “This is impossible. I am not Holy Mary. I am not at the present time in my limited life in a situation in which I can let Jesus Christ fully into my problems, my hopes and my life.” Whatever our age, we are wrong. Jesus wants to come into our lives as children and as adults; and Holy Mary shows us that this coming of Jesus Christ into our lives is now possible.
Holy Mary’s response when she learned of her new situation was considerable surprise and confusion. The Gospel of St Luke, chapter 1, verse 29 reads: “She was very perplexed at this statement [that “the Lord is with you”], and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.” Personally, I am shaken by this icon which draws me into the relationship between Holy Mary and the growing Jesus—the Jesus Christ who has already moved from being in the womb and then as a child in the world and now is shown in His rightful place in the Holy Trinity beside the Father.
Of course, the Archangel Gabriel is fully aware of Holy Mary’s confusion. In verse 30 the Archangel says to her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” We too are in that situation. My very own guardian angel is saying to me, “Do not be afraid, Emmanuel, you have found favour with God.” Your very own guardian angel is saying to you, “Do not be afraid, you are being called by your name into the life that God wishes you to experience.”
Now I know that the central message of this icon is very difficult for each of us to experience in this world. Yet it is deeply encouraging that the Theotokos appears to cry out to us from this icon, “I am in heaven, having given birth to the Saviour of the World, who is already growing into the fullness of His mission. Come join me!” We think, “What? What? I have given birth to the life of Jesus Christ within me and that life is growing stronger day by day?” It is true. Each of us have already accepted Jesus Christ, not only as the model for how we wish to live, but as the Reality that is guiding us into the fullness of life with the Holy Trinity. Theologically and practically the life of the Holy Trinity in this world and the life of the Holy Trinity in heaven are continuous. We on earth are already beginning to experience the fullness of the Holy Trinity.
To conclude, appreciating this icon in our minds and in our hearts is not as difficult as first appears. Holy Mary’s response to the earth-shaking news that the Saviour will soon be conceived within her is a deeply felt acceptance of her new situation. As St Luke phrases that acceptance in chapter 1, verse 38, “May it be done to me according to your word.” Holy Mary’s humble response to Archangel Gabriel can also be our response to this icon: May it be done to each of us according to your word.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.