Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Praying with Pictures



Through Lent we have been running a series called praying with pictures. This is my meditation on Andrei Rublev's icon of the hospitality of Abraham (based on the story in Genesis 18).

In Rublev’s icon, the story of Abraham has faded but has not vanished entirely. A sketchy house and a crooked tree are all that remain. They remind us that this is not a photograph, but that God is revealed in stories, in unexpected visits and bread shared under oak trees.

Here God the Trinity takes centre stage. But no bearded old man and out of place dove. Rather three young figures, similar and different, gathered around a table.

At the centre, a figure dressed in dark red, to whom our eye is drawn. Dressed as Eastern art depicts Christ, it is this figure that draws us in. At the centre of the Trinity is Jesus, this man with his stories. They are our way in to knowing God. But we cannot make eye contact with him. His eyes look to his right (our left) at the beardless Father. To engage with Jesus is to be drawn into this relationship, to follow Jesus’ gaze.

Where the Father sits there is no throne, nor judgement seat. Nor is there a head to this table. This relationship consists simply in sitting round a table and sharing bread. If the Father has authority, perhaps it is simply that of being the host. Of making the invitation to others to join him. But his eyes are not focussed on himself, rather they look out.

None of these figures can fully engage our vision, none of them look directly at us. Just as the Son looks at the Father, the Father looks out at the Son and at the third figure. This third angel looks back at the Father, a deliberate echo of the Christ figure. This is the Spirit, who is continually breathed out by the Father. And who continually brings the life of the risen Christ to the world. The Spirit who teaches us to pray with Christ, Abba Father.

So we come to the picture through the Son, but he directs us to the Father. Even here our gaze cannot rest, but is sent out to the Spirit, who directs us once more to the Son. This circle, never resting, never hurried, an ongoing movement of love. But it is a circle that opens out to us who look on. As we look we are brought in and join the movement. Contemplation becomes action and returns to contemplation. Gathered in communion around a table, that speaks of suffering and life.

We cannot stay at a safe distance. This is no abstract doctrine, or symbolic diagram. A sketchy house and a crooked tree remain, behind the figures. They remind us that this is not a photograph, but that God is revealed in stories, in unexpected visits and bread shared under oak trees.

We too are invited to share these stories, visits and bread.


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