To the right is an icon, a Russian icon. During the Middle Ages, Russia (as we might call it today) was out of the European loop. It was more linked to the Byzantine Empire and Asia than to Europe. But this icon, painted (or written) by the great iconographer, Andrei Rublev, is dated around the beginning of the fifteenth century and therefore falls within our time-line.
Let’s look at it. It’s sometimes called “The Old Testament Trinity” or “The Hospitality of Abraham.” It’s a representation of God, but what we actually see are three angels, very feminine ones at that. So where’s God? For the Orthodox Christians of the East, God could not be represented at all, at least in his eternal being. God is a spirit; he’s invisible. So we have three angels instead. The story of the three mysterious visitors in Genesis, chapter 18, gives us warrant to call them an image of God because the word of the Lord comes through their mouths in such a way that God himself is said to speak.
So what we have is not merely God but a representation of the Most Holy and Blessed Trinity. For Orthodox Christians, and indeed for most Christians everywhere, God is one god and simultaneously and mysteriously three “persons.” Three in one, one in three: both unity and diversity. For those outside traditional Christian faith, this often seems like weird math: three equals one, one equals three. It simply doesn’t seem to “add up.”
But that’s a problem I can’t solve tonight, even if I had three hours. Indeed, it is more of a mystery than a problem. Problems are like puzzles: if you work at them long enough, you may eventually figure them out. But mysteries, as I now use the word, are not puzzles. The more you explore them, the more their mystery deepens. To contemplate them is more like prayer than intellectual analysis.
This is where icons come in. For Orthodox Christians, an icon is not meant to be a literal image of that which it represents. No, it is rather a window, an opening into the eternal world that goes way beyond our ordinary comprehension. What we see is not merely defined by the images; rather, it is made present. When an Orthodox worshipper enters a church and kisses an icon, whether it be of Christ or Christ’s mother or a saint, she is venerating someone who is spiritually present, not showing reverence for someone who is absent. To kiss an icon is not an act of idolatry—it is to greet a dearly beloved friend or (in this case) God himself.
You may wonder why I say “himself” when there are three persons. But for Orthodox Christians (and for Catholic Christians as well), the one god is in the first instance the Father. That’s how the Nicene Creed begins. It doesn’t say, “I [or we] believe in one God, the Trinity.” Rather, it says, “I believe in one God, the Father…..”
The other two persons, the Son and the Spirit, flow out of God in different ways, the Son being eternally begotten and the Spirit proceeding, whatever that may mean. The Father is the one source, the monarché, but in such a way that the other two are not inferior emanations; they share rather the same fullness of essence and glory that the Father has.
So here we have three angels. Look at them carefully. Who represents whom? Where’s the Father, where’s the Son, where’s the Holy Spirit? We could spend the next hour trying to decide. But I have other fish I want to fry tonight, so (in line with our topic: humility and desire) let’s go somewhere else.
I want to argue tonight that this picture of God makes a staggering claim: it pictures the humility of God. Yes, God’s humility. Remember: you heard it here first. Who would ever think of putting humility and God together in this way? God is all-powerful and all-knowing. We are supposed to be humble before him. What could he possibly have to be humble about himself?
But look at the faces of the angels. Look at the way their heads are tilted. Look how their hands point to someone else. (It almost looks like they’re playing “Scissors Paper Rock.”) Note their feet: they too seem to point away to someone else. If you focus on any one figure, your eye is immediately drawn to the next figure, where the same motion is repeated. Try letting the icon guide you and you’ll find the picture is in perpetual motion, especially if you focus on the three figures. Only the cup in the center allows a stationary gaze.
But back to the figures themselves. They are shy. Each seems to want to direct our attention away from himself to one of the others. They seem to say, “Don’t look at me. Look at the other one instead.”
What’s going on here? Does God have low self-esteem? Does he need a talk with Dr. Phil? How inadequate our modern categories can be. They can imprison us in limited possibilities. Let’s set them aside right now and go for other possibilities.
What I would like to argue in the rest of my remarks is that what we have portrayed here is a peculiarly Johannine picture of God. “Johannine” refers to the New Testament writings written by (or least attributed to) the Apostle John. The ancient church believed that he wrote the Fourth Gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation. Modern scholars have different ideas, but nearly all agree that all five of these writing share some common themes and even some common language so we’ll call all five Johannine.
So where does John come in with our icon? Well, in John’s First Letter, we are told, “God is love”—not merely that God loves, but God IS love. God’s very being is love. Well, that’s fine, isn’t it. That’s wonderful. But to love is to have some kind of object. Even if you love yourself, your self is an object to the “you” that is loving. So to say “God is love” may merely be saying God loves himself. In our bewildered time, we’re often encouraged to do just that, to love ourselves. I quite agree. That’s a good thing. But what is called wholesome self-regard often disguises self-absorption, self-centeredness, narcissisism—not the traits John would attribute to God if he could use our conceptual vocabulary.
What we have in Rublev’s icon then is a picture of God in which each “person” (each hypostasis, to use the Greek) humbly defers to the others—to the “Other.” There is Otherness in the one God. There is internal differentiation. One God: yes. But within the divine unity is irreducible variety. God is forever one; God is forever three.
But why call this Johannine? What does John have to do with it? Well, many things actually, but I wish to focus on three chapters. In John, chapter five, Jesus tells us that he only does what he sees his father doing. His eye is on his father, a father who is working day and night. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Don’t look at me; look at the One who sent me.” But the same Jesus in the same chapter tells us that the Father loves the Son and gives all that he has to the Son. It’s as if the Father is saying, “Don’t look at me; look at my Son.” (This isn’t merely John’s portrait, of course. The other gospels have God saying something similar at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration.) And when we go to the sixteenth chapter of John’s gospel, we find that the Advocate and Comforter that Jesus will send (in other words, the Holy Spirit) will not speak of himself but will speak the things that are Christ’s. In other words, he will say in effect, “Don’t look at me; look at Christ.” Each of the three passes us on to the next one. Each humbly desires the Other. But this is not self-hatred. This is not low self-esteem. True personhood, according to John and Rublev’s icon, reaches its true fullness by turning away from the Self and turning its gaze to the Other. “He who would gain his life must lose it” is true of God as well as us. God’s life is always giving. God is love.
But there’s another Johannine dimension as well. Note the cup in the center. This icon is more than a picture of God. To my amazement (or perhaps amusement), I discovered it’s a party invitation. Yes, a party invitation. In the Book of Revelation (in the third chapter), Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and sup with him, and he with me.” The Fourth Gospel (in the seventeenth chapter) says it even more strongly. Jesus asks his father not only that his followers be one with each other but that they share in the oneness that the Father and the Son have because the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father. He prays that “they all may be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, may they also be in us.” The fancy word for this “mutual indwelling” is perichoresis. It means that the three “persons” of the Trinity are so united by love that they become one while remaining three. In other words, their love for each other does not destroy their individuality; rather, it enhances it. They are more themselves, not less, in their desire for the Other.
Rublev’s icon, then, becomes a window for beholding the inner life of God. But it is also a vehicle for uniting Jesus’ followers to the party that is going on 24/7 in that same inner life. But in this party nobody is hogging the attention. At this party, everyone’s greatest joy is the Other. I’m almost tempted to put another caption on the icon. I think of the title of Robert Frost’s poem, “Come In.” I think also of Frost’s poem called “The Pasture,” with its closing line, “You come too.” But maybe we should go back to John’s gospel (in the first chapter) where Phillip says something to Nathanael, when Nathanael doubts that anything good could come out of Nazareth. He says to Nathanael, “Come and see.” That’s what I’m hearing, as well as seeing, in Rublev’s icon. It seems to beckon. It seems to say, “Join us. Join us in the circle of true love, where there is joy for evermore.”
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This paper was first delivered at a convocation at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia on March 29, 2007.
The convocation was entitled ‘Humility and Desire in Medieval Culture.’
Illustration: ‘The Old Testament Trinity’ or ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’
by Andrei Rublev
Charles C. Twombly is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia.