By Fr. Sean McDermott
Our icon of All Saints is exquisite--beautiful to behold and ponder. We were blessed to have it written a couple of years ago by Jonathan Edwards. It has been a great aid to our worship and brought such beauty to our nave. In honor of All Saints Day, I wanted to write a little about this icon and how to begin to contemplate such a wonderful image. If you wish to know the names of the saints portrayed on the icon, go to the bottom of the article.
As with all icons, this icon should move us to prayer as it is a window into the divine. Many people struggle to understand how to contemplate an icon--the foreign style of the figures, the strange perspective, and the complex array of symbolism can be overwhelming. However, icons are meant to be simple entrances into prayer. This does not mean that icons are childish or exhaustible. Rather, we find that simplicity is actually a profound attribute; it is the basic habits of prayer and worship that are the hardest to continue. The simplicity of God, for another example, challenges our minds and provides content for an eternity of contemplation. When I say that icons are simple, I mean not only that they are easy opportunities and reminders for prayer, but also that they force us to contemplate the essential things: being, holiness, virtue, and worship.
In order to begin contemplation, one must always start with basic habits. First, you must acknowledge the presence of the icon and yourself. This habit is sometimes the most difficult because it requires that you slow down, stop for a few moments, and enter into a meeting of two things: the icon and yourself. Acknowledge yourself, where you are, how you are sitting/kneeling/standing, your breathing and the thoughts flowing through your mind. This simple action is imperative in order to enter into a genuine meeting/encounter with the icon.
Then, acknowledge the icon. If the icon is of one person, greet that saint by name. If, like the All Saints icon, it is an image of a more complex scene, acknowledge that you are before it, and state your purpose.
God is our creator, and every creature shares in His Being; therefore, it is because of God’s Being that we can even start this meeting. You are never separated from God, and the meeting confirms this. After these introductions, proceed to ask: “What is it?” or “Who is it?"
The icon before you is a window into reality, the divine reality. When we encounter the image, we often bring our own assumptions about reality to it. But the icon helps us to let go of our assertions over reality and accept the reality before us. Let us accept the reality before us as truth. Jesus Christ is shown as the center of all creation and as the ruler of all creation. He is wearing a crown, and He is seated on His throne. The curved line on which he is seated is a symbol of the rainbow, a metaphor of all the heavens. The orb by his feet symbolizes the earth. Christ sits as king over all of creation.
Jesus Christ is human, even as He has ascended and is seated on His throne. We can see His human face, His hands, His feet even as He is also shrouded in glorious apparel. That golden cloak speaks to His divinity, that Jesus Christ is also fully God. If you look carefully at His halo, you will see two Greek letters, omega and nu, which spell the word wn. This is the Greek form of YHWH, The Being. The Father cannot be drawn since He is purely spirit, but we can see Jesus Christ. And notice how Jesus has opened up His hand, beckoning us all to Himself.
This is reality. Amidst the turmoils of life and despite our doubts, God reigns supreme over all the universe. At first, the icon might appear to be completely transcendent, that this is all happening far away, perhaps in a universe far away. But Christ holds out to us His promise: "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." The reality we must accept is that God is with us. Not only does He exist and reign, He also welcomes us to enjoy His presence. It is He who has opened Himself up to us. The Creator of all of creation beckons for us to worship Him.
We have now met the first part of the icon. We have acknowledged ourselves before this reality and accepted its presence. We could pause and praise God for what has been revealed so far. We could spend our whole lives just contemplating these simple, yet profound, facts. We could take all of our worries and requests and bring them into the light of His reality. Can you give over your worries to Him who rules supreme? Can you ask for your needs from Him who is seeking after you? Can you offer your humble worship to Him who is the source of all being? We could fashion/mold/change the rest of lives after just this contemplation.
So, the simple answer to “What is it?" is that the icon is an image of God. As we contemplate the image before us, we contemplate His Image, Jesus Christ our Lord.