A Lenten Reflection: Rublev’s icon of the Trinity and the healing of Nicodemus

The well-known 15th-century Russian Orthodox icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev rehearses the story of Abraham’s encounter with the three heavenly figures at Mamre (so Genesis 18:1 – ‘The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day’). The icon invites us to both consider and to be considered by the very centre of Christian truth. The triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is re-presented from left to right. Ante Jeroncic, Georgij Yu. Somov and others have offered interpretations: the three persons form the circumference of a circle, attesting perhaps to the divine unity; each of the persons embrace a staff in their left hand, a sign of authority; each of the persons is clothed in blue, a symbol of God’s eternity; each of the persons has overlapping wings, a communication of their intimacy. The colour of clothing too is significant: gold recalling the Father’s glory, purple the royalty and suffering of the Son, and green the life-giving mission of the Spirit. And then there’s the table (the location where koinonia takes place), the house (symbolising, perhaps, the created order and/or the church), the tree (shorthand for the cross), and the mountain (a recollection of the theophanies, of the Mount of Transfiguration, and of the location of covenant renewal).

There is little doubt of the icon’s beauty (as Ante recalls in a follow-up post), even while this icon invites us to reconsider what we mean by beauty. And it does this in a very simple yet profound way. It does this via the sets of hands which point towards the chalice in which is what appears to be a roasted lamb. It is in this gesture that we are invited to rethink all that we might mean when we talk about glory, and power, and God. For this gesture recalls that the God with whom we have to do in Jesus Christ is the God who is so fully one with us that his very being is re-constituted in the action of becoming flesh, of taking the form of a slave, and of dying the very death which has become a way of ‘life’ for us. It also recalls that just as it takes the doctrine of the Trinity to make any sense of the cross, it takes the cross to unveil for us the heart of the Triune God.

The gesture of the central figure – the one whom the Church proclaims as ‘very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father and by whom all things were made’ – invites us to reconsider, and, indeed, to put to death, all of our preconceived images of what God may or may not be like, and to allow our image of God to be finally determined in one place and in one place alone – in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Mary and Joseph’s firstborn son who alone is the image of the invisible God, and who constitutes the form that divine beauty takes in the world. To talk about God and to talk about beauty is not, in the first instance, to recall a set of religious doctrines or a philosophy of beauty. Still less is it to impose such upon a being which we then name ‘God’. It is, rather, to atten­d to a movement in history enacted for us, a bloody and deathly movement, namely the story of Jesus of Nazareth the Word of God made flesh for us, living for the Father’s joy in the power of the Spirit and who, from the side of broken and recalcitrant humanity offers God the praise and thanks due to God’s name. In other words, God’s love finds its clearest and most decisive voice in this particular person whom the Father has set his love upon and who is not ashamed to call us his sisters and brothers. What makes this particular act beautiful is the persons who undertake them and their mutual self-surrendering love for one another, and for the healing of the world, which is there revealed to us.

After Jesus had died, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for Jesus’ body. St John tells us that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. John also tells us that Joseph did not do this alone, but that he was accompanied by someone who had appeared much earlier on in the narrative, namely Nicodemus, the wealthy aristocrat, pharisee and learned rabbi who earlier had visited Jesus at night during an earlier first visit to Jerusalem (John 3). Now here he is again, on Jesus’ last visit to that violent and hard-hearted city. This time, Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds worth. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen (John 19:39–40). In this violated and now lifeless body of a young teacher called Jesus, Nicodemus is given to see the very fullness of beauty – for in Jesus he is confronted by one who loves the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, and who loves human beings – even his enemies – even unto death. And in Jesus Nicodemus is confronted with himself and with the world’s operations. Such a vision of divine beauty reconstitutes Nicodemus’ world, a new reality is taking hold of him, a reality which is causing him to question all that he had once held to be good and true and beautiful. Such a vision of divine beauty sees Nicodemus no longer arranging a backroom meeting with Jesus at night, but sitting at this table that Rublev paints, sitting in Christ with the Spirit and with the Father and sharing in a life reconstituted by the chalice-directed hospitality at their centre.

In a wonderful collection of sermons preached at St Andrew’s church in St Andrews in 1996–97, and subsequently published as At the Cross: Meditations on People Who Were There, Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart recall that

for Pilate and the chief priests the cross refutes Jesus’ claim to be king, if refutation were needed. But for Nicodemus it refutes Pilate’s and the chief priest’s respective claims to represent divine rule. In this radical polarizing of the alternatives Nicodemus can no longer have any truck with political compromise. He finally burns his boats. He throws in his lot with Jesus. He publicly honors him as king. He steps completely outside the circle that binds the governor’s residence and the high priest’s council chamber together. He accepts whatever it might mean to find God’s rule exemplified, even implemented in the humiliated and suffering Jesus. He commits himself to whatever that might involve by way of reversal of conventional thinking about power and status, about what really matters and what really gets things done in the real world. He commits himself to whatever it means to think that neither Pilate nor the chief priests in fact have the last word as they think they do, that beyond the petty game they play with each other actually God holds and plays a trump card of which they have no conception. When Nicodemus saw Jesus crucified and when he recognized this crucified Jesus as truly the king who rules for God, then (might we not say?) Nicodemus was truly born from above, born again of the Spirit of God. For “no one,” Jesus had said to him, “can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. (pp. 111–12)

Richard and Trevor then share this prayer with us:

Lord Jesus, with Nicodemus we recognize you
as the ruler of all
not in spite of your cross
but because of it.
We see your power in your weakness,
your glory in your humiliation,
your sovereignty in your self-giving service,
your victory in your death.
Help us not to be taken in by the illusions of evil,
by the apparent dominance of the forces that oppose God in this world
by the apparently overwhelming influence
of forces that corrupt life and destroy creation.
Help us to resist them.
Keep us from the temptations of power and influence,
from using them to serve the idols
of self-advancement or the causes we favor,
from treating other people as means to our ends,
from disregarding others on the way to our ends.
Help us to recognize the power of truth and love,
help us to acknowledge you as the only Lord.
Your kingdom come.

[Having just returned from lunch with the US Ambassador to New Zealand, David Huebner, this prayer takes on a richer challenge for me.]

Maundy Thursday blessings.

One comment

  1. Quite an analysis. The bit about Nicodemus is really interesting. He is an aristocrat willing to give up his political reputation in order to serve Jesus, whom he believes to be the Messiah — and this is prior to the actual resurrection! Nicodemus’ counter-culture action is really a testament to an authentic faith.

    The depiction of Genesis 18:1 by Rublev is indeed beautiful, no doubt, however, where is Abraham? The biblical account says that Abraham was encountered or engaged by God and his divine council, yet Rublev’s above depiction does not capture this particular element…

    Other biblical accounts where the divine company encounters the human agent depict an integral and intimate standing given to human agent; Isaiah 6, for example, has the prophet situated in the actual throne room of God, as they deliberate over a course of action: “whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8)

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