“Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
I was in Rodney’s Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts when I first stumbled upon the Poganovo icon. It was on the cover of a book about icons in Bulgaria, which I promptly bought for my father. He is a great lover of icons and was the one who first taught me about them, even long before we became Orthodox. I was struck by St. John the Evangelist’s elderly, philosophical appearance, the Virgin Mary’s intent gaze at his hand, and her Son Jesus’ noticeable absence. There was an immense story hidden behind this image, a whole world of hidden words and meanings. This hidden world brimming with meaning was suggested by St John himself, since he is in fact the Evangelist who concludes his Gospel by saying, “There were many other things that Jesus did, and were every one of them to be written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn. 21:25).
If the proverbial picture is worth a thousand words, how much worth does an icon hold? Perhaps our Tradition holds icons in such high esteem precisely because we couldn’t possibly write all these things down. We could not express these truths verbally or rationally. But by means of icons we become acquainted with the witnesses of the glory of the Lord -- with His disciples and apostles, and not least His Mother, who not only saw Him, but touched Him and held Him. Alongside them, we pray and “feel after” God in chapels dimly-lit in lampada light, that we may find Him (Acts 17:27).
Icons express the mystery of the Word Incarnate, of God who became man, accessible to all of our senses so that we might hear His words, and see His face, and even touch its imprint in the icons that fill our churches. And these images are by no means static. When we approach them properly, they instill in us an ever increasing sense of awe and wonder.
It turned out that this Poganovo icon had a rather intriguing backstory, involving royal patronage, the unriddling of obscure biblical prophecies, and an ancient miracle-working mosaic. It is a two-sided icon preserved in Sofia, Bulgaria. The reverse side is an image of Christ’s Resurrection, which in turn is based on the 5th cen. mosaic of Christ in Thessaloniki, my city of residence. In fact, in reflecting on it, I realize my own life followed a path that sort of mirrored the historic course of this icon. It led me from a Bulgarian parish in Boston to the Balkans and eventually to Greece, where I study the theologians that inspired the icon, namely St John the Theologian and St Gregory the Theologian. Perhaps it all just amounts to a series of coincidences. But Christ, the Word of God, is the Author of the universe. Doesn’t He unite all these things together into one marvelous story, to the glory of God the Father?
Icons are our way of peering into, and participating in, that sacred history. Just looking at Mary’s facial expression in this icon, for example, moves us to meditate on the meaning of her role in the Gospel of John. We can also consider her relationship to her adopted son John, and how vital her role was in the early Church. We might recall Luke’s repeated verse about how Mary “preserved and pondered all the words” she heard about her Son Jesus’ destiny.
In our last article we explored the natural forms of storge, or family love and affection, and how the Holy Trinity creates and re-creates with this loving tenderness. But the most celebrated and iconic depiction of storge in the whole history of Byzantine and Western art is the image of the Virgin and Child. It would be a fundamental misunderstanding to see them as serving a sentimental purpose, as if merely to stir warm and fuzzy feelings in our heart. In fact, very often these icons pose a problem, an aporia, or puzzle. How could the Theotokos, or the ‘Birthgiver of God,’ show maternal love for her own Creator? How could God become man, and a mortal man at that? “How do you nurse the Master?” we ask her in the Paraclesis Canon. And she has proven to be a sure guide in this enigmatic paradox of divine love.
The Virgin Mary’s life-long assent to God’s will is presented as a dynamic and loving dialogue with the Word. Whenever she hears words concerning her Son’s identity, Luke tells us that she “treasured” and “kept all these words” and “pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2:19, 51). Many of these ‘words’ in St Luke’s Gospel are oracles indicating that Jesus has a dangerous mission. When she and Joseph go to dedicate Him at the temple, Simeon tells her that her Son is destined to be a “sign that is spoken against, and a sword shall pierce your soul also” (Lk. 2:34). As a mother she is acutely aware of her Son’s purpose and anticipates His fate with love and foreboding. Thus, when He remains behind in Jerusalem after a feast and she goes searching for Him, she asks, “Son, why did You treat us so? Your father and I were searching for You in anguish” (Lk. 2:48). These hints of Mary’s own sufferings attest to her maternal affection, but also to her deep understanding. She ever so wisely balances her instinct to protect Him with the insight afforded by her faith.
As we read in the hymns for Holy Week, she is the last one to wait at the tomb and cannot bear to be parted from her Son until He rises again. She is a “Ewe” that sees her “very own Lamb being taken off to the slaughter”: “Where do you go, child, why do you hurry? Perhaps there is yet another wedding at Cana? [...] Word, give me a word, do not pass me by in silence” (Oikos, Holy Friday). But then, in parallel with the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus acted at the prompting of His own mother, it is as if He rises again at her own urgent prompting, for she is privy to His true identity as God. So it is that right before we receive the Holy Light of the Resurrection, Christ says to His mother: “Do not lament me, O mother, as you look into the tomb upon the Son you conceived in your womb without seed. For, as God, I shall rise and be glorified and shall unceasingly exalt in glory those who magnify you in faith and longing (pothos).”
Here we see the circle of love being extended to the faithful. We observe a noteworthy threefold movement of exaltation in this final katabasia: “I will rise again and be glorified”, says Christ, and “I will exalt” those who “magnify you in faith and longing.” By celebrating the Virgin Mary we too are raised up to the mystery she knew. When Christ sees Mary and John at the cross and announces to her, “Woman, behold your son,” and to John, “Behold your mother,” He is proclaiming the Theotokos as the mother of all true disciples of Christ (Jn 19:26). The more we experience the love of Christ, and “rest upon His breast” as John did, the deeper we grow into this mystery. This particular revelation of Christ is experienced in the tenderness of storge and the intimacy of family life. The Church celebrates it in the warmth of its liturgical life.
Mary’s meditation on the ‘words’ surrounding her Son, the Word, as well as her boldness of speech (parrhesia) toward Him, form a sublime dialogue, as we have mentioned. We are invited to take part in this dialogue every time we gaze upon an icon of the Virgin and Child. It is a circle of love that is ever deepening and expanding. We magnify the Theotokos, who magnifies the Lord, who magnifies her. And by magnifying her, He also exalts those who magnify her. We are drawn into the upward spiral of resurrection, of being lifted up into incorruptible life.
This motion is subtly and superbly depicted in the renowned Virgin of Vladimir icon. Here we see the hands of the Virgin and Child forming a kind of ladder mounting up to Mary’s pensive face. Her gaze then beckons to us, and she points us to her child. His face, tenderly turned to His mother in storgic embrace, then leads us back to her, and it is as if He were embracing the whole world in her person. Not only do they encircle each other in storge, but we, simply as viewers, are drawn into this circle of love. It captivates us with the same sweetness and poignancy. And as we attend to the dual motion of the icon, both inward and upward, we are invited to “ponder these words” – the words of love testified in the Gospels and the many other things that Jesus did, which, “were every one of them to be written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn. 21:25).
Ignatius Gardner is a writer who is pursuing his Master's in Theology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He graduated from Hellenic College in 2017 as valedictorian of his class and has since collaborated on English translations of the fifth volume of the Philokalia and John Chrysostom on the Roman Empire by Constantine Bozinis. He is currently translating works by St Nektarios into English, writing his thesis on St Gregory the Theologian, and exploring Greece's rich spiritual heritage.