The Icon for Orthodoxy’s major “green” feast

By Alfred Kentigern Siewers, OFT web editor

Often the Feast of Theophany is rightly celebrated as a Feast of the Church with special significance for Creation, and even for environmental concerns. But there are many others.

In particular, we enter the current Pentecost season through an encounter with celebrating how, in the words of the Service of the Small Paraklesis to the Most Holy Theotokos, “By the Holy Spirit, the streams of grace are flowing, watering, all of the creation, granting life upon it.”

Green vegetation greets us as we approach the front of the Church for Communion, vestments and other cloths are green, and we encounter the famous icon of the Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev. In Russia, the original icon at this time of year is given time to “breathe,” as an art historian friend put it, by being moved from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow to the adjoining functioning Church of St.  Nicholas in Tolmachy, where it is venerated by believers at services during the Pentecost season. And what a profound message the icon offers us about Creation, touching even on concerns about the environment as a key aspect of a “pro-life” approach to contemporary society, and on yearning for “sustainability” in today’s often chaotic human cultures.

Fr. Thomas Soroka, an OCA priest at St. Nicholas Church in McKees Rock, Pennsylvania, this Pentecost weekend started one of the best Facebook threads I have seen, by asking his Facebook friends simply to join him in reflecting in writing there on the significance to them of this beautiful icon.

I’ll offer here poorly a few summaries of those reflections, with a couple more mixed in, bearing in mind how they all relate profoundly to Orthodox teachings on the interconnections of the Divine and the Human and Creation at large:

–This is an icon of relationship, which draws the viewer inside of the circle of figures, so much so that one commenter noted that this drawing in can have the effect of being drawn into the back of the circle, facing the middle figure, who represents the Son in the Trinity. From this perspective, as the viewer is drawn into the circle, the other two angels come to have their backs turned to the viewer, as if also in the wings of the middle figure of Christ. So too we are drawn into relationship with God in facing the Son, while like Moses we mysteriously only know in another sense the back of God–knowing His Incarnation and the uncreated energies of His relationships, but not the Divine Essence.

–The icon offers a theology of color and body and landscape. The angel on the right is beneath a mountain symbolizing Creation, and wearing a blue celestial undergarment but a green overgarment, and represents the Holy Spirit, again “watering all of the creation” with streams of divine grace. The middle figure is beneath a tree, the oak tree of Mamre in the Septuagint account of the visitors to Abraham, but also symbolizing the Holy Cross as the Tree of Life. The middle figure, representing Christ, seems to point toward a bowl like a chalice, while wearing an undergarment of a blood-like color and an undergarment of a celestial blue. Both the middle figure and the figure to the right are looking to the figure on the left with slightly bowed heads. The figure on the left, representing the Father, wears a shimmering outer garment suggesting purple, with a celestial blue undergarment. He is beneath Abraham’s house, the house of God, symbolizing also perhaps the community of believers with their altar.

–The setting is both historical, representing the story of Abraham’s visitors, and theological, for as the Orthodox Study Bible notes, reflecting many Orthodox sources, the three figures include Christ in a theophany or appearance prior to the Incarnation, with two angels, representing the Father and the Son. They are in a “real” landscape touched by an everlasting spiritual reality as well.

This icon, by a young contemporary and monastic co-worker of St. Sergius of Radonezh in the “desert” of the northern forests, offers profound insights into Orthodox theology as a lived tradition, both “right teaching” and “right glory.” It shows a strong focus on relationship on many levels, including Creation, and infinitely more than can be poorly touched on here, but especially worth considering at this time of Pentecost. As we sing at this Feast, and for the Feast of the Holy Spirit on the following day,  “Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Thou Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every sin, and save our souls, O Good One!”

Note: Blog posts do not necessarily reflect official views of OFT, but offer a variety of reflections on Orthodoxy and Creation.