“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” John 1: 14.
As you walk up the center aisle in St. Michaels, it is hard not to have one’s soul moved on seeing a beautifully inspired icon dominating the “heavenly” space above the altar. This is the Icon of the Sign. It depicts the Mother of God with her hands uplifted in a prayer position. This icon is among the most revered in Eastern Churches and is always given a place of prominence in the sanctuary.
The Mother of God is referred to as “the Theotokos” in Byzantine and Orthodox churches, meaning “God bearer” or the literal translation of “the one who gives birth to God.” In the icon, Christ (Emmanuel) is depicted as nestled within Mary – this is the icon which illuminates the mystery of the Incarnation – of God’s human nature in Jesus Christ. This icon expresses visually what we read in Holy Scripture, that of Mary through her saying “yes” in obedience to God, becoming the tabernacle of our living God.
God is made visible to us through Mary, the Theotokos. In the Icon of the Sign, Christ is presented at the moment of his conception in the womb of the Virgin, yet depicted as a child with an adult face to show His infinite Wisdom. He is the Son of God, divine and human.
The icon image shows Christ enveloped in an oval blue mandorla, an almond-shaped form used frequently in Byzantine iconography. Brilliant gold rays of light radiate outward from it and symbolize Jesus Christ’s Divine Glory. The mandorla, an archetype symbol (something that is common across cultures), is used intentionally in early Christian art to represent glory and divinity. It is a way to show what exists beyond the earthly realm. A mandorla is either a circle or oval shape in shades of blue that progress from dark to light, also indicating infinite time and space.
In the icon, the Mother of God and Christ are enmeshed: Christ is contained in the Virgin Mary, the Ark of the new and everlasting Covenant. This is a visible symbol of the Incarnation, that the Virgin holds God who is uncontainable in her womb, an incomprehensible reality that was defended and upheld by the early Church Fathers. This image is among the oldest found in the early church. Similar images were found in the catacombs in the first century. Just as in the Jewish Temple where the Ark of the Covenant was surrounded on either side by Cherubim (angels), the Icon of the Sign above the altar in St. Michaels is also surrounded by two Cherubim.
The Theotokos and Christ are depicted in most icons in red and blue garments and these colors have varied meanings. One meaning is red and blue symbolizes aspects of divinity and humanity. Mary’s mantle (Greek: maphorion) and veil in the color red may also symbolize Mary’s suffering and her acquired holiness. Under these, her clothing is blue, symbolizing humanity. Red and deep blue were also the colors of the priestly vestments of the Old Testament. Three gold stars, one on Mary’s forehead and one on each shoulder of her mantle are symbols of her virginity and purity.
When Jesus came into the world, he established a New Covenant. Through Mary, God became Incarnate and was made visible to all believers. It is through Mary that God’s glory is made manifest to the world. The placement of the Icon of the Sign above the altar behind the icon screen further illuminates the relationship between the Old and New Testament. The icon screen, the altar, the icons, and the parts of the Divine Liturgy itself are all very visible reminders of God’s plan for our salvation, one that has been made evident throughout biblical history.
Mary is always given a high place of honor in Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox churches because of her incredibly important role. Throughout the Divine Liturgy, she is invoked and commemorated at the end of litanies (petitions), and in hymns. Mary’s role in responding to the will of God was necessary for our salvation through Christ. We are called to reflect on the words of the Cherubic Hymn sung on Sundays in Divine Liturgy: “It is truly proper to glorify you …” ¹
The Icon of the Sign is clearly the icon of the Incarnation; a sign given to all in the words of the great Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign:
Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son,
And shall call His name Immanuel
¹It is truly properly to glorify you, O Theotokos, The ever-blessed, Immaculate, and the Mother of Our God, More honorable than the cherubim, And beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim; Who, a virgin, gave birth to God the Word; You truly the Theotokos, we magnify
Words of the Cherubic Hymn sung during every Divine Liturgy