“The point is simple: face to face with Jesus, there and only there, do we find who we are.” – Rowan Williams
What are Icons?
Dating from the early church and more common in Eastern Christian traditions, icons are a visual invitation into an encounter with God. When one sits in prayerful stillness before an icon, one is drawn into deeper relationship with the person it depicts and the story it tells. Therefore, it is often said that icons are windows into heaven, or, as Rowan Williams writes, “in their presence you become aware that you are present to God and God is working on you by his grace.”
Let Rowan Williams Be Your Guide This Advent
Williams has written two beautiful and accessible books on understanding and praying with icons: Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin and The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ. These books offer brief meditative and instructional reflections on a series of popular icons. For example, Williams explains how the icons are written with a certain perspective to draw your eyes to a certain place on the icon—and how they help us recover our spiritual focus. In much the same way as Henri Nouwen in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Williams uses close-up images of the icons to explain the fine points of the meaning behind the colors, symbols, and composition of the icon.
Throughout the book, there are insightful observations about the life of faith. For instance, as he writes about the Eleousa icon where the baby Jesus presses against Mary’s cheek as she looks at the viewer, he reflects on the heavy burden that Mary must now bear as the Mother of God’s Son. Even amidst the expectancy of Advent, we are reminded that our journey leads to the cross. Of the icon of the resurrection where Christ stands above the grave, he writes, “Christ stands on a precarious-looking bridge, as if he is one who by the great risks and pains of his incarnation connects what we have pulled apart.”
Adult Formation Groups for Advent and Epiphany
I have used each of these successfully in adult small group gatherings in Advent (Ponder These Things) and Epiphany (Dwelling of the Light). Each book lends itself to a four-week-long small group gathering for the season. They are organized in this way:
Ponder These Things
- The One Who Points the Way — The Hodegtria
- The Virgin of Loving Kindness — The Eleousa
- The Virgin of the Sign — The Orans
- Weaving Scarlet and Purple — A Legend of Mary
The Dwelling of the Light
- The Transfiguration
- The Resurrection
- The Hospitality of Abraham
Participants were asked to read each chapter before our discussion. We placed icons and candles around the room. For some of the conversations, we brought in a digital projector so we could enlarge the icons to look more closely at what Williams described in the book. We began with quiet prayer and then moved into the discussion. Williams style in this book is so accessible and provocative that we had no problem starting or sustaining the conversation.
The experience within the group spilled out into our worship experience. We used the icons as our bulletin cover images and we created a prayer station in the sanctuary using our icons. For Lutherans, who are not familiar with icons, it was was an introduction to another beautiful Christian tradition and it expanded our toolbox of spiritual practices. As Williams writes, “Looking at Jesus seriously changes things; if we do not want to be changed, it is better not to look too hard or too long.” These books and conversations certainly changed us and enriched our observance of the season.