Do You See? Praying with The Virgin of the Sign

Virgin of the Sign

My favorite icon of Mary is “The Virgin of the Sign,” or the “Platytera,” and it is one I find myself praying with often at this time of year. Its first name is taken from Is. 7:14 (this shall be a sign unto you: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son. . .). The second, meaning “wider” expresses the mystery of the incarnation: the womb of the Virgin is now home to that which cannot be contained, namely, God the Son.

Mary is the central figure, standing with her hands raised in the orans position of prayer. The Christ figure enclosed within her is not a baby, but often appears as an older man, his right hand raised in blessing while his left often holds a scroll. Clearly, this is not a realistic depiction, but a deeply theological one. But what does it mean to convey?

Christ is, in his incarnate person, the salvation of the world. He both brings and is the blessing of God for the human race. He comes to teach God’s truth (the scroll). His depiction as an older man reminds us that he is older than the ages; from the instant of his incarnation in the womb of his mother, he is God made flesh. And she carries no mere human fetus, but he who holds the stars in place. Her womb is now platytera ton ouranon: more spacious than the heavens.

Which turns us to Mary herself. She is far from the troubled teenager whom Luke describes; still less a pawn in the male machinations around her as in Matthew. She is serene; her gaze untroubled. Her prayerful pose suggests public worship (not just private devotion). Sometimes, her gaze is directed past the viewer, to some unknown distant point. Most often, however, she (along with Jesus) looks directly at the viewer with an air of expectation. She seems to ask the viewer, “Do you see?”

What are we meant to see? I think we are to see, first of all, narrative of descent and ascent.

By descent, I mean that God comes to us in the frailty of human nature. The Virgin of the Sign reminds us that God is a God who stoops. Enclosed within the Virgin’s womb, God the Son takes on all that it means to be human because he really is her Son. He looks at us with her eyes. And yet, the One descended to us in this way remains the One who holds the stars in place. Mild, he lays his glory by, we have sung again. And he does.

By ascent, conversely, I mean that God ennobles human nature by taking it up into himself. Many Christians locate themes of ascent, unsurprisingly and properly, with Easter or Ascension. But they are here, too. It is the presence of God within her that ennobles Mary, that raises her from a terrified teenager to a Byzantine Empress. And such is the destiny of all who believe. All human nature has been redeemed for all human nature has been assumed by God the Son.

The Virgin of the Sign thus invites us into the mystery of the incarnation so wonderfully expressed by St. Athanasius: “He became what we are so that he might make us what he is. . ..” (On the Incarnation 54.3).

Further and more radically, the Virgin of the Sign suggests that there is no God except the God who comes to us in the Virgin, and that the route to him is somehow through her. “Do you see?”

If you wish to find God, she says to us with her beckoning gaze, here is God. Neither remote nor uninvolved in the human condition, the only God there is has taken human nature and redeemed it. Mary, ennobled and exalted by the gracious descent of God the Son, is the sign of his saving work. A Jewish peasant girl has become “platytera ton ouranon” for no reason other than the gracious initiative of God. And it is in this grace that God makes himself known. Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see! Hail the Incarnate Deity.

If you would come to this God, Mary finally says, you must come to him through me. Catholic and Orthodox readers, and some Anglicans, will find this uncontroversial enough. Others will pause. But, in effect, Mary is merely repeating what she has just said, except in reverse. She is not simply an historical accident—somebody had to be Jesus’s mother. In grace, she is the second Eve whose let it be to me undoes the sin of our ancient parents. Mary thus reminds us that our encounter with the Lord is never solitary or direct. It is always mediated in and through that community of which she is the first and preeminent member: the Church.

As I pray with this icon, I remember that the Creator is not far, for his transcendence is such that it can hide itself in humanity. As a human being, he discloses both God’s glory and humanity’s destiny. I remember that there is no God “behind” the God I meet in the Gospel, who draws me into deeper fellowship with him as I enter deeper into the fellowship of God’s people.

I see through a mirror dimly. The Virgin of the Sign kindles in me the hope that one day, I will see face to face.


The preceding essay appears in the Epiphany 2015 edition of The Anglican PlanetIt appears here with permission of the editors.

The Affectionate Church

These last few weeks, I have been re-reading one of my favourite books. The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis, is his description of the four loves that mark human interactions: Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity.

Affection is the most “organic” and “natural” of the loves, followed closely by Eros. Without the latter, none of us would have been begotten; without the former none of us would have survived.

Churches, as human (or maybe sometimes all-too-human) institutions, are marked by all four loves; indeed, they should be marked by all four loves, even the organic ones. Not least because God is more often presented to us in Holy Scripture as Father (Affection) or Bridegroom (Eros) to His people than as friend.

I don’t know that there has been a demographic study, but I sometimes wonder whether Affection is the least present of the four loves in many of our churches. And I wonder whether it is precisely because we strive to be friendly.

Let me explain. Affection is, for Lewis, the least discriminating of loves. It is often rooted in little more than familiarity. At its basest level, affection is what my wife feels for her old slippers and what my daughter feels for her guinea pigs. A bit higher up the ladder, affection is what we have for our family members because they are there and they are ours without our choosing them. (Indeed many times we would not choose to love them, but do all the same).

Affection, unlike friendship, is not deliberate. It does not depend on shared interests or common visions. Affection may even be deeply present without any visible sign of appreciation. It simply is there.

I wonder if our churches lack affection precisely because we have been so focused on being friendly. On building relationships with people with whom we share interests, whose company we enjoy, who are just like us. How many churches self-segregate according to race, political opinions, and wealth? No doubt, this is what Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind when he described Sunday at 11 as “the most segregated hour in America.” Insofar as churches strive to be friendly, they run the risk of becoming silos of self-reinforcing opinions.

Without diminishing the importance of friendship, I wonder what might happen if churches cultivated a more affectionate love. That is, on building slow, deep, familiar relationships that cross generational, political, gender, and other differences, requiring only a common love of Jesus to take root.

For example, what might happen to evangelicalism if “red-letter Christians,” actually committed to worshipping with “the Christian right” over a long period of time and stopped lobbing self-righteous “prophetic calls to repentance,” but which are in fact often only confirmations of their own prejudice (and, of course, vice versa)?

Here is one area in which the old parish model, where one attended the church closest, has a gift to offer. If the community is defined by something neutral like geography, the greater the likelihood of different kinds of people joining together for common prayer. As our urban areas change, the notion of the neighborhood parish or the village church may be in for a revival. If so, I hope the side benefit of bringing different people together comes, too. Certainly, it won’t be a reduplication of the older model. There’s no turning back the clock. But the notion of belonging to a church for reasons that had nothing to do with personal preference is one that surely needs revisiting.

This is not to say that Affection is the most godly of the loves. It can be unhealthily needy, even co-dependent. Affection needs to be tempered not merely by the presence of the other loves, but also by decency, courtesy, and reason. Affection too needs to be redeemed.

But for Affection to be tempered or even redeemed, it must first be present. And today, that’s a good place to start.




Paul, Jesus and Repentance

What does it mean to be a repenting and repentant people? What does repentance have to do with Christian growth? We reflect on these questions in the light of our Gospel and Epistle lessons for today in this morning’s sermon, here: Paul, Jesus and Repentance

Philip, Nathanael and Evangelism

Here is yesterday’s sermon, friends. Would like to know what you think: Philip, Nathanael and Evangelism

The Stronger Man

Todays sermon can be found here: The Stronger Man

Sermon: Mary at the Still Point

Here is this evening’s sermon. Mary at the Still Point

Pope Francis: Revisiting an Old Column. . . .

I was checking out ChristianWeek this evening and started looking through some old columns of mine. Here‘s one I wrote just before the election of Francis. In my column, I expressed a hope for reformer from the Global South, who could say something especially to Pentecostals in Latin America and who would speak out on Christian persecution in the Muslim world. I guess I got that one mostly right.

On Slavery

The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said,

‘If only we had meat to eat! 5We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons,

the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’

(Numbers 11:4-6)

At its most recent meeting, Sudbury City Council passed a motion to de-regulate store hours entirely. Within 2 days of the vote, our local SuperStore announced that it would be the first 24/7 store in Greater Sudbury. I have not commented on the matter up to now, except to say that I voted against this in the referendum included on the ballot in the last municipal election. Well, now that the matter is settled, the battle lost, I’d like to highlight a couple of silly reasons attributed to those of us who voted in opposition, then explain why I did vote the way I did and finally, what I will do to express my deep concern that this is a mistake.

First, the non-reasons. I need to highlight these because throughout the campaign, people who opposed the measure were caricatured as “anti-choice” and “religious zealots.” Both charges are false. I did not vote to oppose the change because I am anti-choice, but because retail workers, among the most vulnerable workers in our economy, need to have space to make choices. The deregulation of store hours effectively removes some of those choices by now making every hour of every day a potential work hour, controlled by someone other than retail workers, namely their employers. Second, I did not vote to oppose the change because I am a religious zealot. I do care about this issue in part because I am a clergyman, but not because I desire to force my faith on anyone who does not want it.

Now the reasons. The first one is a desire to protect a vulnerable segment of workers in our community, namely, retail workers. I have no desire to take away their choice to work, nor to prevent them from being paid a greater hourly wage for working difficult hours. I doubt, however, that the people who work retail have the freedom to regard the question of whether or not to work a graveyard shift with such dispassion. Because of the crap wages they are already paid, some will feel compelled by “market forces” to “choose freely” to work such shifts. I can’t see that as a good thing. An employer might not be saying, “work these shifts or I’ll fire you,” but the market exercises control over all of us in much more subtle and insidious ways. And those ways are every bit as compulsive to their victims as they are unseen by many of us. In deregulating store hours, our city council has promised our most vulnerable workers “meat and fish” but at the cost of “making bricks without straw.” (That’s religious language, of course. It comes from the Exodus narratives in the Old Testament and I’ll come back to that in a minute). For now, I want to say that there is a general principle in the religious language here that has to do with markets. The deregulation of store hours effectively says, there is no time that is not potentially work time. The market will decide whether a worker gets leisure space or when or how much. But if the market is deciding, then workers aren’t. And if workers aren’t then, all the while using the rhetoric of choice, we’ve taken choice away from them.

Now, to the religious language, and the second reason. I don’t expect WalMart or Superstore workers to come flocking to church because I spoke out against 24/7 shopping. I grimly note that that battle was lost long ago in hockey arenas across the country. My concerns have nothing whatsoever to do with protecting my own turf. But, the critics are right to point out that it is a religious argument. Here’s my response: So what? If my faith teaches me to care for the poor and disadvantaged and vulnerable, how is that a bad thing? And why is it ruled out of public discourse before hand? My concerns flow out of my faith, and are directed toward care for the community, not putting bums on pews. What is often missed, here, is that the pro-market arguments are every bit as religious. They speak of “the market” as having agency. The market will decide. The market will regulate. Let the market preserve freedom of choice. How the hell (yes, really) can “the market” do those things? The market can only do those things if, in some way, it is given personal agency by those who serve it. Hmm. A disembodied person who demands allegiance and who makes decisions for people. Sounds like a divinity to me. And an enslaving one at that. It seems to me that the pro-market arguers must explain why their arguments are not finally religious in just the same way mine are, why it is not the case that our arguments simply happen to serve different deities.

So, I continue to remain opposed. I will no longer be shopping at SuperStore. And as the list of 24/7 retailers grows, so will my list of places I will not patronize. It is a small and finally meaningless gesture. My grocery bill is not going to affect anyone’s bottom line. But for the sake of my conscience, I have to keep one day in seven when someone will not have to serve me. Because everyone deserves a Sabbath. Everyone deserves a rest from work. And I cannot see how this isn’t a return to Egypt, an embrace of slavery.

Sermon: The Gospel in Seven Words

It’s a little late, but here’s last Sunday’s sermon.

People who follow Fr. Robert Barron and Word On Fire will notice obvious overlaps with his own homily for last Sunday. I can only say, my sermon was “in the can,” well before I heard the good Father’s homily. It is, I would hope, a Providential confluence of good ideas, guided by the Gospel lesson.

Ordinary Heroism

calvaryThe movie Calvary tells the story of Father James Lavelle, a good—that point must be stressed, a good—Irish Catholic priest. In the opening scene, in the confessional, Father Lavelle hears a story of horrific abuse, perpetrated by another priest whose crimes have been made unpunishable by his death. The “penitent” then announces that he will kill Father James instead. He has chosen Father James to die precisely because Father James is a good priest. It is a fitting irony; the innocent will die in place of the guilty. Father James is told that he will die in one week, on the beach—if he shows up.

The rest of the movie is the Passion Week of Father James Lavelle. Played by Brendan Gleeson (perhaps best known as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter franchise), Lavelle is a man whose large physical stature stands in sharp contrast to his diminished presence in the community. What use is a priest when a community has given up on God? What does he do? He does what he always does. He visits. He advises. He consoles the living and buries the dead. Above all, he worships. And the days tick off one after another until, in one of the last scenes, Father James is on the beach, there to meet his own Calvary.

Father James is a hero. In contrast to all the heroes, super, semi, and otherwise that parade across our TV and movie screens, though, he is utterly ordinary. He is a man who hopes, who doubts, whose faith is sorely tested. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, he is set in town that sees little need for him, would rather be rid of him. (In one heart-rending moment, he is the victim of a father’s vicious suspicion for simply walking beside a young girl. We understand and sympathize both with the father and with Father James. They have both been shaped by an evil they did not make). And whether the townspeople want it or not, he does, day in and day out, what he always does. That makes him a hero.

He is a hero to all of us in parish ministry wrestling with how to minister in a world of increasing stresses, decreasing expectations and waning professional influence. His heroism does not lie in some gift or technology that the rest of us do not possess. His cassock does not imbue him with magical powers. He is a hero because he gets on with the job. He is a hero because refuses to abandon the way of the cross, but instead follows it even to the beach, to his own Calvary.

Father Lavelle is also a parable for Christians now living in fading sunlight of faith in the West. Here we are, hurrying hither and yon: sociologists writing, and Christian leaders reading, article after article, graph after graph, about millennials and nones and somes and dones and together making suggestions about what we can do to get people back to church, or interested in Jesus, or to reconsider faith. All the while we know that nightfall is beyond our control.

Maybe, just maybe, what we need to do is to stop the futile attempt to fix things and instead, to get on with the job of preaching the Gospel, serving the sacraments, visiting the sick, advising the discomfitted, consoling the living and burying the dead. Maybe the future of the church in Canada lies not in superheroic strategies of rejuvenation, but the ordinary heroism of living our faith simply and fully, all the while recognizing that suffering comes not in spite of doing so, but because of it.

Maybe it’s time to stop avoiding our Calvary and like our Lord, set our faces like flint toward it in the hope that there will be a Sunday morning after.Fr Lavelle


(A version of the preceding piece will appear in the January edition of ChristianWeek ( Please support them with a click or a purchase)