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 Planet. It appears here with permission of the editors.