Theotokos of the Sign

Note: I ran this post around three months ago, but am feeling like it’s even more relevant for us in these weeks leading up to Christmas. Rereading it tonight has been an important reminder to me (now that I’ve moved from the nauseated and exhausted stage of pregnancy to the achey, complainy stage) of what it means to live in this season of my life with gratitude and joy, despite the sacrifices I’ve been asked to make.

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When Pastor Beverly joined the clergy at our church in the Philadelphia suburbs, I happened to work down the hallway from her, in a donated office for Young Life. One afternoon, soon after she had arrived at our church, I was in the office preparing myself for a serious and difficult phone call with an angry father. I walked down the hallway in hopes of finding someone who’d pray for me (I was already near tears and hadn’t even made the call yet). Beverly was in her office. I hardly knew her, but we sat together as she prayed. Her prayer was full of silence and kindness. She didn’t use many words, but simply sitting with her was enough to bring me into God’s presence. After than encounter with her I kept thinking that I wanted to learn to pray as reverently and quietly as she.

When I approached her about teaching me “contemplative prayer,” she brought up icons. Although I had a vague knowledge of the existence of icons, they meant little me, other than my assumption that they were the Christian version of idols. Up for the chance to be proven wrong, I agreed. Thankfully, we began with a book by Henri Nouwen, whom I already trusted. Surely he wouldn’t lie to me about icons, right?

What Nouwen and Pastor Beverly taught me was that I’d never before used vision as a form of worship. My eyes are constantly being stimulated in my culture, but rarely did my eyes draw me into prayer. In fact, prayer was almost completely one-dimensional for me. It lacked anything physical or sensory. What would it mean for me to begin to use my senses as a means for encountering God?

Beverly and I began to practice a meditative process in which we spent fifteen or twenty minutes looking at an icon and asking God to speak some truth to us through it, usually taking time to journal and discuss it together. It always led me into such rich conversations with God about realities in my life I would never have noticed otherwise.

Three years ago, at a point when Chris and I had decided we were ready to try to have a child, we took a vacation to Paris, where I made sure we visited the local Greek Orthodox Church. At that point a few icons were so precious to me that I longed to see them painted on the walls and ceiling of a place of worship.

Though I expected the icons surrounding the altar, I had no knowledge of the Theotokos of the Sign, the icon I discovered of the Madonna painted directly above us in the ceiling. This was not Mary holding a creepy looking adult faced baby Jesus. This was Christ displayed in Mary’s womb. Her hands were open in worship, and her child sat inside her baby bump, ruling the cosmos.

I loved it. I loved the non scientific vision of Jesus fully robed in his mother’s (awkwardly high-placed) uterus. I loved the glory with which Mary’s pregnancy is on full display. And mostly I loved Mary’s surrendered hands, palms up, willing to participate in this beautiful and tragic  journey of raising the Messiah.

I bought a little version of that icon. It has sat next to my mirror since, through my first pregnancy, through these two years of child rearing, and now into my second pregnancy.

Sometimes I think about Mary’s morning sickness, and imagine her palms raised in surrender before her chamber pot. Sometimes, I imagine her fears: how she was just a girl with no clue how to raise a child, especially the most significant man to ever walk this earth. And I imagine how important the prayers of her pregnancy must have been, in the midst of ridicule, solitude, fear and anxiety, to hold that God-child inside her womb and offer her hands, open, to her Lord. To say, “May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38).

In the moments when I don’t believe I can go through this whole thing again: the pregnancy, the aches, the exhaustion, the delivery, I remember Mary. I remember that in the physicality of my surrender, in my moments bowed to the toilet, I’m making holy vows to God on behalf of this child. I just have to remember to raise my palms.


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