Scripture: Luke 2:21-38
Sermon: “The Virgin of Vladimir” by Pastor Todd Buurstra
Meditating on icons, like you see before you and on the bulletin cover, has never done much for me— and maybe not for you. However, icons have been a means of prayer for gene-rations, especially in Russia and the Orthodox Church. Why? One reason is that an illiterate culture could not pick up their Bible and read—they needed pictures. And today icons are seeing a revival because they help left-brained, analytical westerners to access God through the right (artistic) side of their brains. So on Mother’s Day I chose the virgin of Vladimir for a prayer aid.
This 880 year old icon has a venerated history in Russia. It is credited with saving Moscow 5 times in its history. Most recently and most interestingly, Josef Stalin—who relaxed himself on sleepless nights, not with sleeping pills so much as by reading the list of the people that he’d have executed the next day—atheist Stalin flew the icon around Moscow as a last resort in 1941 to ward off the oncoming Germans. Within days the Germans retreated. So this icon is seen to have more than prayerful powers, even miraculous powers, as Russia’s protectoress.
Through this icon Mother Mary, or your mother, or Mother Church, invites you to get to know Jesus intimately. We see this through her pain, her personal nature and her presentation.
First, pain. Notice Mother Mary’s sad eyes. Now I am a baby boomer. My generation was raised by parents who had been through very tough times like the Depression and World War II, and who wanted us to experience the endless, positive possibilities of America. As such we were indulged. It was always Reagan’s 1984 campaign slogan: morning in America. So I don’t relate that well to pain, nor to the Middle Ages’ pain. I prefer moms who smile joyfully.
And yet, we can see this icon as a picture of Mary (and Joseph) presenting Jesus in the temple, where Simeon told her, a sword will pierce your…soul. And we realize already that God was preparing Mary to stand next to Jesus’ cross. What pain her mother’s soul had to bear!
Sharing pain brings us together. I’ve been experiencing that recently in my morning commuting talks to my 82 year old mother. For years it was mechanical, as I would ask, How did your day go? And I’d listen to her litany of lonely complaints, your brothers didn’t call, the paper boy forgot me, my friends are getting old… I’d roll my eyes. Lately, I’ve been taking the first third of our talk to ask her to pray for challenging family or ministry issues: which college to choose? How to resolve this argument? That this meeting is productive… And you know what? We’re both more engaged. I feel heard and she feels valued as we share our soul piercings.
But not only is the Virgin of Vladimir sharing pain, but she’s personal. Notice the snuggle, or is it a kiss, between Jesus and his mother. You probably also see Jesus’ man-face and thick neck. This isn’t depicting an early bloomer, or defensive lineman, but the wise face of a child who is Mary’s Lord, and a neck symbolizing the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. With Jesus’ eyes fixed on Mary we see a Lord who is intimate with us. With his little hand embracing her we see the embrace of grace, a God who hugs mothers and mother church. A loving God.
Taking this icon as a picture of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus to the temple around circumcision time, we see the personal relationship God wants with us in Anna. For in this story we see 84 year old Anna never leaving the temple but worshiping and praying all day. Anna was the first nun, so to speak. She devoted herself entirely to her relationship with God to help others.
This gets us beyond the concept of a father-like God who mainly wags his finger at us. I mean otherwise, what would Anna spend all day praying about? Make me good. Help me be thankful. Help me not to think about sex… Rather the God in Mary’s arms wants to enjoy your heartbeat, so that you can enjoy his. Jesus wants to know about your hangnail, and he wants you to adore him for hanging by nails on the cross. Jesus wants to hear about your fight with a loved one, and to let you bask in the Trinity’s love. God wants intimacy even more than goodness.
Notice her left hand. While the eyes bespeak shared pain, and the kiss is personal, Mary’s hand is a presentation to us. The hand is not a clenched fist to challenge. It’s not a wagging finger to scold. It’s not a stop sign to stay away. Rather it’s an open-handed invitation.
Indeed, presentation is what this story is all about–Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the temple after circumcision. And here, through Anna and Simeon, Mother Mary learns that she is not just presenting Jesus to God, but to all Israel, to all Gentiles, and eventually to you and me.
So I think of all of you praying moms out there. Here are the prayers I’ve heard recently:
Jesus, help me to deal with my strong-willed princess…
Jesus, help my kids to stop fighting…
Jesus, guide my son to a Bible Study in college…
For as Mary presents Jesus to us, we present Jesus to others by praying for them, praying that they might find an intimate, personal relationship with this Lord-child of the universe.
So through the pain, personal nature and presentation of this icon, consider this an invitation from your mother to an intimate relationship with the Creator through Jesus. Why not take the bulletin home this week to meditate during your daily devotions (thumb) on the intimacy offered? Then as you share your pain with Jesus, listen to his personal heartbeat, and present your children, or your life, to him, you will grow closer than ever before! Amen.
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