Psalm 90:17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
Is there some particular work you like to do with your hands? Kneading bread? Gripping a hockey stick? Playing an instrument? For me, it is knitting. When my two hands are focused on complementing each other’s movements to create a new stitch, I experience a wholeness of heart, mind, soul, and strength (particularly if it’s a challenging pattern). The unity of purpose between my spirit and body makes me profoundly grateful for the gift of life. This life is measured by the tick of a clock, much like my knitting is measured by the tick of my needles. Am I knitting lasting beauty with the thread of time given me?
This longing for the work of my hands to bring me closer to God is captured in the work of iconographers. Icons magnify the Incarnation and invite us to be still, to read them slowly, to open a window on God’s eternal present. Reading an icon is not solving a mystery, but accepting an invitation to contemplate the mystery of the Word made Flesh by paying attention to each detail in prayer. One of the first details I notice is how the halos in icons are not worn like crowns but radiate from the faces of the figures; they are participating in the Divine Nature just as St Peter promises us.1 When the iconographer takes a paint brush in hand, “The entire body of the saint, in every detail, even hair and the wrinkles, even the garments and all that surrounds him, is unified and restored to a supreme harmony… The icon’s role is not to bring us closer to what we see in nature, but to show us a body which perceives what usually escapes man’s perception, i.e., the perception of the spiritual world.”2
In January, I participated in our parish’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Many sacred sites are shared by the Western and Eastern faithful and are blessed by the gift of icons. When we visited the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, I was invited into this form of prayer by the icon outside the grotto where the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary of Nazareth.
Just the day before, I had arrived in the Holy Land after 24 hours of travel. I was tired and distracted by the dreadful weather and by following our guides’ directions through the narrow streets to the Basilica. Before I knew it, I was standing before the grotto, peering into the cozy warmth of Mary’s cave-home. Like hobbit holes, the Grotto of the Annunciation is not a nasty and cold cave, but a home that radiates comfort.
Just to the right of the door – where I might have expected to find a doorbell to announce my visit – I found an icon that transported me out of time into timelessness. There was the Angel Gabriel on the left of the icon, garbed in a gorgeous Byzantine robe. He directs his gaze toward the Virgin Mary, raising his right hand in blessing. But the Virgin Mary is not returning his gaze; she is looking out of the icon, looking at me! She sees me and my longing to visit her and be embraced as her daughter. Like all children, I long to know that I am truly seen by my Heavenly Father and Blessed Mother. But like all children, I’m easily distracted, and I searched out the details of the icon. When my eyes moved from the warmth of Mary’s gaze to her right hand, I smiled to see that she holds it open, her palm towards me in welcome. But when my eyes moved to her left hand, it was as if she had taken my hands: she is holding what look like knitting needles!
My fatigue and distraction cleared away like mist from the Sea of Galilee in the sun. I knew then why I had come to this Holy Land: to see how deeply our Father has embraced his fragile children in every detail of their lives. The icon truly opened a window into eternity for me as I knit together my days of pilgrimage. Each element, each colour of the icon has been chosen by the writer to invite us into contemplation, not just with our minds but with our whole being. Mary is clothed in the blue of our human nature; a red mantle of divinity is cast over her simple gown. She holds her handiwork with the delicate grasp of an experienced knitter; her index finger steadies the cross made by the two needles. There is red yarn wound around each needle in a different pattern: red for divinity; the two needles and patterns of yarn represent Jesus’ two natures, Divine and human, that she will knit together in her womb.
Do I follow Mary’s example? Am I attentive to the thread of time given me to work with in my life? Do I knit together the Holy Spirit’s intentions with the daily circumstances that come to me minute by minute in the Father’s providence? Do I pay attention to the frustrations that arise during travel and knit those minor difficulties together with a willingness to offer them up for a loved one facing a much greater challenge? I hope to knit my human life together with Jesus’ divine life poured out to rescue us from the dank cold of death. The beauty of my favourite knitting pattern is meant to be an icon of the beauty of a life laid down, minute by minute and stitch by stitch, just as my older brother Jesus laid down His life, minute by minute and breath by breath, to embrace me as His little sister.
I was embraced by the warmth of Nazareth’s icon of the Annunciation, just as my loved ones have been embraced by the knitwear I have made them over the years. Choosing which colour of yarn to pick up with each stitch asks the knitter to pay attention to the overall pattern of the garment. Every stitch and every moment can become a gift as we offer up the challenges of our earthly pilgrimage in union with Jesus’ redemptive suffering, picking up the thread of His redeeming love, and becoming icons of His life in us. As St. John Paul II observed,
“The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling. Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person “completes what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”; the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters.”3
- 2 Peter 1:4
- Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, Volume 1, (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992), 178.
- John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, 27; available from: http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris.html; Internet; accessed February 5, 2019.
* when I researched this particular Icon, I found this interpretation: Mary is holding a spindle and skein of yarn to make the veil of the Temple in Jerusalem; available from: https://www.orthodoxmonasteryicons.com/products/annunciation-of-theotokos-icon-ssc-1