The Church as Icon of the Trinity

Interest in icons has returned—mostly on our computer screens, however.  I asked an IT guy why the applications, those visual representations, are called “icons.”  He told me (in greater detail than I can translate) that when computers moved from being DOS-based where commands had to be typed in to windows, the icon was born. Meant to be easily recognizable, these little pictures help us navigate programs.

The word icon has a long and venerable history (although many first learned it computing.)  A Greek word eikon, it means “likeness, image, or portrait”—to be like or look like.  The Orthodox Church has long known the power of holy images. In the icon the devout worshiper sees not a mere devotional picture or a visual representation of some significant event or person, but a divine archetype.  Constructed of materials of the earth, icons nevertheless become windows into the divine reality.



The most famous icon portraying the Trinity is by Andrei Rublev, one of the greatest medieval creators of Russian Orthodox icons, working in the 14thcentury.  This icon recounts the story of the three mysterious visitors who came to the tents of Abraham and Sarah under the Oaks of Mamre.  Genesis 18 portrays these messengers as angels, divine emissaries, even God incarnate.



The scene speaks of immense hospitality, a welcome to enter the intimate conversation transpiring at the table. The opening, inviting Trinity creates space for others to pull a chair and take their place. As LaCugna writes, entering into the divine life is impossible unless we also enter into a life of love and communion with others.

It is from the Eastern Church that we get the language that the church is to be “an icon of the Trinity.”  We want to be easily recognizable as the people of God who image the ways of God. The best way we do this is with hospitality.

Whatever else the Gospel is about, it is essentially about welcome.  Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, which provide home for mentally disabled adults, writes that when people sense “that they are wanted and loved as they are and that they have a place, then we witness a real transformation—I would even say ‘resurrection’.”




Yesterday I preached at a church that has a significant class for persons of differing abilities.  They sat on the second and third rows of the church in the center section. This church had clearly found a way to make them welcome, and their participation further rounded out the icon of the Trinity.


Molly T. Marshall

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