“And behold, the rod of Aaron, of the house of Levi, had sprouted and put forth buds, had produced blossoms and yielded ripe almonds.” (Numbers 17,8)
For the Feast of Nativity of the Virgin Mary, September 8/21
From a Presentation by Fr. Justin of Sinai “An Ark in the Wilderness,”* that includes his beautiful description of the Sinai Icon of the Theotokos with Christ Child Enthroned, with the Prophets and Saints surrounding her, thus connecting the Old Testament with the New, in paying homage to the Virgin and her foremost role in the Mystery of the Salvation of humanity, alongside her Divine Son.
In the New Testament we find a common and constant appeal to the Old Testament as a way of grasping the significance of the contemporary events. Christ Himself said: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoso believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, one of the earliest Epistles of St. Paul, this typology is already highly developed. The children of Israel passed through the sea and, in the wilderness, they ate manna and drank water that sprang forth from the rock. These are types of Christian Baptism and a spiritual food and drink. The defining moment for the children of Israel is here being invoked as a paradigm of the Christian life.
Here we have one of the most important keys to understand not only the Scripture, but many of the complex Orthodox hymns that dwell upon the same parallels. This insight is also crucial to understanding one of my favorite icons – an 11th century Sinai icon The Enthroned Virgin and Christ Child, Surrounded by Prophets and Saints – an icon of exceptional beauty and significance.
In the center of the icon the Holy Virgin is seated upon the Imperial Throne, holding Christ in her arms. The Child grasps her veil and kicks exuberantly in a stark contrast to the pensive and introspected gaze of the Virgin. Below the throne we read the inscription: “Joachim an Anna conceived, and Adam and Eve were freed,” this is the reference to the Kontakion … for the Nativity of Theotokos. …
Beneath the throne is a depiction of Joseph the Betrothed, Adam and Eve stand to his left and Joachim and Anna to his right, each with hands raised in entreaty to the Holy Virgin and Child. Adam and Eve, through whom the sorrow has entered into the world, are here contrasted with Joachim and Anna, who gave birth to the Mother of Life …
“By Your Nativity, O Most Pure Virgin, Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness; Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death. And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you: The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the nourisher of our life!”
(Please, click on the video below to watch the rest of Fr. Justin’s presentation)
The attention of the viewer [of the icon] moves from joy - to sorrow - to triumph, and from past - to present - to future, but a future that already have been inaugurated. The heritage of perceiving the Old Testament type and its fulfillment in the New has bequeathed a rich inheritance to the Church. What service does not dwell upon God’s deliverance of His People and His triumphs over their foes? They went on from Egypt within high hand, they passed through the midst of the sea, and in the wilderness, they built the Tabernacle of the Most High, according to the pattern which was shown to Moses on the Mount, and it was filled with His Glory.
It is given to the monks of Sinai daily to be reminded of these mighty acts of God by the very place where they dwell. St. Catherine’s Monastery is a treasury filled with things new and old. Scholars still have much to learn from the Library, its numerous icons, vestments, ecclesiastical vessels, its architecture – and with all of this, it is a veritable Ark in the Wilderness.
But the manuscripts, icons and Churches were created for the living community, and this is, perhaps, the most important survival of all – that within these ancient walls there should still be preserved the cycle of services and times of prayer, the spiritual goals that have remained the same from the earliest times to our own day. Sinai remains, as it ever was, the very emblem of the encounter between God and man.
*From a Lecture An Ark in the Wilderness, presented by Fr. Justin Sinaitus at The Lanier Theological Library