This is the O Nymphios Icon used in the first three evening “matins” of the Orthodox church and my most beloved Icon. It was written for me while on Mount Athos at Prodomou Monastery with a friend with whom I have often stayed and who loves me greatly and kindly. These first few days of Holy Week are for our metenoia – our transformation through repentance. It is our way-making before the end of Holy week’s crescendo of holy awe.
I have spent a lot of time with this image. I love most, the way Jesus is not self-pitying. He is sad and even grieving but not for himself. That face is sad for the situation we are in and not the situation He is in. Hi hands are feminine, delicate as they hold the sick given to him and often a symbol of authority. His nose is long and narrow indicating wisdom and awareness. His abdomen indicates starvation but also hides an accidental up-side-down peace symbol. His stomach is concave, lean and studly – these are the abs of a Savior who means business. These are the abs of a man who will lift humanity from hell in one great pull from his core.
The red garments are from the passion narrative of Matthew’s gospel which is one reason we switch from purple to red in Holy Week – easily seen in the cross coverings. Many think we make the switch for the red of blood; but in fact it is the red of passion – the same color red which, in the 18th century, was considered too passionate for a “lady” to wear in public without being branded…overly …passionate. We westerners like passion to be confined to Jesus. Perhaps if we wore more red, danced more dances, drank more margaritas, sang more love songs, and had more fun, we would be less likely to have our own passions slice out the sides of our pressure-cooker-lives, burning the people around us.
Today I will repent my sins. I will repent my own obsession with money. I will repent my own obsession with being right. I will repent my own complicity in the evils the church has wrought on innocent people throughout the centuries. I will repent for the silence of the church in the holocaust. I will repent the actions of the church in the Crusades. I will repent the designs of the church in the inquisition. I will repent the church’s oppression of women and the decades which the church took to take a stand on slavery. And I will repent the church’s tendency for too many to be too sure of too much. This is a quiet icon. It is a humble icon. And yet that bright red is garish, erotic, immodest and even mischievous.
Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant He shall find vigilant; but unworthy is he whom he shall find neglectful. Beware therefore, O my soul, lest you be weighed down by sleep, lest you be given over to death and be closed out from the kingdom; but rise up crying out: “Holy! Holy! Holy are You our God; through the intercessions of the Theotokos, have mercy on us.”