Mary – The Unburnt Bush

The Mother of God had no place in the Evangelical world where I spent 30 years as a Christian, but elsewhere across the worldwide Christian Church, spanning two millennium, she was and remains central to theology and prayer. My conversion to this particular theology was painless and has provided me with great healing and a more gentle perspective on prayer.

I first saw the icon of the unburnt bush about a year ago and instantly fell into a deep fascination. It is rich in the type of Biblical imagery I am familiar with from earlier times. I was familiar with preached sermons that would elaborate with wonderful depth on Bible imagery, clearly showing the relationships between the types of the Old Testament and their realisation in the New. Towards the end of my time in the Protestant churches I grew weary of too many words and yet I have not abandoned the deposit those words left. When I see this icon, I see in line and colour the beauty of all I was taught. All the Church holds as true. So, I hang this icon where I can see it at the start and end of the day.

Orthodox Christians do not teach about the symbolism of icons. An icon cannot be read in this way. It is not to be interpreted and commented on as if it were a piece of art. In Orthodoxy an icon must be experienced. It is an ‘icon’ of God; that is, it is an example of the divine. The icon is the God-man face of the Church and every Christian soul; it is me as I was meant to be. In front of the icon one can experience something of God, all of humanity and great Love, if only one would stand and wait.

God placed his image in humans and Christ restored that image when it had been damaged. The face in the icon represents the healing of all humankind. We ask the saint in the image to pray for us because they have come closer to holiness than we have. Christ, Mary – they have come closer to holiness than we have. 

However, the icon of the unburnt bush is different to most of the icons I am familiar with and does seem to invite more interpretation. 

In the writings of the Fathers and in the earliest hymns of the Church, the unburnt bush that Moses saw on Mount Horeb represented the incarnation and Mary. The bush that burnt and was not consumed. It was recognised as a type of Mary, a woman born into a fallen world but not overtaken by sin. No one can see God and live, yet the incarnation changes this, Mary confirms this. She becomes a type of humanity bearing the image of God and opens up the possibility of seeing God and not being consumed.

The icon of the unburnt bush

The eight-pointed star

The images in the icon are arranged around and eight-pointed star, made from two diamonds, one red and one green. The star is a mandorla, an opening on heaven. The number eight is rich in meaning, connected to the eighth day of creation and the renewal and restoration of all things. The red diamond represents fire and heaven. The green diamond represents the bush, our earthly lives and the natural world. 

The petals

In the petals or clouds between the points here are angels. The icon is rich in the imagery of heavenly realities that we cannot see and populated with the beings that we can only imagine. They direct us to a spiritual world beyond our ordinary senses. The way we see an icon is not dependent on sight.  

The corner images

I love the corner images and daily anticipate the rich meaning invested in these Old Testament stories. It keeps my sense of wonder alive whenever I see the icon. 

  • Moses and the Burning Bush (Exodus 3.2) 

The Church from the earliest centuries saw Mary as the flaming bush, burning with the light of God but not consumed. 

  • Isaiah and the Seraphim (Isaiah 6.7)

The Seraphim took the burning coal and purged the mouth of prophet Isaiah. Christ is the one who is without sin; Mary his mother is one who lived in such perfect human obedience, she to is declared as being without sin, even though she has the same nature as us.

  • Ezekiel at the gate (Ezekiel 44.2)

Ezekiel was shown a vision of a gate that was shut, that no one could enter through. Mary is seen as the gate through which Christ come and through him we can enter through. The gate is no longer shut

Ezekiel was shown a vision of a gate that was shut, that no one could enter through. Mary is seen as the gate through which Christ come and through him we can enter through. The gate is no longer shut

  • Jacob and the dream (Genesis 28.12)

Jacob fell asleep and dreamed of a ladder stretching between heaven and earth. The angels on it moved up and down and the ladder are an image of the heaven meeting earth. Mary is and image of the place where heaven meets earth. For this reason we honour her and lok to her as out teacher and guide. 

Mary – the Theotokos

The image of Mary at the centre of the icon is in the style we call hodegetria, she who shows the way. The child Christ sits on Mary’s lap. She raises her hand to point to him, he raises his hand in blessing. She also holds the ladder from the image of Jacob. The ladder representing the dream where he saw an open heaven. This is aimage that informs the prayer we make when we say, ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. This is what the incarnation is, God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. 

Read more about the icon of the unburnt bush

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