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On the Altar

The imagery in Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity is taken from the story of Abraham showing hospitality, honor and reverence to the “three men” as narrated in Genesis 18.

Based on the colors of the garments and the tree behind the angelic figure which symbolizes and foreshadows the Cross, the central figure is the Son. He is pointing at the chalice and the table (viz. altar), which is indicative of His salvific mission, to be the Lamb of God and as well as His real and true presence in the Eucharist.

The Father on the viewer’s left gives His approval and blessing. Although the Father and Son are facing each other, both their bodies face towards the figure on the right, the Holy Ghost.

Holy Trinity, 15th century (egg tempera icon), Andrei Rublev
Holy Trinity, 15th century (egg tempera icon), Andrei Rublev

There are no doubt many layers of meaning and I do not presume to know every one of them but it would seem that the three figures form a circle, and apparently an open one as if to invite us to a relationship, one which involves taking part in the Lord’s Supper.

The sacramental imagery is perhaps more significant than first realized. Another interpretation is that what is in the chalice—although not quite an orb or a globus cruciger—represents creation, and the Holy Trinity, Who are without beginning or end, encompasses it.

The Son, in pointing to the bowl, indicates His Incarnation, His entry into the temporal realm. If the chalice represents creation, then it would seem all creation is on the altar; after all, by the broadest definition, a sacrament is the mechanism that God uses to channel graces to us. In that sense, creation could be loosely described as “sacramental”.

If creation is in some respect on an altar or even in the form of an altar, then we—being part of creation and being made in the image of our Creator—must follow Our Lord and Savior’s example and also offer ourselves and all that we have been given back to God.

Of course, although we are called to be Christ-like and to follow His example (1 Peter 2:21), none of us can actually save ourselves by paying the infinite price of our sins. Only God can and thankfully He did.

Nevertheless, that which comes from God must be returned to Him and we are supposed to take up our crosses (Luke 9:23). That makes enough sense but, not to sound ungrateful at this gracious invitation, to think of God’s demand for total commitment and to think of ourselves as being a form of offering on an altar (or the chopping block if one wants to be crude) is a frightening thought.


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