Icons of the Twelve Great Feasts, Pt. 14: Great and Holy Pascha

Part of a catechetical series on the textual foundations, visual elements, and theology of the icons of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Churchwhich was first taught at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit Orthodox Church (Beavertown, PA).

Icon of the Resurrection 1

The Textual Foundations of the Icon

While the icon of the Descent into Hades or the Resurrection of Our Lord does draw from a number of biblical texts, the icon itself does not reflect a distinct passage from one of the Gospels, which detail the life of our Lord. The Gospels recount that Christ did, indeed, die, was buried, and resurrected from the dead, but the icon of the Descent into Hades depicts a reality that was not witnessed by any of the disciples or Apostles of the Lord, that is, the “harrowing of Hades.” The icon does depict our Lord in a sort of “resurrected glory,” but it shows him, if you will, in the process of “passing from death to life,” and in doing so, taking those who have already passed into death with him, rescuing the “righteous dead” and bestowing upon them the promise of the resurrection and the gift of eternal life.

There are select passages in the New Testament, however, that do refer to the reality depicted in the icon. For instance, in St. Peter’s First Epistle, he writes, “[Christ] went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water…” (1 Pet 3:19-20).

And St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, writes, “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it is said, ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people’ (cf. Ps 68:18). What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the depths of the earth? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” (Eph 4:7-10).

Truly, the icon of the Descent into Hades is most reflective of the whole of Orthodox teaching concerning the event of the Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. It reflects a soteriological theology of Christus Victor. It reflects the theological hymnody of Great and Holy Pascha: “Christ is risen from dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” Lastly, it reflects the theological interpretation of the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday, as expounded by St. John Chrysostom in his Pascal Sermon:

“Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Icon of the Resurrection 2

The Visual Elements of the Icon

Traditional inscriptions:
Hē Anastasis, in Greek, “The Resurrection,” more literally, “the rising up”
The Descent into Hades
The Harrowing of Hell
The Resurrection of Our Lord
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Front and center in the icon of the Resurrection, we find our Lord, Jesus Christ. He is wearing his “garments of glory,” which we have seen in various other icons, i.e., the icons of the Ascension and Transfiguration. His garments are flowing, and the train of his himation is especially animated. The descent of Christ into Hades to “set the captives free,” to “shatter the gates of brass,” and to “break the iron chains” (cf. the Stichera for the Resurrection at the “Lord, I Call”) is an activity of our Lord. His body may lie lifeless in the tomb, but the events of Holy Saturday are nothing but life-giving! Christ’s dramatic posture emphasizes this.

Surrounding Christ is a mandorla, communicating to us the “divine” nature of this event. Indeed, as we have already heard St. Paul say, “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” Insofar as the events of the Nativity of Our Lord, his Theophany, his Ascension, and Transfiguration, have revealed the heavenly to the earthly, so now, in the events of our Lord’s descent into Hades is the heavenly revealed, even in deepest depths of the earth. That is to say, even that reality—Hades—which would seem to be most removed from heaven, as it was defined by sin, death, and the reign of Satan, has been clearly defined as the domain of God. The heavenly and the earthly, yea, even the darkest parts of the earth, are part and parcel of the Kingdom of God.

In some depictions of the Descent, Christ is shown to hold a cross. It functions as a sort of “military standard.” How ironic, yes? The instrument used to kill our Lord now serves as the banner of his victory over death and the devil. It is insulting to Hades, to see its own weapon now serve as a herald against it. The cross becomes for Christians a symbol not of death but of victory over death. In some medieval icons, the cross is even shown to be used by Christ as a “pry-bar” or crowbar, forcing open the jaws of Hades.

Christ’s feet stand wide and confidently. He has not entered Hades gingerly or “tip-toeing.” He has smashed the iron gates and they lay under his feet cross-wise: he has “trampled down [or upon] death by [the very instrument of his] death. The icon conveys for us the ancient equivalent of “kicking in the door,” if you will. Under Christ’s feet, that is, under the gates under Christ’s feet, lies the personification of Hades, an old man, bound and shackled. “O grave, where is your victory” (1 Cor 15:55)? “[Hell] was embittered, for it was fettered in chains” (cf. St. John Chrysostom, Pascal Homily, above). The imagery of Hades (or sometimes, even the devil himself) also calls to mind a scene from St. John’s Apocalypse:

“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more… .” (Revelation 20:1-3). The person of Hades lies in a deep abyss and around him lie fetters, shackles, and a variety of keys. These are the “bonds of death” that Christ has already broken in his death and resurrection! Yes, we may still die, but we are not bound by death. None of humanity are any long bound by death. The resurrection of the body is given to all men through the saving work of Christ. If we are in Christ, it is a resurrection unto eternal life; if we are not, it is a resurrection unto eternal death. But it is a resurrection, nonetheless (cf Matt 25:46).

The man and the woman who Christ grabs by the wrists, and those hallowed men who surround Christ on either side, are the very persons once bound by the chains of death. The old man and woman who Christ holds are the forefather and foremother of us all: Adam and Eve. In a real sense, they represent the entirety of the human race. That is to say, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). Importantly, Christ does not grasp their hands but pulls them up, out of their graves/tombs, by the wrist. Man is incapable of granting himself the gift of the resurrection. Which is not to say that man is incapable of actively participating in the process of his salvation. These are two related, yet distinct, concepts. Man does not, and cannot, merit the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. It is as though, in Christ’s saving work, we were as ones hanging off the cliff of a sheer rock wall. Grabbing us by the wrist, by virtue of his own immense strength, he rescues us from a fatal descent.

The men who surround Christ on either side, who bear witness to his descent and resurrection in glory, are the various Old Testament saints, the prophets and forefathers of Christ. These can be varied in appearance and manifold in number, depending upon the composition. Typically, we will at least see figures such as St. John the Baptist, who in Orthodox tradition, became the forerunner of Christ in both life and death.

“… [so] that he might descend to the lower regions and announce [preach] his coming. For everywhere the witness and forerunner of Jesus is John, being born before and dying shortly before the Son of God, so that not only to those of his generation but likewise to those who lived before Christ should liberation from the death be preached, and that he might everywhere prepare a people trained to receive the Lord” (cf. Origen, Homily on Luke 4).

King David and King Solomon will also be present; they are older and younger looking crowned men, respectively, for it was the Psalmist, the Prophet David, who said, “Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will dwell securely. For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, nor will you let your Holy One see corruption (Ps 16:9-10). And Solomon says in his Wisdom,

“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,

and no torment shall touch them.

They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;

and their passing away was thought an affliction

and their going forth from us, utter destruction.

But they are in peace.

For if to others, indeed, they seem punished,

yet is their hope full of immortality” (Wis 3:1-4).

Abraham and the other Patriarchs of Israel may also be present. Prophets such as Isaiah routinely appear, as St. Isaiah himself said concerning the resurrection, “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. Those who live in the dust will wake up and shout for joy! For your dew is like the dew of dawn, and the earth will give birth to the dead” (Isa 26:19). Indeed, so many of the Old Testament Prophets bore witness to the resurrection, and although we may correctly say that they prophesied the coming of Messiah, we may even more accurately say that they foretold the coming of Christ for the sake of the salvation of men, namely, his resurrection from the dead, the gift of eternal life, and the restoration of his proper relationship with God.

Icon of the Resurrection 3

The Theology of the Icon

What more can be said on the theology of the icon of the Resurrection of Our Lord that has not already been said by the saints? Indeed, in his Pascal Homily, St. John sums up the reality so well. However, we may say this, that the resurrection, just like all of the events commemorated by the icons of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church: it is a reality. Remember, this is what icons depict: the real. They do not depict ideas only, that is, abstract concepts. They do not depict hopes, well-wishes. They depict that which is. Christ is risen! And we say, emphatically, “Indeed! He is risen!”

Why is the resurrection so central to our Orthodox theology? Why is it the hallmark of the Christian religion? It is as St. Paul says, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:16-19). What is the purpose of the Nativity, the incarnation, without the resurrection of Christ? What is the purpose of the cross, the forgiveness of sins, without the resurrection of Christ? What is the purpose of our baptism, our participation in the Holy Eucharist, our repentance, our service, our devotion, our fellowship, our prayer, our worship, without the resurrection of Christ? Man was not created to die. Man was created for communion with God. By being born of the Holy Virgin, by living a virtuous life, by dying on the cross, by descending into Hades, and by resurrecting on the third day, Christ restores humanity to its proper place in the created order. He restores our communion with God.

The icon of the feast of Great and Holy Pascha reminds us: the resurrection is the fulfillment of ancient hopes. It is that thing which the holy forefathers of Christ, the prophets, the Patriarchs, and all the saints of the Old Covenant longed for. It is that thing which we too must long for and must realize perpetually—spiritually—in putting off the old man and putting on Christ. We must be willing to say with St. Paul, “I die daily” (1 Cor 15:33b). The resurrection becomes our impetus for death, that is, death to self and death to the world, because in the event of the resurrection of our Lord we are guaranteed a newness of life. Then, the resurrection becomes our impetus for life, because even now, we may participate in the glory of the resurrection of the Lord, through the saving Mysteries of Christ’s holy Church.

An Icon of St. Stylianos of Paphlagonia


St. Stylianos of Paphlagonia, by Evan Kerstetter (2021), tempera, gold leaf, 8″x10″

“Saint Stylianus was born in Paphlagonia of Asia Minor sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries. He inherited a great fortune from his parents when they died, but he did not keep it. He gave it away to the poor according to their need, desiring to help those who were less fortunate.

Stylianus left the city and went to a monastery, where he devoted his life to God. Since he was more zealous and devout than the other monks, he provoked their jealousy and had to leave. He left the monastery to live alone in a cave in the wilderness, where he spent his time in prayer and fasting.

The goodness and piety of the saint soon became evident to the inhabitants of Paphlagonia, and they sought him out to hear his teaching, or to be cured by him. Many were healed of physical and mental illnesses by his prayers.

Saint Stylianus was known for his love of children, and he would heal them of their infirmities. Even after his death, the citizens of Paphlagonia believed that he could cure their children. Whenever a child became sick, an icon of Saint Stylianus was painted and was hung over the child’s bed.

At the hour of his death, the face of Saint Stylianus suddenly became radiant, and an angel appeared to receive his soul.

Known as a protector of children, Saint Stylianus is depicted in iconography holding an infant in his arms. Pious Christians ask him to help and protect their children, and childless women entreat his intercession so that they might have children” (oca.org).

Homily for the 34th Sunday after Holy Pentecost (01/31/2021)

Chapel of the Holy Spirit

Chapel of the Holy Spirit (Beavertown, PA)

Rdr. John Kerstetter’s (Chapel of the Holy Spirit, Beavertown, PA) homily for the 34th Sunday after Pentecost (01/31/2021) is available below.

It can also be found on the “January 2021” tab of the  “Homilies from CHS OCA” page, located here.

Click to access 20210131-sermon-for-the-34th-sunday-after-pentecost5ej-matthew-255ej-14-30.pdf

Icons of the Twelve Great Feasts, Pt. 13: The Dormition of the Theotokos

Part of a catechetical series on the textual foundations, visual elements, and theology of the icons of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Churchwhich was first taught at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit Orthodox Church (Beavertown, PA).

Icon of the Feast of the Dormition 3

The Textual Foundations of the Icon

The visual elements of the icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God are not derived from any biblical text. Neither are they taken from the Protoevangelium of James, which relates to us the events depicted in the icons of the feasts of the Nativity, Presentation, and Annunciation of the Theotokos. Rather, the events of the Dormition of the Theotokos are derived from a number of early Christian oral and (eventually) written traditions. There is a Greek document, “The Dormition of Mary,” attributed to St. John the Theologian, which dates to no later than the 4th century. There are also three documents published sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries which recount the falling asleep of the Mother of God, attributed to Pseudo-John the Theologian, Pseudo-Meltios of Sardis, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, respectively. The actual feast of the Dormition was being celebrated by Christians as early as late-6th century, that is, at least this early on the received feast day of August 15th.

The Orthodox Church in America website provides an excellent synopsis that draws from these multiple accounts:

“At the time of Her blessed Falling Asleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary was again at Jerusalem. Her fame as the Mother of God had already spread throughout the land and had aroused many of the envious and the spiteful against Her. They wanted to make attempts on Her life; but God preserved Her from enemies.

Day and night She spent her time in prayer. The Most Holy Theotokos went often to the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord, and here She offered up fervent prayer.

In one such visit to Golgotha, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Her and announced Her approaching departure from this life to eternal life. In pledge of this, the Archangel gave Her a palm branch. With these heavenly tidings the Mother of God returned to Jerusalem with the three girls attending Her (Sepphora, Abigail, and Jael). She summoned Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and other disciples of the Lord, and told them of Her impending Repose.

The Most Holy Virgin prayed also that the Lord would have the Apostle John come to Her. The Holy Spirit transported him from Ephesus, setting him in that very place where the Mother of God lay. After the prayer, the Most Holy Virgin offered incense, and John heard a voice from Heaven, closing Her prayer with the word “Amen.” The Mother of God took it that the voice meant the speedy arrival of the Apostles and the Disciples and the holy Bodiless Powers.

The faithful, whose number by then was impossible to count, gathered together, says St John of Damascus, like clouds and eagles, to listen to the Mother of God. Seeing one another, the Disciples rejoiced, but in their confusion they asked each other why the Lord had gathered them together in one place. St John the Theologian, greeting them with tears of joy, said that the time of the Virgin’s repose was at hand.

Going in to the Mother of God, they beheld Her lying upon the bed, and filled with spiritual joy. The Disciples greeted Her, and then they told her how they had been carried miraculously from their places of preaching. The Most Holy Virgin Mary glorified God, because He had heard Her prayer and fulfilled Her heart’s desire, and She began speaking about Her imminent end.

During this conversation the Apostle Paul also appeared in a miraculous manner together with his disciples Dionysius the Areopagite, St Hierotheus, St Timothy and others of the Seventy Apostles. The Holy Spirit had gathered them all together so that they might be granted the blessing of the All-Pure Virgin Mary, and more fittingly to see to the burial of the Mother of the Lord. She called each of them to Herself by name, She blessed them and extolled them for their faith and the hardships they endured in preaching the Gospel of Christ. To each She wished eternal bliss, and prayed with them for the peace and welfare of the whole world.

Then came the third hour (9 A.M.), when the Dormition of the Mother of God was to occur. A number of candles were burning. The holy Disciples surrounded her beautifully adorned bed, offering praise to God. She prayed in anticipation of Her demise and of the arrival of Her longed-for Son and Lord. Suddenly, the inexpressible Light of Divine Glory shone forth, before which the blazing candles paled in comparison. All who it saw took fright. Descending from Heaven was Christ, the King of Glory, surrounded by hosts of Angels and Archangels and other Heavenly Powers, together with the souls of the Forefathers and the Prophets, who had prophesied in ages past concerning the Most Holy Virgin Mary.

Seeing Her Son, the Mother of God exclaimed: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God My Savior, for He hath regarded the low estate of His Handmaiden” (Luke 1:46-48) and, rising from Her bed to meet the Lord, She bowed down to Him, and the Lord bid Her enter into Life Eternal. Without any bodily suffering, as though in a happy sleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary gave Her soul into the hands of Her Son and God.

Then began a joyous angelic song. Accompanying the pure soul of the God-betrothed and with reverent awe for the Queen of Heaven, the angels exclaimed: “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art Thou among women! For lo, the Queen, God’s Maiden comes, lift up the gates, and with the Ever-Existing One, take up the Mother of Light; for through Her salvation has come to all the human race. It is impossible to gaze upon Her, and it is impossible to render Her due honor” (Stikherion on “Lord, I Have Cried”). The Heavenly gates were raised, and meeting the soul of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Cherubim and the Seraphim glorified Her with joy. The face of the Mother of God was radiant with the glory of Divine virginity, and from Her body there came a sweet fragrance.

Kissing the all-pure body with reverence and in awe, the Disciples in turn were blessed by it and filled with grace and spiritual joy. Through the great glorification of the Most Holy Theotokos, the almighty power of God healed the sick, who with faith and love touched the holy bed.

Bewailing their separation from the Mother of God, the Apostles prepared to bury Her all-pure body. The holy Apostles Peter, Paul, James and others of the Twelve Apostles carried the funeral bier upon their shoulders, and upon it lay the body of the Ever-Virgin Mary. St John the Theologian went at the head with the resplendent palm-branch from Paradise. The other saints and a multitude of the faithful accompanied the funeral bier with candles and censers, singing sacred songs. This solemn procession went from Sion through Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane.

With the start of the procession there suddenly appeared over the all-pure body of the Mother of God and all those accompanying Her a resplendent circular cloud, like a crown. There was heard the singing of the Heavenly Powers, glorifying the Mother of God, which echoed that of the worldly voices. This circle of Heavenly singers and radiance accompanied the procession to the very place of burial.

Unbelieving inhabitants of Jerusalem, taken aback by the extraordinarily grand funeral procession and vexed at the honor accorded the Mother of Jesus, complained of this to the High Priest and scribes. The Jewish priest Athonios, out of spite and hatred for the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth, wanted to topple the funeral bier on which lay the body of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, but an angel of God invisibly cut off his hands, which had touched the bier. Seeing such a wonder, Athonios repented and with faith confessed the majesty of the Mother of God. He received healing and joined the crowd accompanying the body of the Mother of God, and he became a zealous follower of Christ.

When the procession reached the Garden of Gethsemane, then amidst the weeping and the wailing began the last kiss to the all-pure body. Only towards evening were the Apostles able to place it in the tomb and seal the entrance to the cave with a large stone.

For three days they did not depart from the place of burial, praying and chanting Psalms. Through the wise providence of God, the Apostle Thomas was not to be present at the burial of the Mother of God. Arriving late on the third day at Gethsemane, he lay down at the tomb and with bitter tears asked that l he might be permitted to look once more upon the Mother of God and bid her farewell. The Apostles out of heartfelt pity for him decided to open the grave and permit him the comfort of venerating the holy relics of the Ever-Virgin Mary. Having opened the grave, they found in it only the grave wrappings and were thus convinced of the bodily ascent of the Most Holy Virgin Mary to Heaven” (cf. https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2021/08/15/102302-the-dormition-of-our-most-holy-lady-the-mother-of-god-and-ever-v)

Icon of the Feast of the Dormition 2

The Visual Elements of the Icon

Traditional inscriptions:
Hē Koimēsis tēs Theotokou, in Greek, “The Dormition of the Theotokos”
The Dormition of the Theotokos
The Dormition of the Mother of God
The Holy Dormition

In the mid-to-lower center of the icon, we find the figure of the Mother of God. She is lying on her death bed. It is a rare occasion, indeed, to see a holy figure depicted iconographically with their eyes closed. The Mother of God in the icon of her Dormition is one such instance. Another, if you can recall, would be the image(s) of our Savior in the icons of Extreme Humility and the Crucifixion. In both instances, the figure depicted is dead, hence, the closed eyes. Remember, although it has become common to refer to icons as “windows into Heaven,” that is, as depicting the glorified images of the saints, the angels, the Mother of God, and our Lord, this is not necessarily the case, as the icons of the Great Feasts attest to well enough. Icons depict a true reality, and as a part of this reality: holy figures. In the icon of her Dormition, the Mother of God has, in fact, died. The death, the translation of the soul of the Mother of God, and the bodily assumption of the Mother of God are all realities which this icon depicts and this feast commemorates.

Noteworthy: the body of the Mother of God is hallowed. In the icon, the soul and the body of the Mother of God receive independent depictions. Nonetheless, the body of the Mother of God is hallowed. The icon clearly communicates to the reader that the sanctification of the human person is both a physical and a spiritual phenomenon. Our souls and bodies are capable of being transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Depicted immediately above the Mother of God on her death bed is the image of our Lord, Jesus Christ. He is depicted in his “garments of glory,” which we have seen in other such icons as the Ascension and the Transfiguration. He is surrounded by a mandorla, which radiates the divine light and the divine energies, and which suggests that Christ has appeared from Heaven for such an occasion as this: to receive the soul of his holy Mother, who is depicted as a babe in his arms. The one who once held the infant Christ in her arms is now held as an infant by Christ in his arms. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes as an infant in the manger. Now she is wrapped in swaddling clothes (also reminiscent of burial garments) in the arms of her Lord. Now that Christ has “trampled down death by death,” death becomes for us, as for the Mother of God, a means of birth, a means of entering into eternal life. This depiction of the newly deceased as an infant is not entirely unique to the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos. It is actually very common to depict the souls of the newly deceased, iconographically, as swaddled babes. However, the image of Christ carrying the infant into heaven is typically replaced by the image of the deceased’s guardian angel or the Archangel Michael.

Occasionally, surrounding the image of Christ in glory (in the perimeter of the mandorla), are angels, archangels, and seraphim. Their presence further signifies that Christ has come from Heaven to receive his Mother therein. However, if you recall the traditional narrative of the Dormition, we are told that “… accompanying the pure soul of the God-betrothed and with reverent awe for the Queen of Heaven, the angels exclaimed: ‘Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art Thou among women!’ … The Heavenly gates were raised, and meeting the soul of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Cherubim and the Seraphim glorified Her with joy.” The angelic hosts who have “longed to look into” (cf. 1 Pet 1:12) the salvation of mortal men now witness in the person of the Mother of God a mortal glorified.

Surrounding the bed of the Mother of God are the holy Apostles and disciples of the Lord. Depending on the icon, we may see all of the Apostles standing around the Theotokos, or we may see some standing while others are appearing on the scene by means of the power of the Holy Spirit. They will be riding on the clouds, upborne by the angels who accompany them as their “divine transport.” Canonically, in keeping with the written, material evidence for the events of the feast of the Dormition, eleven of the Apostles will be depicted: ten of the original Twelve, excluding Judas and St. Thomas, but including the last of the Apostles: the Apostle Paul (who we have already seen as a part of the “choir of the Apostles” in the icons of the Ascension and Holy Pentecost). Ss. Peter and Paul are usually depicted at the head and the feet of the Mother of God, as the pillars of the Church. St. Peter will be recognizable by the censer in his hand.

In addition to the eleven Apostles, we will often see four men in episcopal vestments (note the omophorion). These bishops include St. James, the Brother of the Lord, who was the first bishop of Jerusalem and was presumably still alive and serving in his episcopal see at the time of the repose of the Theotokos, as well as a number of the disciples of St. Paul who became bishops of the early Church: Ss. Timothy, Hierotheus, and Dionysius the Areopagite.

Lastly, we may find as constituents of the crowd the three female attendants who served the Mother of God and who accompanied her from Golgotha to her residence in Jerusalem after she had received the news of her impending death from the Archangel Gabriel: Sepphora, Abigail, and Jael.

In some iconographic depictions of the events of the feast, we may find a variety of things placed in the foreground, specifically, in front of the death bed of the Theotokos. In some depictions, we will find candles, as an allusion to the fact that, at the time of her repose, “… a number of candles were burning” (per the written tradition), but also, because the holy Virgin was the “Mother of the Light,” even in death.

In other icons, we may find the figure of the high priest Anthonios, who during the great funeral procession for the Mother of God attempted to overturn her bier. Standing beside Anthonios will be an angel of the Lord, wielding a sword, who in response to his wicked attempt did cut off the hands of the high priest.

The Theology of the Icon

The Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the last feast of the Church’s liturgical year. The liturgical year begins with the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, and ends with her repose. It cannot be overemphasized that the liturgical year of the Orthodox Christian Church is the story of our salvation, and although we look to our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the one who saves, we simultaneously look to his Mother as a primary example of what it means for humanity to be transformed by divinity, of what it means to wholly give ourselves over to the will of the Almighty, of what it means to live a life fully saturated in the grace of the Holy Spirit of God.

We have said in previous lessons that the icons of the feasts of the Ascension and Holy Pentecost are icons of the Church. The Church is where the unhallowed come to be made holy. The Church is where those persons who have received the grace of the God are trained, and discipled, instructed, and empowered to go back into the world to preach the Gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Church is the place where we meet God and commune with one another. Christ is our head, and his Mother is… well, our Mother. Moreover, the icon of the feast of the Transfiguration (and remember, these feasts are laid out, masterfully and intentionally, in succession of one another in the life of the Church) shows to us the God-intended end of man. The icon of the feast of the Dormition communicates to us, then, that it is all possible. That is to say, Christ has come to transfigure the nature of man, to communicate divinity to humanity. In the image of the Mother of God, held in the arms of her Son, hallowed, translated bodily to heaven, as a sign of the promise of the bodily resurrection to come, this divine communion is realized.

In the Orthodox tradition, in Orthodox theology, Mary is not so unlike you and I. She is holy, and is so from infancy, but this is not the result of divine intervention. She is not exempted from the effects of the original sin—death, travail, temptation—but through her humility, her obedience to her parents, her submission to the divine will, her loving and maternal care of the Son of God, her patient endurance of the suffering of her son upon the cross, her faithful attendance to the ministry of the Apostles: through all these things she received the gift of the grace of the Holy Spirit, and at the end of her life, she was welcomed into Paradise as one transfigured. The Virgin Mary’s holiness is not magical; rather, it is the result of a life lived in communion with God. And this is what the Church offers to us, through her sacraments, her fellowship, and her worship. The Church, in her yearly rhythms, retells the story of our salvation, and calls us to become more than observers of it, but truly, participants in it.

Icons of the Twelve Great Feasts, Pt. 12: The Transfiguration of Our Lord

Part of a catechetical series on the textual foundations, visual elements, and theology of the icons of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Churchwhich was first taught at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit Orthodox Church (Beavertown, PA).

Icon of the Feast of Transfiguration 1

The Textual Foundations of the Icon

The account of our Lord’s transfiguration on Mt. Tabor is found in all three Synoptic Gospels. We will use St. Luke’s version as the basis for our discussion of the icon, as it includes references for all of the basic visual elements of the icon of the Feast:

“Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!’And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen” (Luke 9:28-36).

You will note: the Transfiguration of Our Lord takes place, per the text, “eight days after” Christ has a conversation with his disciples about something, something that St. Luke intends for us to draw a correlation between. In the passage immediately preceding the account of Christ’s transfiguration, St. Luke recounts Christ’s instruction to his disciples,

…[to] “deny [yourselves] and take up [your] cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:24-27).

The path which leads to Tabor passes through Golgotha. And that may sound strange because this event—the Transfiguration—takes place, chronologically speaking—prior to the crucifixion. This feast commemorates an event in the life of our Lord prior to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his passion, his death, and his glorious resurrection. However, in the life of the Church, liturgically and personally in the lives of her members, the soteriological significance of the transfiguration is posterior to Calvary. In our study on the icons of the feasts of the Ascension and Holy Pentecost, we said that there is a relationship between the two. One represents the Church before the coming of the Holy Spirit; the other represents the Church after her reception of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the two feasts are not the only connected feasts. In reality, all of the Great Feasts are intimately connected, and they are part of a very intentional liturgical cycle. Great Friday leads us liturgically—but also personally—to Great and Holy Pascha. Pascha leads to Ascension, Ascension to Pentecost, Pentecost to Transfiguration. If we are to be saved, we must die with Christ (take up our crosses). If we die with Christ, we will be raised with him (cf. Rom 6:8). Being raised with him, we will dwell with him in Paradise. To dwell with him in Paradise, we must receive the gift of the grace of the Holy Spirit of God. And it is this divine grace which transfigures our own persons. We have said it before; we will say it again: the goal of God’s saving work through Christ is not only to forgive us. Moreover, it is not only to resurrect us. If we may be so bold, it is not even to glorify us or to hallow us. We were created for communion with God. We were created to be more than saints. We were created to be, as our hymns so often remind us when referring to the saints, friends of God. Our own soteriological telos is like that of Ss. Moses and Elijah (who we will discuss in greater detail shortly), who “appeared in glory… talking with him [Christ]” (Luke 9:30-31).

Icon of the Feast of Transfiguration 2

The Visual Elements of the Icon

Traditional inscriptions:
Hē Metamorphōsis, in Greek, the “Transfiguration” (more literally, the “transformation,” “changing of shape”)
The Transfiguration
The Transfiguration of Our Lord

The scene of the Transfiguration is outside, without a building in sight. The traditional location of the scene is Mt. Tabor, although the text does not specify this, only that Christ and the disciples “went up on a mountain to pray.” However, Tabor is only one of a number of mountains (pl.) featured in the icon. Some depictions of the scene will show Ss. Moses and Elijah standing with Christ on Tabor; however, more frequently, they will be depicted on their own mountain peaks, but more accurately, on their own mountains. What are these mountains? Where are these mountains? They are the mountains on which both prophets, respectively, had an encounter with the living God. In the icon, Moses stands on Sinai; Elijah/Elias stands on Horeb. Clearly enough, all three men in the upper half of the icon represent an “elevated” status. They stand above the astonished and bewildered disciples below. Christ, and Moses, and Elijah are hallowed; the disciples are not (usually). The theology of this scenery, the “men of God” meeting with the Lord on a mountain is derived from manifold OT texts. Recall the words of the Psalmist,

“Great is the LORD, and highly to be praised, in the city of our God, in his holy mountain” (Ps 48:1), or the Prophet Micah,

“In days the mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and the peoples will stream to it” (Mic 4:1).

Recall the description of Eden in Genesis, that one river ran from it, but that it divided into four tributaries thereafter (Gen 2:10-14), suggesting that Eden occupied an “elevated” geographic position. And in his Epistle to the Hebrews, the Apostle Paul exhorts the faithful, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22, italics mine).

Biblically, one goes to “meet God” on the mountain. God comes down, but man must simultaneously “go up.” This is one of many analogies for the spiritual life that exist in Orthodoxy, but it figures predominantly in the writings of the monastic Fathers. One needs to look no further than the writings of St. John Climacus, of Sinai.

In the bottom half of the icon, we find the disciples of Christ: present on the mountain with Christ but not looking so similar, in facial expression or posture, to Ss. Moses and Elijah. The disciples—in this instant, Peter, James, and John—appear as they did in the icon of the Ascension: dazed and confused. One or all may sport a classic “thinking” position, with hand situated squarely under the chin. One or all may appear as though they have just been thrown to the ground. Indeed, their posture(s) communicate to us utter amazement. Their bodies are being nigh forcibly contorted by the radiance of the divine glory of God. Occasionally, St. Peter will be depicted as though mid-question, asking, that is, of Christ, “Should we make three tents for you…?” As in the biblical account, so in the icon, nobody is acknowledging Peter’s gibber-gabber. His suggestion is hospitable enough, charitable enough, but he’s really missing the substance of the event. Also, of no great theological significance but nonetheless interesting, St. John is regularly depicted with one of his sandals removed: the ancient equivalent, given the details of the event, of our contemporary, “[It’ll] knock your socks off.”

Standing beside Christ, to his right and to his left, are Moses and Elijah. Moses is the younger looking fellow. St. Elijah is the more homely, hairy, “John the Baptist”-looking fellow. The prophet Moses can also be distinguished by the tablets of the Law that he holds in his hands. There is no particular rhyme or reason which determines whether Moses or Elijah appear to Christ’s right or left. In the majority of the depictions of the events of the feast, Moses and Elijah will be standing with Christ, unaccompanied and with the usual stoic expression of Orthodox iconographic characters. However, in some depictions of the event, Ss. Moses and Elijah are appearing on the scene by the aid of angels and through miraculous means. Moses is occasionally depicted being whisked away from an open tomb to meet with Christ, while St. Elijah may appear on a cloud, upborne by one or a number of the heavenly hosts. What this imagery is communicating to the reader of the icon is simple enough: this was a real event which involved real persons. Moses and Elijah did appear with Christ. Moreover, they appeared personally and physically. They were not apparitions conjured for the sake of theological utility. Rather, in glory, Christ converses with his saints.

However, Ss. Moses and Elijah do also appear with Christ for theological utility, just not only for this sake. Remember, in his Sermon on the Mount, Christ did say to his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). As the Lawgiver par excellence, Moses testifies to this reality. As one of the most notable of the biblical prophets, so near and dear to God that he is taken heavenward in a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire, supernaturally, pre-mortem (cf. 2 Kings 2), St. Elijah testifies likewise. Both men’s life’s work testifies to the glory of God and the reality of Christ.

In the upper center portion of the icon, we see the focal figure of the icon, i.e., the one who is being transfigured, our Lord. Christ appears in his “garments of glory,” similar in appearance to those worn by him in the icons of the Resurrection or The Descent into Hades, the Ascension, Christ Enthroned, and The Final Judgement. Per the text, his clothing is a “dazzling white.” Christ appears in the center of a mandorla, communicating to the reader that this a “mystical” event. Christ, in his transfigured state, reveals to his disciples, not merely the glory of a perfect man, but more so, the glory of God. In many of the icons which feature a mandorla, small rays of divine light or divine grace may emanate from the structure. These are the energies of God which are constantly suffusing the creation: upholding it, blessing it, sustaining it. However, notice that in the icon of the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the rays of the mandorla extend more than generally to the creation; rather, they extend personally to Ss. Peter, James, and John. The “light of Tabor” or the sensible manifestation of divine grace which the disciples beheld at the time of Christ’s transfiguration is to be identified with the energies of God, or the grace of God, which are communicated to us by the Holy Spirit, and which deify or divinize us. The “light of Tabor” is an “uncreated” Light. It appeals to more than the physical senses and has, upon its witnesses, more than a physical effect.

A brief comment on the composition of the icon of the Feast. If you were to do a brief study on the geometrical symmetry of the icon, you would notice: the upper half of the icon is much more “compositionally sound” than the lower half. Without drawing any lines, the symmetry of the upper half the icon is apparent. Moses and Elijah are spaced equidistant from Christ, perhaps also from the border of the icon. They are depicted of equal stature to one another. The mountains upon which they stand are of equal height. They may both be extending hands in the sign of blessing to Christ. They may both be holding something in their other hands (Moses with the tablets of the Law, and St. Elijah with a scroll, representative of his prophetic ministry). In contrast, the disciples are scattered round about Mt. Tabor in haphazard ways. One may be standing, another bent over, another laying sprawled out upon the ground.

This contrast is a commentary on the spiritual life. When we are in communion with Christ, our souls are in perfect harmony. We are composed, passionless. Without Christ, without the illumination of the grace of the Holy Spirit of God, we are “spiritually disheveled,” confused, tossed about by the world and her cares.

While not appearing in every instance of the icon of the Feast of the Transfiguration, frequently enough, one may find Christ and his disciples, Peter, James, and John, depicted twice elsewhere in the icon: once on either side of Tabor. This communicates to the reader of the icon that Christ is present with the disciples before, during, and after their ascent and the event of the Transfiguration. In both depictions, it appears as though Christ is having a conversation with the disciples. We can imagine their words to one another: before ascending, “What on earth are you going to show us?” and after ascending, “What on earth did you show us?” Here, the disciples represent all those persons on the spiritual journey of faith in Christ. Our spiritual lives are a constant ascending and descending, questioning, learning, doubting, and being affirmed in the faith, trusting in Christ, and growing in grace. As we learn to see and to understand Christ more clearly, in the light of his glorious resurrection, we are deified.

Icon of the Feast of Transfiguration 3

The Theology of the Icon

St. Leo the Great, in a homily for the Saturday before the Second Sunday of Great Lent, writes concerning the Transfiguration of Our Lord,

“And in this Transfiguration the foremost object was to remove the offense of the cross from the disciple’s heart, and to prevent their faith being disturbed by the humiliation of his [Christ’s] voluntary Passion by revealing to them the excellence of his [Christ’s] hidden dignity. But with no less foresight, the foundation was laid of the Holy Church’s hope, that the whole body of Christ might realize the character of the change which it would have to receive, and that the members might promise themselves a share in that honor which had already shone forth in their Head. About which the Lord had himself said, when he spoke of the majesty of his coming, “Then shall the righteous shine as the sun in their Father’s Kingdom” (Matt 13:43), while the blessed Apostle Paul bears witness to the self-same thing, and says, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the future glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom 8:18), and again, “For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. For when Christ our life shall appear, then shall you also appear with Him in glory” (Col 3:3).

“… that the whole body of Christ might realize the character of the change, … and that the members might promise themselves a share in that honor which had already shone forth in their head.”

As we have already mentioned above, the liturgical cycle of the life of the Holy Orthodox Church reflects, in some instances, the chronology of the lives of our Lord and the holy Mother of God. However, in the case of the Feast of the Transfiguration following the Feasts of Pascha, and Ascension, and Pentecost, we clearly see a prioritization of “theological” or “spiritual chronology” in the structuring of the festal cycle.

Christ dies for the forgiveness of our sins on Great and Holy Friday, and it is for our salvation. Christ resurrects from the dead on that first Paschal morn, and it is for our salvation. Christ ascends to heaven, fully God and fully man, to be seated at the right hand of God the Father, and it is for our salvation. Christ sends to us the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, to communicate to each member of his Church, personally, divine grace, and it is for our salvation. Christ is transfigured on Mt. Tabor before his disciples, bearing witness to the glory that is intended for men filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit of God. Christ communes with Moses and Elijah, bearing witness to the call upon all of humanity to participate in the divine life, and it is for our salvation.

The Transfiguration of our Lord was a historical event. But it is an event with present and eschatological implications. The divine light which was sensibly communicated to the disciples present with Christ on Mt. Tabor—Ss. Peter, James, and John—understood by the Holy Fathers, (chief among them, St. Gregory Palamas), to be the divine energies of God, is today communicated to us by our participation in the liturgical Mysteries of Christ’s holy Church. Christ is transfigured by virtue of his being. He was, is, and always will be “true God of true God.” We are transfigured, deified, by virtue of the grace of the Holy Spirit of God. Christ will come “in his glory, and all his angels with him, and he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matt 25:31). And we will appear in glory, a “glory by grace,” holy and transfigured, should we be found faithful.

May we repent in light of that great, and terrible, and awesome day!

Icon of the Feast of Transfiguration 4

Icons of the Twelve Great Feasts, Pt. 11: Great and Holy Pentecost

Part of a catechetical series on the textual foundations, visual elements, and theology of the icons of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Churchwhich was first taught at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit Orthodox Church (Beavertown, PA).

Icon of the Feast of Pentecost 3

The Textual Foundations of the Icon

The biblical text which provides the inspiration for the icon of the Feast of Pentecost comes from chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles:

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and restedon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).

There are additional visual elements derived from a number of other Gospel passages, and one element in particular that draws inspiration from a line from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, but we will discuss these texts below.

Icon of the Feast of Pentecost 2

The Visual Elements of the Icon

Traditional inscriptions:
Hē Pentēkostē, in Greek, “The Fiftieth (Day)” from Hē Pentēkostē Hēmera
Great and Holy Pentecost
(Also), The Descent of the Holy Spirit

The architecture of the icon should be familiar to us by now. The buildings, and the flowing draperies which connect them, suggest to the reader of the icon an inside scene. Indeed, the event of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles took place in the upper room (hyperōion) of the Apostles’ residence in Jerusalem. The structure upon which the Apostles sit (what appears to be a curved sitting bench) would be immediately recognizable by ancient readers of the icon as a chancel. In ancient Church architecture, the chancel was the large curved space in the eastward-most end of the church, which included the choir seating and the formal sanctuary, that is, where the altar was housed. In the icon of the Feast, the Apostles are seated in such a way because they are the “the choir” of the Apostles (as many of our hymns refer to them).

However, their [the Apostles’] seating arrangement would have also reminded an ancient reader of the icon of a scene from a classical philosopher’s academy or the later cathedral schools. Students are seated in a circular fashion around their teacher, who lectures from the place of honor: the Teacher’s Chair, or the “Cathedra.” In some icons of the Feast, there is a more prominent, though noticeably absent, Teacher’s Chair. Who is to be seated here, if not one of the Apostles? It is none other than Christ, the greatest of all Teachers. Recall Christ’s words to the disciples in St. John’s Gospel,

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:12-16).

Later on, in the same chapter of the same Gospel, Christ says,

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:25-26).

Remember, the icon of the Feast of the Ascension points to icon of the Feast of Holy Pentecost. These two icons represent the fulfillment of Christ’s words to the Apostles in St. John’s Gospel. Christ has ascended to heaven, and in his stead, he has sent the Holy Spirit of God, to instruct the disciples in all truth. The Holy Spirit, top center in the icon of the Feast of Pentecost, will now occupy the Teacher’s Chair, though he will instruct the Apostles from the throne of their hearts.

In some icons of the Feast, the holy Theotokos is seated in the Teacher’s Chair. This is a less common type of the icon; nonetheless, it is not theologically unsound. This symbolism is more in keeping with the image of the queen regent, who reigns in her son’s stead. Also, it is the saintly example of our holy Mother to which we aspire. By her actions, through her prayers, she instructs us in godly living.

Speaking more on the figure of the Apostles, as we noted in our discussion on the icon of the Feast of the Ascension, this icon too—the Feast of Holy Pentecost—is an icon “of the Church.” However, in contrast to the icon of the Ascension, in the icon of Pentecost, the disciples are hallowed. This is due, of course, to their reception of the gift of the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles are twelve in number, and they are the same twelve which appear in the icon of the Ascension, that is, Judas Iscariot is absent, and in his place sits the Apostle Paul, the last of the Apostles called.

The Apostles are dressed typically, with undergarments and variously colored himations. Notice the golden armband that they are frequently adorned with. It is the same band that appears on the arms of Christ and the angels in Orthodox icons. It is a representation of divine authority, and even more specifically, it functions as sign of someone who speaks “on behalf of God.”

The Apostles hold scrolls in their hands. This is common in Orthodox depictions of prophets, evangelists, missionaries, and those saints deemed “Equals-to-the-Apostles.”

These scrolls which the Apostles hold should direct us, visually, to the next important figure in the icon: an old man, a king even, located bottom center in the midst of the choir. This is Ho Kosmos, in Greek, “the World.” He is dressed as a king as a representation of earthly authority; he is old—ancient—and represents all the nations of the earth and their respective rulers. As we contemplate his image, it would be good for us to remember that the gospel has, and still does frequently, come to peoples and to nations through earthly authority. We can, as Orthodox Christians living in the 21st century, remember the lives of Ss. Constantine and Helen, Vladimir of Kiev, Michael of Tver, Stephen of Hungary, Olga of Kiev, Justinian the Great, Boris of Bulgaria, Prince Alexander Nevsky, and so many others. These men and women, monarchs, labored tirelessly (many of whom were the first of their people to be converted to the Christian faith) to disseminate the gospel throughout their native lands.

The king holds a towel with twelve scrolls laying therein. These are the same scrolls which the Apostles themselves hold. They are the good news of Jesus Christ. Can we remember the words of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans when we look upon this scene?

“How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:

‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,
Who bring glad tidings of good things!’

But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

But I say, have they not heard? Yes indeed:

‘Their sound has gone out to all the earth,
And their words to the ends of the world’” (Rom 10:14-18).

Their sound has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” The king sits “in darkness and in the shadow of death” (cf. Luke 1:79), but now a great light—the “light of the world” (John 8:12)—has shone forth.

Lastly, but most importantly in the icon of Holy Pentecost, we turn our attention to the upper center portion of the icon. Here, we find a mandorla, a representation of the revelation of divine grace. From the mandorla stream forth rays of divinity, partitioned in twelve. On the ends of the rays may be “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:2). This is the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles there gathered. As we frequently see in icons of the lives of the saints, the rays which stream forth signify a real communication of divine grace—the energies of God—to the recipient. There is an “enlightening” which takes place in the Apostles, but more than this, there is a real hallowing of body and spirit. With the reception of the Holy Spirit of God, the Apostles are changed. They have been gifted with a supernatural charisma and are ready to fulfill their divine mandate: to take the gospel “to the ends of the earth.”

As we mentioned in our discussion of the icon of the Feast of Theophany, only in this icon—the icon of the Feast of Holy Pentecost—is the Spirit appropriately depicted as “tongues of fire,” as in the icon of Theophany, the Spirit is appropriately depicted as a dove. The Spirit is neither of these things personally but reveals himself in the form of these things at the respective events in the life of our Lord and his Church.

Icon of the Feast of Pentecost 5

The Theology of the Icon

The icon of the Feast of Great and Holy Pentecost is an icon of the Church of Christ. It is an icon of the Church of Christ as it is intended to be: holy, evangelical, prayerful, attentive to the will of the Master and to the teaching of the Holy Spirit of God. The structure of the icon, more than many or most icons, reminds us of this. While Orthodox icons do invite us into a personal communion with the saint depicted, the icon of the Feast of Holy Pentecost communicates this invitation even more explicitly. The choir of the Apostles are not seated in a circle around the Master’s seat, that is, in an object with a fixed perimeter; rather, they are seated in a semi-circle, and as we gaze upon the icon, we may come to realize: we are part of their choir.

It may sound, initially, to be a hubristic assumption—to say that we are a part of the choir of the Holy Apostles. However, as we have already mentioned, the icon of the Feast is an icon “of the Church,” not merely an icon of the Apostles. We are a part of the Church, and Christ is our Master. The Mother of God is our loving intercessor. The Apostles are our faithful leaders. The angels are our protectors and stewards. The saints are our friends. And the same grace which filled the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost two-thousand years ago now fills us in the divine Mysteries. As the Apostle Paul writes, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slavesor free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13), and elsewhere, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6).

What are the implications of this, that we are part of the same community of faith, filled with same Spirit, empowered by the same divine grace, as those holy Apostles on that first Feast of Pentecost? Simply: we are created and called to be like them. Again, this is not a prideful thought, though we approach the task with great humility. The Church has long recognized men and women of faith, great evangelists and missionaries and servants of God, as “Equals-to-the Apostles.” In what way are we called to be their equals? In every way, truly. It is not that we seek this “equality of prestige.” Rather, we are called to the same equality of purpose and mission: to preach the gospel of our risen Lord “to the ends of the world,” yea, “to the ends of the universe.”

The Apostles were not selected to be such by coercion, nor because it was “their destiny.” Remember, they were told by Christ to “[go] to Jerusalem, [to] wait for the Promise of the Father” (Act 1:4),… and they went! What if they had not gone? What if they had decided to not follow Christ in his commands. Presumably, they would not have received the gift of the Holy Spirit of God.

We have come, most of us, many of us, to the baptismal font. We have received the grace of God in the Mysteries of Holy Confession and Communion. We are members of Christ’s Church! May we commit ourselves to the task of being God’s “fellow workers” (1 Cor 3:9). May we follow the Apostles and their examples in “[making] disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything [which Christ has] commanded [us]” (Matt 28:19b-20).