Category Archives: icons

The darkness has not overcome it.

And this is the verdict: The Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil. John 3:19

Today is the commemoration of the Beheading of John the Baptist, which we Orthodox Christians who use the Gregorian Calendar remember on August 29 every year.

John was the Forerunner of Christ, and his preaching of repentance prepared many hearts to receive Christ.  You might say that John intruded into (family) politics when he spoke up about the governor Herod’s unlawful relationship with his brother’s wife Herodias. It doesn’t appear that they had asked for his opinion, but Herodias was angry enough about it that she asked Herod, via her dancing daughter Salome, for John’s head on a platter, which was granted. In the Gospel of Mark is one passage that recounts these events.

The hymns lament that Herod and Herodias missed their opportunity to repent and gain eternal life, but rejoice that God was glorified by the prophet’s death as well as by his life, and speak of John continuing to preach repentance even to the souls in Hades.

Icon Reader tells in depth about the iconography of John the Baptist, who is often pictured with wings. These symbolize the fact that he was a prophet or messenger from God. He is also called an “angel of the desert,” because like angels he was not involved in normal mundane things. John is holding his own head on the platter; some Orthodox do not eat anything from a plate, or from anything round, on this day, and we all keep a fast in St. John’s honor.

I have a particular interest in the Glorious Forerunner’s beheading because the saint whose name I bear, Joanna, was married to Chuza, Herod’s steward, and used her connections to retrieve the head so that it could be given an honorable burial.

This is a repeat of most of my post from five years ago. This morning I attended Divine Liturgy for the feast and was more awed than ever by the life of Jesus’s cousin John who was imprisoned for speaking the truth. Then he was killed because, though Herod was “sorrowful” about this unexpected outcome, he was a coward and wanted what he wanted, no matter that he seemed to like talking with John about spiritual things. As we heard in today’s homily, the rulers of this world always operate on the terms of their power above all.

But The Forerunner went joyfully to his reward, as do all martyrs; what they want more than anything is to be with Christ. That’s why we celebrate their deaths, which are glorious as the Cross of Christ is glorious. On this feast day we also fast, because it is to us a sort of Holy Friday; and to help our prayers for strength to have courage ourselves, to live and die in the spirit of the martyrs, in bright contrast to whatever darkness is currently trying in vain to extinguish the inextinguishable Kingdom of God.

In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.
The Light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:4-5

Angels swaddled him with fire.

Saint Epiphanius of Cyprus gives the following account about the birth of the Prophet Elijah: “When Elijah was born, his father Sobach saw in a vision angels of God around him. They swaddled him with fire and fed him with flames.” –OCA site

July 20th is the day we commemorate the saint. You can read more about him here: “Holy, Glorious Prophet Elijah.” I love this icon that expresses the drama of his life and person:

Give us hearts of flesh!

…I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.  I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you….  -Ezekiel 36

It was a day for rejoicing in my parish, as three men were baptized, and another became a catechumen. Many of us stood scattered over the large patio and lawns outside the church, and roughly in the center of our gathering was the baptismal font that had been newly refurbished. Up the steps of the sunken font they emerged in turn to receive chrismation with that divinely scented oil, the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. The rest of us prayed with them and a few sang into our masks, glad with the newly illumined souls that their period of waiting and preparing has been fulfilled. One of the men had been a catechumen for two years, through many delays and interruptions.

It’s Holy Trinity Day, the Feast of Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

We commemorate the day when the Holy Spirit fell on the apostles and they finally experienced what Christ had promised, when He said that He must “go away,” but He would send the Comforter. But Pentecost is not so much a historic event as it is a present reality.

The icon called “Descent of the Holy Spirit” is full of theology. I prepared a small lesson on it for my church school class today and learned about things I’d never paid attention to before. This example shows an empty seat in the center of the semicircle of the apostles, which is for Christ, the invisible Head of the Church, Who is present always through the Holy Spirit.

But some of the Pentecost icons have Christ’s mother Mary, the Theotokos, in that spot; it’s not because we consider her the head of the church. If she is there, it is as another member of Christ’s body, and the supreme earthly example for the rest of us of how a person filled with the Holy Spirit ought to live; in that case her place is called the Teacher’s Seat. The Apostle Paul is in the icon and he was not even present.

The twelve apostles in the icon represent the whole Church throughout time. They sit not in a closed circle but in a semicircle whose openness invites us to be part of that Body. We each experience the descent of the Holy Spirit at our baptism, in the Eucharist, and through all the ministries of the Church, which is why we begin every prayer and every work with, “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, come and abide in us… ”

…and we might add, do give us those hearts of flesh!

Visions of holiness in the garden.

“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” -Psalm 96:9

Back when my new garden was in its immaturity, and gave the impression of rolling hills of orangey mulch, with lonely plant starts like trees on the prairie, I knew that I wanted an icon there, to honor the presence of Christ and his saints. I invited artistic Christian guests to sit over dinner in the garden and discuss the eventual placement of the stand for the icon that I didn’t own yet; I didn’t know at that point whose iconic image I wanted.

Years went by after I had decided on the spot, and a thousand decisions about other things crowded out any research I might do on this question, other than browsing pictures of such displays online, by which I developed a vague idea of what sort of frame and post I wanted. And I knew the icon must be of a material that wouldn’t be damaged by the weather.

Then one day, I think it was in 2019, I happened to see on Facebook this stone icon of the mother of Christ, carved by Jonathan Pageau, and it was available. I hadn’t been looking, and it wasn’t up very long; now I wonder if God didn’t arrange the whole thing, knowing that I would never finish my project if He didn’t put her right in front of me. Later I thought how natural it is that she would be the subject of sacramental art in my garden, she who was certainly in that historic garden 2,000 years ago — the place where her Son revealed Himself to have conquered death, and where women first discovered the empty tomb.

Eventually I asked my dear woodworking friend Aaron if he would build the stand, in his spare time – ha! What diligent husband and father of four has spare time? But he really wanted to do it, and he and I conferred over the last few months about the design and what wood he would use. The pandemic and resulting quarantine recently gave him the extra time he needed.

It was nearly on the eve of Myrrhbearers’ Sunday that he let me know he was ready, and he came with his older son to install it. Their appreciative sharing of my natural paradise for an hour was added joy for all of us. O glorious day! And now, though the beautiful plants will bloom and fade, come and go with the seasons and years, this reminder of permanent and heavenly realities is finally here, and I feel that my garden is complete.

“Through icons the Orthodox Christian receives a vision
of the spiritual world.”
-Timothy Ware