Category Archives: icons

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

The almond, the light and the glory.

christ forgiving resurrection 2Until a recent vocabulary expansion, I knew little Italian beyond pizza and zucchini. Now I know mandorla, which means almond. In the language of iconography, it means a background shape, often an almond shape but not always, which conveys meaning having nothing to do with the nut.

In this article “Within a Mandorla” I read that “Revealed in the context of a mandorla is that which we know by the revelation of Scripture but which might not have been witnessed by the human eye – or – if witnessed – somehow transcended the normal bounds of vision.

“Mark says that [Christ] was “carried up into heaven and seated at the right hand of God.” This last formula is a creedal confession – but not an eyewitness description. That Christ was taken up and that He is seated at the right hand of the Father is the faith and dogma of the Church. But the Church knows this in a mystical manner and not in the manner of a newspaper reporter.”

And from a different source:

“Sometimes a star – but the usual elliptical shape gives it the name mandorla, which is Italian for the nut. The almond tree is the first plant to flower in Greece, sometimes as early as mid-January, and as such is a symbol of new life and fertility. Ancient Greek myths also link almonds, and the almond-shape, with new life; yet preceding all these in time, and succeeding them in importance, is the story of Aaron’s rod, which blossomed forth not only flowers, but almonds (Numbers 17:8)”

The mandorla can represent light that was actually seen by those present at an event, but it often also symbolizes the majesty and glory that is beyond our earthly vision or ability to put into words.

From Wikipedia: “These mandorla will often be painted in several concentric patterns of color which grow darker as they come close to the center. This is in keeping with the church’s use of apophatic theology, as described by Dionysius the Areopagite and others. As holiness increases, there is no way to depict its brightness except by darkness.”

The story of what the disciples of Jesus saw with their own eyes is told in the first chapter of the Book of Acts:

“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”

  This year we Orthodox celebrate the Ascension of Christ on June 6.

The Lord has ascended into heaven
that He might send the Comforter to the world.
The heavens prepared His throne, and the clouds His mount.
Angels marvel to see a Man high above them.
The Father receives Him Whom He holds, co-eternal, in His bosom.
The Holy Spirit commands all His Angels:
“Lift up your gates, ye princes!
All ye nations, clap your hands:
for Christ has gone up to where He was before!”