Category Archives: icons

The Beheading of the Forerunner

Embroidery from Elena Voloshanka’s Workshop, 15th century, Russian.

THE PROPHECY of ISAIAH

Thus saith the Lord: Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith God. Speak ye, priests, unto the heart of Jerusalem, cry unto her that her humiliation is at an end, since her iniquity is pardoned, for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for her sins.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths for our God. Get thee up into the high mountain, O Zion, that bringest good tidings; lift up thy voice with strength, O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift it up, be not afraid: I am the Lord God, I will hear the poor of Israel and will not forsake them, but will cause rivers to flow in high places and fountains in the midst of the fields.

I will turn the wilderness into meadow and the dry land into water-springs. Let heaven above rejoice and let clouds sprinkle down righteousness; let the earth shine and let mercy shoot forth and let righteousness spring up together. With a voice of singing declare ye, and let it be heard, utter it even to the end of the earth, say ye: The Lord hath redeemed His servant Jacob, and if they thirst in the wilderness, He will cause water to flow out of the rock for them.

Sing, O barren one, thou that didst not bear, break forth into singing and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail, for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife.

-A reading for the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist

Madonnas and their tears.

Icons of Mary with Christ seated on her lap are venerated in the sacramental churches of East and West, Orthodox and Catholic, and have their commemoration days just as saints do. I’m most familiar with the Orthodox tradition, and how these days are scattered liberally throughout our liturgical calendar. Today I was at Divine Liturgy in the morning, but we were remembering various other saints and events in my parish, and I didn’t notice until I was home again that today we also commemorate the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God.

I would never have foreseen, fifteen years ago, that I would have favorites among icons of this subject, but it happens; this version is possibly my favorite of all because for ten years or more it was the only one I had in my house. My humble print resembles this one:

Icon Reader tells us that “It is known as “directress” (in Greek Hodigitria) because the Mother of God is shown directing our gaze to Jesus Christ with her hand. This style predates the Smolensk icon, and is one of the original ‘types’ traced back in Church tradition to St Luke.”

The tradition is that the first icon thus depicting Mary and Jesus originated in Antioch, and went from there to Jerusalem, then Constantinople, where it remained until, “In 1046, Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos gave his daughter, Anna, in marriage to Prince Vsevolod Yaroslavich, the son of Yaroslav the Wise. He used this icon to bless her on her journey.” And there it stayed in Kievan Rus’.

Many, many versions have been painted based on this style, and even the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland, in its less innovative versions, can be seen to contain the same elements:

It seems that Orthodox Christians in Ukraine and Belarus are also fond of the Black Madonna version of this icon, as well as sharing a love with Russians of the style generally. One of the icons in this article from 2014 is a Smolensk icon of Mary: “Weeping Icons of Ukraine and Russia.”

While Icon Reader has reservations about the meaning of these tears, he was able to affirm one clear word from the news reports that surely still stands:

“What is certain is [the] tears of the Mother of God
speak directly to the heart of every Orthodox believer,
calling all to repentance, amendment of life and return
to Orthodox faith and tradition in their fullness.”

They become resplendent.

At the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, we bless candles in church. I liked this letter from Abbot Tryphon in which he reminds us that the Light of Christ is what our lamps and candles represent, and what makes the saints shine:

“Vigil lights are placed before the icons of the saints, according to Saint Symeon the New Theologian, as a way of showing that without the Light, Who is Christ, the saints are nothing. It is only as the light of Christ shines on them that they become alive and resplendent.

St. Symeon the New Theologian

“The saints show us what a glorious destiny we have in God, and through the example of their lives, point the way to our becoming “partakers of divine nature.” The saints, as the cloud of witnesses in heaven, are present in the divine services, worshiping the Holy Trinity with us. They, as our friends, intercede before the Throne of God on our behalf, having won the good fight, and we are encouraged by the memory and example of their lives, as we struggle on our own path to God.

“It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: sinners who think they are saints, and saints who know they are sinners. A saint is a Christian who lets God’s light shine through, and whose life has been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“We venerate the saints as we seek their intercession with God, but we adore and worship only God in Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We venerate the images (icons) as well as the relics of the saints and martyrs. Yet according to the decisions and Canons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, this veneration relates not to the icons as such, but to their prototypes, or to the persons whom they represent.

“The interior walls of our temples are adorned with the icons and frescoes of the saints as a reminder that we are surrounded by the cloud of witnesses, the saints, and that the Church Militant (here on earth) is not separated from the Church Triumphant (in heaven). In Christ, death does not divide us, for the saints are not dead, but alive in Christ Jesus.

“Glory to Jesus Christ, Who is glorified in His saints.

“With love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon”