Tag Archives: Icon Reader

God-fearing midwives, and humility.

While I was at church between services today, a fellow parishioner, George, came with his little truck and removed all the palm branches from yesterday’s feast. Now we have this icon of Christ, “Extreme Humility,” lavishly adorned in the middle of the church:

Icon Reader shares an explanatory quote about the icon:

“At the arrival of unjust persecution, bow your head. At the jeers of false accusations, cross your arms over your heart, whether physically or interiorly, and gratefully receive what is spitefully offered. And when faced with the question, ‘How far, how far do I tolerate this shame, this injustice,’ remember that the answer is the grave. This is what the icon labels ‘Extreme Humility,’ and it is humility that we must strive to emulate each day.”

-Hieromonk Irenaeus

One of the Old Testament readings for this day is from the first chapter of Exodus, the story of how, generations after Joseph, the Israelites as a people group grew large and strong, and the current Pharaoh began to feel threatened and to oppress them. Here is one little story within that story:

“And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah:

“And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live. But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive?

“And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.”

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 often pictured holding his own head on the platter; some Orthodox do not eat anything from a plate, or from any round dish, 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

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!

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!”