Tag Archives: Icon Reader

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!”

Joachim and Anna, and Love.

In the Orthodox Church we commemorate the Feast of the Conception of the Theotokos on December 9th. Following from the fact that Christ received His human nature from his mother, she is of supreme importance in our salvation history.

Father Thomas Hopko writes in The Winter Pascha: In the Orthodox Church the Virgin Mary is the image of those who are being saved. If Jesus Christ is the Savior, Mary is, par excellence, the image of the saved. She is, in every aspect of her life, as Father Alexander Schmemann so often said, not the great exception, but rather the great example. From her conception to her dormition, that is, her true and real death, she shows how all people must be when they are sanctified by the Holy Spirit as servants of God and imitators of Christ.

I had to keep pushing that last sentence to the front of my mind as I tried to think and write a little more about the mystery of our salvation…

The icons of this feast tell the story of Mary’s parents Joachim and Anna, who had been unable to have children until late in life when Anna became pregnant with the child who would become the mother of our Lord. “Iconreader” has an article on the festal icon with links to related articles and discussion about its theology, and why the icon has been so popular in Russia.

From that article on A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons: The icon of the Conception of the Theotokos is very simple. Joachim and Anna tenderly embrace, standing before a bed. Without being explicit, it is boldly confessed that, whilst a miracle granted to a barren couple, the conception of St Mary happened through natural means. This can be compared with Icons of the Annunciation, which could be described as the Conception of Jesus Christ: in those icons Mary is not shown with Joseph; Mary remained a virgin.

And from the Orthodox Church in America , an excerpt from an article on the feast that discusses beliefs about original sin: The Holy Virgin was like everyone else in her mortality, and in being subject to temptation, although she committed no personal sins. She was not a deified creature removed from the rest of humanity. If this were the case, she would not have been truly human, and the nature that Christ took from her would not have been truly human either. If Christ does not truly share our human nature, then the possibility of our salvation is in doubt.

There is so much to think about here! I would like to read these articles more carefully and thoughtfully, to stretch my mind toward the theology of “the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us, through Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:7) Whenever I think about theology as a field of study, it brings to mind these words about theology and prayer from Bishop Kallistos Ware, and they help me refocus on the example of Mary, who said to the angel, “Be it unto me according to your word.”:

Theology, mysticism, spirituality, moral rules, worship, art: these things must not be kept in separate compartments. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed: a theologian, said Evagrius, is one who knows how to pray, and he who prays in spirit and in truth is by that very act a theologian. And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St. Maximus puts it, is the theology of demons. The creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable.

In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity, one in essence and undivided.’ This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love Him.

At Christmas, the Truth that ties everything together is (I John 4:19):

We love him, because he first loved us.

Glorious Beheading

Recently there has been an increase in Christian martyrdom by beheading, but that isGL P1010418 not what the title of my post refers to. It is a phrase from the hymnography of the Orthodox Church for the commemoration of the Beheading of John the Baptist, which we 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 got involved with 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. The icon I show here is my own; when I received it as a gift it was the first time I saw that John is holding his own head on the platter. Some Orthodox do not eat anything from a plate, or 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 is reported to have used her connections to retrieve the head so that it could be given an honorable burial.