Thursday 1 February 2024

Icon of the Meeting of the Lord

In the shadow and letter of the Law, let us the faithful contemplate a prefiguring: Every male child that openeth the womb is holy unto God. Therefore do we magnify the first-born Word, the Son of the Father Who is without beginning, the first-born Child of a Mother who hath not known Wedlock.

Irmos of the Ninth Ode*

On 1st January, we celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ on the eighth day after his birth. On the 40th day, Christ continues to fulfil the ordinances of the law being Himself the Author of the Law and is presented in the Temple by his parents. The Church this feast on 2nd February. This feast is called Ὑπαπαντή in Greek which means ‘meeting’, but is often referred to as the ‘Presentation in the Temple’. We hear the account of the Meeting in the Gospel reading of the Feast (Luke 2: 22-40):

When the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought Him to Jerusalem, to present Him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Spirit, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him after the custom of the law. Then took he Him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word: For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, Which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people;  A light to lighten the nations, and the glory of Thy people Israel. And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which  were spoken of Him.  And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of Him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.  And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. And the Child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon Him.

The iconography of the Meeting was well established by the 9th century. Earlier icons are simpler in design and place Christ more centrally, but the principle figures shown remain the same. The Temple is represented in iconography by a canopy covering a Holy Table. In some icons the canopy is fitted with a curtain representing the veil of the Temple. In this icon, the sanctuary doors are shown closed.

Saint Symeon is shown descending the steps and receiving Christ in his arms with his hands covered by his garments out of reverence. The Theotokos is placed centrally in the icon, having handed the Christ-child to Saint Symeon.  In some icons she is seen still holding Christ, as Symeon opens his arms to receive Him. Saint Joseph the Betrothed is shown holding two young pigeons or turtle-doves which the Law commanded to be brought as an offering. These symbolise the Church and the newly-chosen people of the Nations, and also that Christ is the Author of both Covenants: Old and New.  

In some icons, a golden censer is depicted on the altar table, in others, a Gospel Book is shown. The golden censer is a type of the Theotokos, of which Saint Paul writes in his Epistle to the Hebrews (9: 1-4):

Even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary.  For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lamp stand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary;  and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant;  and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. 

In this particular icon, the jar of manna is depicted on a pillar on the right hand side; it is possible that the structure forming part of the roof of the left-hand pillar is a representation of the Ark of the Covenant, which was carried using two wooden handles.

Saint Anna the Prophetess is shown behind the Theotokos, pointing to Christ. In her hand she holds a scroll, on which is written ‘this Child established heaven and earth.’ In some icons she is shown standing with the Elder Symeon, indicating Christ, whilst holding a closed scroll.

Saint Symeon, as we mentioned above, receives Christ with great reverence. He is shown with long, uncovered,  hair and feet shod with sandals - thus indicating his life of ascesis and his prophetic ministry. The feast of the Meeting, then, marks the necessary fulfilling of the Law, but is also a meeting of the two covenants. For, as we hear in the Service of Vespers, the Elder Symeon was granted to bear in his arms Him Whom even Moses was not granted to behold face to face, and reveals unto us Christ, the True Light of the Nations.

*Holy Transfiguration Monastery, The Great Horologion (Brookline: HTM, 1997) p.408

Friday 22 April 2022

Resurrectional (Paschal) Message for 2022

 And this is the will of the Father that sent Me, that every one who seeth the Son, and believeth on Him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day” (St. John 6:40)

Beloved Fathers and Brethren in the Risen Lord:

Once again, the day of the Resurrection of the Lord, the day that brings joy to the world, the light-bestowing day of exceeding radiance, has arrived. It was, to be sure, not possible that our Savior Christ, Who authoritatively promised in His teaching that He would resurrect His faithful, would not have resurrected Himself by His own power. As man He suffered, was crucified, and was buried, but as God He arose and granted us life eternal, incorruptible, and unending.

He came to earth as God-Man in order to fulfill the will of God the Father and to reveal His glory, the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth(St. John 1:14). The Son and Word of the Father became Man so that upon all who willingly and of their own free choice accepted Him He might bestow adoption into Divine sonship, that is, to become “sons of God” (St. John 1:12). The will of the Father is that none of the faithful be lost, but that all should attain resurrection: that they should behold and believe in His Son, as “true God of true God,” so as to have eternal life and be raised up on the Last Day, the Day of Judgment (St. John 6:39-40).

All will assuredly be resurrected at the glorious Second Coming, righteous and sinners: the former “unto the resurrection of life,” the latter “unto the resurrection of damnation” (St. John 5:29), the former in order to be taken up into eternal fellowship and co-existence with God in His Kingdom, the latter in order to be condemned to eternal chastisement (cf. St. Matthew 25:31-46).

In this life we see the Son with the spiritual eyes of faith, which are opened through the struggle for purification from the passions and through good works; otherwise, they remain closed and incapable of receiving the dogmas of the Faith that transcend reason, not to mention meeting the needs of our neighbor, our fellow man, our every “least” brother, who is an image of God.

The “Fount of the Source of Life,” our Lord and God, in order to show us the means of His union and “mingling” with us, assures us that He is the “Bread of Life” (St. John 6:48), that “which cometh down from Heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die(St. John 6:50). And He continues in a revelatory vein: “I am the Living Bread which came down from Heaven; if any man eat of this Bread, he shall live for ever; and the Bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (St. John 6:51).

Christ the God-Man celebrated the Mystical Supper and was sacrificed on the Cross in order to give us this His very Flesh, united with the Godhead, so that we might become communicants and partakers of Divine life. He died in order to conquer death, and resurrected in order to grant us resurrection. But if we do not eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, we will not have true and eternal life: “Whoso eateth My Flesh, and drinketh My Blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For My Flesh is meat indeed, and My Blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My Flesh, and drinketh My Blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him” (St. John 6:54-55).

It is very clear that, in order to be vouchsafed eternal life and resurrection, it is indispensable that we receive the deifying Mysteries that bestow the Holy Spirit upon us in this life. Only in this way do we satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst and yearn for the blessed life of eternity, whereof we have a foretaste within us already in the present life.

Children in the Risen Lord:

In order to participate in the Paschal Supper of our Church and to celebrate the true Resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of our existence, we must abide in a state of repentance and fear of God. This is our own contribution as a basic precondition for such participation. We have fasted and prepared ourselves to reach the radiant day of Pascha, but our striving does not stop; in essence, it has not come to an end. As long as our conscience remains good and uncondemned, our soul receives the pledge of our resurrection. To the extent that we draw near to God, to that extent we remove ourselves from the slavery of sin.

Our enemy the Devil does not cease constantly to create in us mountains of mental obstacles: that sin is, supposedly, a way of life, that it is something that we allegedly cannot overcome; that pursuit of the life in Christ is perilous, and occasions fear in this worldfear regarding well-being, regarding relationships and aspirations, and even regarding biological life itself, lest, that is, we become ill, lest we become hungry, lest we become embroiled in the menacing war that has now broken out, lest we be unable to move and work without hindrance, lest we not have time to realize our dreams and expectations....

However, even if all of these things are possibilities, as a rule they have no substantial force. No one can deprive us of faith, hope, and love. No one can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35-39). They are merely deceptive intimidations. Let us not fall into the trap of doubt and compromise. Let us advance with patience and courage to where the Risen Lord summons us: to the Cross and the Resurrection, assured by the spirit of repentance alive in us. Then the joy and the plenitude of the Resurrection will raise us up to the divine joy of our expectation: to victory, to life, and to the eternal Kingdom. Amen!

The Archbishop

† KALLINIKOS of Athens

Christ is Risen! Truly, He is Risen! 


The Members

† IOUSTINOS of Euripοs and Euboea
† GERONTIOS of Piraeus and Salamis
† CHRYSOSTOMOS of Attica and Boeotia  
† GREGORIOS of Thessalonica
† PHOTIOS of Demetrias
† MOSES of Toronto
† DEMETRIUS of America
† AMBROSIOS of Philippi and Maroneia
† CYPRIAN of Oropos and Phyle
† KLEMES of Larisa and Platamon
† AMBROSE of Methone
† AUXENTIOS of Etna and Portland
† THEODOSIOS of Bresthena
† CHRISTODOULOS of Theoupolis
† MAXIMUS of Pelagonia

Monday 7 March 2022

The Situation in Ukraine

Metropolitan Agathangel, the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA), has just posted the following:

"On Forgiveness Sunday, March 6, 2022, at 20:30 pm, Putin's troops shelled the city of Malin in the Zhytomyr region in Ukraine. Our Church of the Protection came under fire. The temple received significant damage - the roof was destroyed, the domes were damaged, frames, glass, and doors were broken. Inside, the iconostasis was demolished by a blast wave, etc. Only the walls remained of the temple. Rector Archpriest Georgy Storozhitsky, his mother Zinaida and one of the parishioners at that time were in the basement, where windows and doors were also torn out. Thank God, everyone survived. The military offer everyone to leave, as heavy fighting is expected in Malin."

Like the Fathers of Saint Edward Brotherhood, Metropolitan Agathangel opposed the union between the Russian Church Abroad and the Russian State Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in 2007. In this union, the free part of the Russian Church that was outside Russia submitted to the Patriarchate and now commemorates the Patriarch of Moscow in their services. 

It's not clear whether this church was targeted deliberately because of Metropolitan Agathangel's opposition to the actions of President Putin, or was hit as part of a general shelling of the town.

Please pray for Metropolitan Agathangel and his flock and especially the sisters of the Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco Convent, Odessa as the shelling and missiles edge closer to them. 

Photo from Internet Sobor

Friday 20 November 2020

Coronavirus and Conspiracy Theories

This article is based on our Sunday School lessons on the coronavirus pandemic which in turn were based on Protocols 3022 and 3026 issued by our Synod of Bishops. At the end of the article we have included a FAQ section which we hope to expand in the near future to take into account our Synod’s latest encyclical.

There is no doubt that this novel coronavirus exists. Our bishops have confirmed its existence, as have scientists across the world and the medical professionals in our own congregation who are working with COVID patients every day.

Our bishops have said that we should avoid any hysterical overreaction to this pandemic. This hysteria takes two forms: fear of the virus and fear of the measures that governments have introduced.

Many non-Orthodox people seem to live in abject fear of the virus. A non-Orthodox neighbour asked one nurse in congregation if she was scared about going to work. The nurse’s reply was that she prayed and trusted that God’s will be done. This is exactly the attitude that we should follow. Hysterical fear of the virus demonstrates a lack of faith in God.
The second form of hysteria is the belief that this pandemic is a trick to lead us into worshipping the Antichrist; this form of hysteria can lead to complete spiritual deception. One victim actually said: ‘I don’t care what the bishops say, I prayed to God and I received the answer.’

This hysteria is fuelled by Internet conspiracy theories promoted by people who hold beliefs that are completely anti-Orthodox. Immersing ourselves in these theories is a sin. Promoting them to others is a more serious sin because we are drawing people away from Orthodox truth by spreading lies. At this time, we should be redoubling our efforts to show love to our neighbour by comforting them through our quiet example of Christian faith and strength of soul and spirit.

To date, conspiracy theories have concentrated on two main areas: masks and vaccines. We will deal with both briefly.

Every successful conspiracy theory contains an element of truth twisted into a falsehood. It’s true that masks can’t protect us against coronavirus because the virus can be breathed in through a mask.  The aim of wearing a mask is to protect others. Wearing a mask reduces the spread of aerosol (the droplets of moisture that we emit when we cough or sneeze). This is why surgeons wear masks during operations. They're trying to protect the patient’s open wound from their aerosol – they’re not trying to protect themselves from the patient!

Scientists are still not exactly sure how effective masks are in slowing the spreading of coronavirus, but from an Orthodox point of view, there is no objection to wearing a mask in shops or on public transport. They are not ‘muzzles of the Antichrist’. If they were, then every mask wearer in history has unknowingly been a servant of the Antichrist including Orthodox surgeons, firefighters, paint-sprayers and monks who make incense! No one in the Orthodox world, to our knowledge, has ever raised a religious objection to wearing masks before 2020.

The vaccine conspiracy theory is somewhat older than the mask theory.  Opposition to vaccination is as old as vaccination itself but has reemerged due to Social Media. Nearly all medical treatments have a risk attached to them. With vaccination though, we have to consider the risk to others as well as ourselves. The Orthodox Church does not object to vaccination – She never has done.

Most anti-vaccination theories have something to do with microchips and Bill Gates. Some also include anti-Semitic elements. These theories contradict the Orthodox teaching concerning the acceptance of the Antichrist. Do we really believe in an all-merciful God who would let us be tricked into accepting the Antichrist through a medical treatment? No. This is a dangerous idea indeed. No wonder that believers in conspiracy theories often spiral into depression and loss of faith. The world becomes confusing and frightening because they can no longer trust God.

No Orthodox Christian should ever knowingly have a readable microchip injected. However, even if we were secretly or forcibly injected with one, it would not mean that we had accepted the Antichrist. Microchips are injected under the skin and are easily removed. Accepting the mark of the beast is a permanent spiritual mark that we acquire ourselves because we have conformed ourselves completely to the Antichrist rather than conforming ourselves to God.

The Bill Gates microchip conspiracy theory is obviously nonsense because there are so many different vaccines. The UK is considering approving five vaccines; Russia and China both claim to have a working vaccine. Does Bill Gates control all these governments and drug companies? Do all the vaccines contain microchips ­ or only some of them? How are we to know?

To get around this problem, conspiracy theorists assert that Bill Gates is only part of a secret group of people who, with the help of the world's scientists and medical professionals, control all the world’s governments. ‘They want to vaccinate us so that they can control us’ is a common theme. Who exactly ‘they’ are is never explained. Instead, conspiracy theorists advise people to ‘trust no one and question everything’. This is very dangerous advice. Even in our everyday life we trust people. We trust chefs, bus drivers and pilots without questioning them as to their competence. The idea that we have the knowledge to question everyone on everything is sheer conceit.
Doing ‘research’ on the Internet into these theories is time wasted. The only ‘they’ we need to be concerned about are the demons who unashamedly desire our destruction. We can identify their working in us by increasing our prayer and spiritual reading. Wasting time researching conspiracy theories is a victory for the demons because we’re not doing saving spiritual work.

These theories are nonsense, but this rush for vaccines is concerning from a safety point of view. The sheer size of the medical trials of these vaccines is unprecedented, but there is some concern that the trials have been too short to uncover long-term side effects. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to distinguish our legitimate safety concerns from conspiracy theories. Some are convinced that mandatory coronavirus vaccination is a sign of the Antichrist coming, but other vaccines have been mandatory in European countries such as France and Italy for some years.
This leads us to our last point. As Christians we are commanded to obey the government as long as their laws are not contrary to the Orthodox Faith. As we’ve already said, the Orthodox Church has never objected to hand washing, mask wearing or vaccination. 

Lockdowns, however, are different because they affect the life of the Church here on earth by stopping the faithful from worshipping freely. In the UK, the lockdown has been quite relaxed, with little police involvement. In other countries, however, the police have been much more aggressive particularly in regard to Orthodox Christian worship.

Many of us are deeply concerned about the whole idea of lockdowns. Even the scientists advising the government cannot agree about them. Some view them as a solution to stopping the spread, but others point out that lockdowns lead to more deaths from other health conditions.  We must not, however, seek solace or reassurance in lockdown conspiracy theories.  We must first place our trust in God and those He has appointed to shepherd us – our bishops.

It’s important to remember that each bishop speaks only to the people in his diocese. He is responding to the situation in his particular country. Some of our bishops might be more ‘anti-lockdown’ than others because of the situation in their diocese. This is why it’s so important to read and act on the encyclicals that all our bishops have signed together. These give us general guidance more country-specific guidance will come from our own bishop.

In the UK, at the moment, the government is not persecuting the Orthodox Church it is banning gatherings of people in pubs, gyms, shops and football stadia as well as in places of worship. Complying with the regulations in this country is not anti-Orthodox. We don’t enjoy complying, but we do it as our duty. Our everyday life might have changed, but one thing we will never change is our faith and worship. Our bishops have said: ‘the Church alone, and no one else is responsible for determining the rules for Her worship and good order.’

Our bishops have stated that what is happening today is probably the prelude to greater tribulations. We cannot prepare for persecution by researching conspiracy theories – persecution is not a childish game. We need to prepare ourselves for whatever God permits us to suffer by strengthening our faith, living a life of repentance and praying for God’s mercy.

 Frequently Asked Questions 

Taken from Protocols 3022 and 3026. Additional quotes from The Orthodox Church and Eschatological Frenzy by Bishop Cyprian of Oreoi.

Does coronavirus exist?

Yes. Our bishops say that coronavirus can kill people despite being ‘infinitesimal and invisible’. ‘Faithful who belong to at-risk groups, and especially those of advanced age and those with serious illnesses should avoid exposing themselves to the virus.’

How scared should we be of coronavirus?

‘Fear and panic have no place among our faithful, clergy and laity alike. What is needed is strengthening of faith, repentance, sobriety, responsibility and prayer.’

Should we wear face masks in shops and on public transport?

Yes, if the law says we should. Our bishops say: ‘If, as true Christians, we have love and concern for others, let us display it by refraining from behaving heedlessly, tiresomely, or even dangerously towards them.’

Does the wearing of a face mask prepare us to accept the Antichrist?

No. ‘This activity of the Devil that prepares the way for the Antichrist has always been going on. Satan, who labours methodically to make men antichrists, has no need of perceptible and visible signs to achieve domination. He quietly introduces worship of himself so as to find them instructed beforehand in his ways, and to recognise himself as already formed in them.' (Bishop Cyprian of Oreoi)

Isn’t ‘controlling the spread of the virus’ really only an excuse for governments to control the people?

No. Our bishops are aware of the ‘critical nature of the situation and the looming peril, on account of our sins, from the further spread of coronavirus. Hence, we cannot ignore the good and anguished efforts of all those responsible agencies that are striving to avert this evil and to safeguard public health’.

I’m protected by God. I don’t need to follow government rules.

‘When the human factor of imperfection or indifference intrudes, there the Grace of God does not automatically act to restrain or alleviate it. It abides and acts only where the conditions are suitable, where people diligently do what is expected of them, and especially when their hearts are pure.’

What if the government takes advantage of its new powers?

‘Our Risen Lord is the Judge also of the rulers of this earth, and the rulers and authorities of this world will give an account before Him of how they handled the authority He gave them.’

How does that answer help us here and now?

‘We should take comfort in the fact that [Governments] cannot do anything against us except what the Lord permits, and also in how every evil that occurs by God’s leave  eventu- ally proves to be for the good, since we are tested in order that we may become worthy of eternal glory.’

What about those who say that our Synod’s position is too ‘pro-government’?

‘The Church of Christ is not influenced by the modus operandi and practices of extra-ecclesiastical schismatic circles or heretical groups.’

Are our bishops recommending that we refuse a coronavirus vaccine?

No. Our bishops also say that the ‘assiduous, exhaustive efforts’ of coronavirus scientists are ‘praiseworthy’.

Are microchips something to do with the mark of the Beast?

‘Pious Orthodox Christians are not influenced by various newfangled theories concerning “marks” or “preliminary marks”. All fear and anguish either about a “mark” imposed through the use of identity cards and other technological systems, or in general about some visible “mark” on the human body, are a trick of the devil to deflect our attention and are wholly unfounded.’ (Bishop Cyprian of Oreoi)

What if they inject us secretly with a microchip when they inject the vaccine?

‘The mark cannot be understood as a mechanical procedure of imposing or receiving an outward sign, which turns us into Antichrists automatically and regardless of our spiritual condition.’ (Bishop Cyprian of Oreoi)

How can we avoid being deceived into accepting the mark ?

We must live a life of true faith in God and repentance: ’The mark of the Beast betokens an inward procedure and relationship, which means: to belong to, partake of, receive, be conformed to, and assimilated to Satan. (Bishop Cyprian of Oreoi)

Can you catch coronavirus from taking Holy Communion?

No. ‘Divine Communion is indeed intrinsically insusceptible to defilement.’

Do we have to accept everything the medical experts say?

No. ‘[The Church] does not await the suggestions of people outside Her, even of ‘experts’ who, if not under the sway of a hostile and anti-Christian spirit, are at best unqualified to offer proposals for her functioning, for the celebration of Her worship. The Church – She alone, and no one else – is responsible for determining the rules for Her worship and good order.’

Are things going to get worse?

‘All that is happening is probably the prelude to greater tribulations. Yet we emphasise that nothing should deprive us of the invincible joy of the Resurrection and the sure hope of victory.’

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Organ Donation

Most transplants are carried out whilst the donor heart is still beating. To make this possible doctors have invented the term ‘brain death’ - the idea that people are ‘dead’ even though their heart is still beating. We would say that people who are ‘brain dead’ are still alive. In fact, sometimes they wake up – even as doctors are getting them ready for the operation to have their organs removed.

Hearts are always taken from ‘heart beating’ donors, but there’s another reason why we shouldn’t have heart transplants. The heart is the centre of our existence and is mysteriously connected with the experiences of our soul.

We are taught at school that the heart is only a pump, but some heart transplant patients change personality and become like the donor. These changes in favourite foods, music and hobbies happen even though the patient knows nothing about the donor.

After receiving the heart of a seventeen year old black teenager, a white manual worker started listening to classical music. This is what his wife said about it:

He’s driving me nuts with the classical music. He doesn’t know the name of one song and never, never listened to it before. Now, he sits for hours and listens to it. He even whistles classical music songs that he could never know. How does he know them? You’d think he’d like rap music or something because of his black heart. 

Of course, this man and his wife didn’t know that the teenager had been killed on the way to a violin lesson - he loved classical music and died hugging his violin case.

Some people object to organ donation because the body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit and mustn’t be destroyed. This is true, but the aim of organ donation isn’t the destruction of the body – it’s to help other people. It’s not like cremation which deliberately burns the body like the pagans used to.

Most Orthodox Christians say that donating organs is OK as long as the heart has already stopped. We can give blood if we are able. We can also donate bone marrow, a kidney or part of our liver. Obviously donating part of our organs is a very serious matter and we need to discuss it with our relatives, doctors and our spiritual father.

However, it’s very important to keep our names off the donor register because it’s not possible to opt-out of ‘heart beating’ donation.

There is more information on Orthodoxy and organ donation in our book 'The Grace of the Spirit'.

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Explanation of the Ascension Icon

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Christ ascended into heaven on the fortieth day after His Resurrection. By His ascension in the Body, Christ raised our corrupted human nature and glorified it. The Feast of the Ascension always falls on the Thursday after the Sunday of the Blind Man which is exactly forty days after Pascha. 

The Acts of the Apostles, written by the Apostle Luke, starts with an account of Christ’s Ascension:
The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen: to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God (Acts 1: 1-3).
We know from the account in the Acts of the Apostles that Christ ascended from the Mount of Olives. In this icon, the mountain is represented by the rocks and the stylized olive trees which appear to sway and point towards Christ. 

Christ is shown blessing with His right hand. We hear in the Gospel: 'He blessed them, He was parted from them, and carried up into heaven' (Luke: 24:51). In His left hand He holds a scroll which is a symbol of His teaching.

The concentric circles that surround Christ are called a mandorla in iconography. A mandorla portrays Christ’s glory, and in this icon also signifies the highest heavens to which Christ is ascending. Two  angels are shown supporting the mandorla. In some icons (see below) the angels are shown blowing trumpets recalling the verse in the Psalms: ‘God is gone up in jubilation, the Lord with the voice of the trumpet’ (Ps. 46:5). We greet each other with this psalm verse during the feast of the Ascension. The greeting is 'God is gone up in jubilation.' The reply is 'The Lord with the voice of the trumpet.'
  • The Ascension of Our Lord, Russian icon from the Malo-Kirillov Monastery, Novgorod School, 1543 downloaded from PBS LearningMedia,
  • This work is out of copyright, with photographic rights held by the Bridgeman Art Library.
Christ is shown seated upon a rainbow or sometimes on a throne. He is seated because He was received up into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father. Christ the Son of God is one in essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit - and has never been separated from them. The throne and the rainbow refer to this verse in the Revelation of Saint John: 

Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald (Rev. 4:2-3).
The Theotokos stands directly underneath Christ, in the centre of the foreground. She does not look up, but looks peacefully toward us. She holds her left hand closer to her chest, with palm outward - as do the the martyrs in their icons. This signifies the faith of the Church. In contrast to the apostles, the Theotokos appears still and peaceful. She, unlike the apostles, has a halo around her head signifying that while the apostles waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit, she had been chosen by God and was already overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1:35). In some icons she stretches out her arms in prayer signifying the prayers of the Church.

Two angels stand either side of the Theotokos. They point to Christ  illustrating the account of the Ascension in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘Ye men of Galilee why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, Who is taken up from you into heaven shall come again in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven’ (Acts 1:11). In some icons, the angels hold scrolls with this verse on them. The Ascension icon therefore foretells the Second Coming of Christ. The Mother of God and the Apostles are an image of the Church waiting for the Second Coming.

The apostles are arranged either side of the Theotokos - six on the right and six on the left. St. Paul is on her right, and St. Peter on her left. In contrast to the Theotokos, the heads of the apostles are lifted up, and some hold their hands out in amazement or gesture towards Christ ascending. St. Paul shields his eyes with his right hand recalling his being blinded by the light of Christ on the road to Damascus. 

Christ ascended before St. Paul converted to Christianity, but he is depicted for an important theological reason. The Theotokos and the apostles in the foreground represent the Church awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended not only on the apostles present, but also established the whole Church from among the nations of the world. St. Paul's presence signifies the completeness of the Church. He is also included for another important reason. Just before the Ascension, Christ commanded His apostles to ‘go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature' (Mark 16:15). St. Paul, by His preaching of the Gospel brought countless people to the Faith which is why He is called  God’s chosen vessel and  the Chief of the Apostles.

Christ foretold both His Ascension and the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost when He told His disciples: ‘It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you’(John 16:7).  At this time, it is not possible for most Orthodox Christians to celebrate these important feasts by partaking of the Holy Mysteries and by venerating the icons in church. However, when we look on this icon, we should call to mind the conclusion of the oikos of Ascension matins: ‘The bountiful Giver of gifts distributed gifts unto His Apostles, calling to them as a Father, and strengthening them; He guided them like sons and said unto them: I am not separated from you; I am with you, and no one can be against you.'

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Explanation of the Mid-Pentecost Icon

On the Wednesday of the Fourth Week after Pascha we celebrate the feast of Mid-Pentecost. This feast always falls on a Wednesday because it is exactly halfway between Pascha and Pentecost. The icon of the Feast shows Christ addressing the Jewish elders in the Temple. We hear about this in the Gospel reading for Mid-Pentecost which begins:

Now when Mid-feast was come, Jesus went up into the temple, and taught. And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this Man letters, having never learned?’ Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not Mine, but His that sent Me.

The Jewish feast that is mentioned in the Gospel is the Feast of Tabernacles. The Fathers teach that Christ's teaching in the Temple on this feast prefigured the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Gospel for the Feast of Pentecost is a continuation of the account of Christ teaching in the Temple of the Feast of Tabernacles:

In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on Me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. But this spake He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.

Christ foretells the coming of the Holy Spirit as ‘rivers of living water’. This is why we bless Holy Water on the Feast of  Mid-Pentecost. Water is also mentioned in the Dismissal Hymn of the Feast: 

In the midst of the feast give Thou my thirsty soul to drink of the waters of piety; for Thou, O Saviour, didst cry out to all: Whosoever is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. Wherefore, O Well-spring of life, Christ our God, glory be to Thee. 

The icon of Mid-Pentecost shows Christ sitting on a semi-circular seat and teaching the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes seated either side of him.
The roll of parchment in Christ’s left hand signifies His teaching. He holds out His right hand to illustrate His words. The men are shown in a state of amazement and conferring with one another. This illustrates their words recorded in the Gospels: ‘How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?'  The semi-circular seating arrangement is also found in the Icon of Pentecost - illustrating that this feast is a prefiguring of the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Christ is portrayed without a beard as the Gospel records that He was twelve years old at the time. Icons that portray Christ as a youth are called icons of Emmanuel which means ‘God with us’. These icons teach us that Christ is the Wisdom and Word of God incarnate. He was born in Bethlehem and grew into a man in every way like us - except without sin.