Thursday, February 28, 2013


This is, of course, the key image of Christianity.  Without the Crucifixion what profit would the Resurrection have been, indeed how would Christ have died?  Once He became Incarnate it was inevitable that Christ in confronting the evil one and sin would also confront suffering and death.  That does not mean that the individuals who subsequently were involved, who chose to unjustly try, convict and condemn the Lord and who caused His suffering and death had no choice in the matter.  They remained free to choose to do good or evil.  

In this icon the Lord is crucified between the two thieves.  Around Him the angels, overawed at His Divine Humility and Obedience  in His free embracing of suffering and death draw back, covering their faces.  Even their angelic intellects cannot grasp the Divine Goodness, Humility and Love.   The two thieves are crucified in two different ways not only so as to give greater emphasis to the particular suffering of Christ, nor only to show that the Romans (and by extension all evil institutions) distort imagination in the service of cruelty but to emphasise especially the particular and providential mode of His suffering and death. At this moment their legs are being broken to hasten their deaths.   Christ's arms are open to embrace all mankind so as to unite them to His Father.  He has become powerless, totally deprived of freedom, wealth, dignity, honour and instead has become immersed in pain and distress.   The mystics tell us that His greatest suffering was that this Love would be rejected by even one soul, that souls would choose not to enter into communion with the Father through the Sacrifice of the Son.

What is revealed here upon the Cross?  Here the Son completes His mission.  Here upon the Cross He shows us how utterly worthy of love, obedience and adoration is the Father.  Here God the Word,  the Image and Perfect Likeness of the Father empties Himself so completely that He freely embraces even death, the public death of a criminal and sinner.  He does so gladly, joyfully for it is the very 'essence' of the Son to make the Father known for He is the Self-Revelation of the Father.

On the left the women gather with the Mother of God who stands with Her Son is His final agony.  On the right the men gather with St. John and the Centurion who confessed the Lord at His death.  Legend has it he was healed of a disease at that moment.  On The left of the Cross a soldier holds the spear that has pierced the side of the Lord, a wound from which flowed out blood and water, symbols of the Sacraments that unite Christians to Christ in His Body the Church.  Through the wound in His side we gain entry to the very Heart of God made man, indeed, we enter into communion with the Triune God.

Beneath the Cross Christ's garments are being divided up while on either side the dead rise from their tombs.  According to one tradition Christ died over the very site where our first parents were laid and so there is always a cave depicted with the bones of mankind's first parents within.  We are doomed to death but not to darkness.  We cannot hold on to this world but that does not mean we have to forfeit the next.  His death has opened wide the gates of heaven and He holds them open with His outstretched  arms.  Christ appeals to the Father for mercy for us.  It is the voice of the Son that He hears and it is the self-emptying love of the Son that is offered to the Father on our behalf.  This is what makes the Cross salvific.  Human blood is shed but it is God who sheds it.  God sheds His own blood but with Love and Obedience.  His self-emptying on the Cross offers to the Father an infinitely valuable apology for the disobedience, ingratitude and selfishness of the human race.  On the Cross Christ re-establishes our walk with God that was interrupted in the Garden of Eden by our first parents' sin.  More than this He makes it possible, He provides both the will and the action, for us to enter into the very Heart of the Trinity and sit upon the Throne of God with Him.  The Cross is not the end His enemies intended but the beginning of something totally and wonderfully new.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


The above documentary series is from Serbia, I think, and is well worth watching even if will take some time (it's three and half hours in total).  The translation seems a little off - the grammar doesn't always make sense, some words seem to be used in an unusual and although the narrator seems to speak excellent English his pronunciation of other words is strange.  Despite these flaws it is an interesting and visually stunning series with lots of icons viewed up close.  The theology, if you can follow it through the grammar and terminology, is classical Orthodoxy.


Another densely populated icon.  Here Christ is welcomes into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.  His disciples follow behind Him.  People are laying their cloaks before the feast of the donkey and children are cutting branches from the trees to lay in His path.  The crowds press forward to receive Him and some look on from the walls.  Even the demons (under a black canopy in the top right quarter of the painting) look on aghast and bemused.  Christ enters not as a conquering King nor does He come in pomp and display of wealth.  There is nothing here of the world's pursuit of pleasure, power, wealth and fame.  As in His cleansing of the Temple the Lord uses the minimum necessary for the event.  His choice is to come non-violently, in humility and poverty, accessible and vulnerable.  He comes to Jerusalem in the way of a pilgrim but the crowds sense that He is more than He seems and respond with adoration.  How fickle is man.  Within a week they will turn against Him, deny and condemn Him. They  will join in His unjust and humiliating trial, His scourging, His mockery and the cruel bearing of the Cross to Calvary.  Then they will gather round for His crucifixion.  The Lord knows their hearts.  It was because humanity had become corrupted and was weighed down with sin and passions that He came to set us free.  He enters Jerusalem to complete the mission for which He entered the world: the salvation and liberation of man.

Monday, February 25, 2013


What a full icon!  Christ on the left with His apostles lifts His hand, His fingers forming the Divine Name of Jesus and asserting at the same time the Three Persons in the One God, orders Lazarus to come out of his tomb.  Martha and Mary kneel at His feet in supplication.  The on-lopers are amazed and the two poor fellows struggle with the weight of the stone and the implications of this miracle.  Even the mountains, representing created nature rise up as if to see more clearly this work of God-made-man.  Interestingly only Christ and Lazarus have haloes perhaps because having gone into the realm of the dead and now returned to the land of the mortal his eyes have been truly opened to see Christ as He is.

In John's account, the only Gospel to do so, we have the interesting contrast between Mary' tears, she who had chosen the 'better part', and Martha's faith:

 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem,  and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother.  When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;  and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.”  When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him.  Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply movedin spirit and troubled.  “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
 Jesus wept.
 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.”
 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

 Martha's confession parallels Peter's.  The faith of both sisters draws from Christ His mercy and compassion and so He raises Lazarus from the dead, an act that draws down the wrath of the Sanhedrin and precipitates their conspiracy to kill Him.

Entombed as we are within sin and death, incapable of saving ourselves, wrapped up in our vices and passions we need the saving action of God to free us.  We cannot by our own power free ourselves.  The Word and Image of the Father has descended to us and become Incarnate in the womb of the Virgin and ministered to us as man, fully human yet fully Divine.  He has endured the cross for us, suffered death for us and entered the tomb for us that we might be unbound and become free.  Not just free but through Him we have communion with the Triune God and eternal Life with Him.  We are Lazarus and He commands us to come forth from all that binds us in sin!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Above is the icon of the transfiguration from the Dionysiou Dodekaorton.  The Gospel account is set around the time of the Jewish feast of Tabernacles.  Originally a harvest festival the Jews spent the eight days of the feast in makeshift booths wether they were involved in working the fields or not.  There is an obvious link here to Christ's approaching crucifixion and death and the harvest of souls that will result.  He has chosen only three of his men, his inner circle of Peter, James and John, to experience this  encounter with the mystery of His being.

This icon has three sections.  At the top we have Christ in the centre surrounding by a deep blue mandorla land flanked by Moses and Elijah.  At the middle left Christ and three of the apostles, Peter, James and John, are ascending Mount Tabor while on the other side they are descending.  At the bottom the three apostles react to the revelation of Christ’s of Divine Personhood.

At the top left is Elijah his hand raised beseechingly to Christ.  Christ Himself raises His right hand in blessing while His left holds a scroll (barely visible).  The mandorla around Him is sometimes oval and sometimes circular as in this case.  According to the research of Andreas Andreopoulos the circular mandorla refers to the early Christian legend that the three Apostles were allowed to see into paradise while the oval mandorla emphasises the glory of the uncreated light that poured out from Him.   On the right stands Moses with the Law in His hands presenting it to the Lord.  Thus is presented to us the Gospel account of Christ speaking with Moses and Elijah, the Law-giver and the greatest of Israel's prophets about His approaching passion.

At the bottom the three apostles are prostrate with shock.  Peter alone looks on, his hand over his mouth.  The Father has told him to listen to Christ and so he must keep silent and contemplate the man he serves.  They lack haloes for they are not yet sanctified but are incapable of perceiving the uncreated light of God.  Nearby a cave makes reference to the cave (or cleft in the rock) in which Moses and later Elijah encountered God.  It also foretells the tomb in which Christ will be laid after His death and from which  He will rise and the darkness in which world languishes without His Light.  The hill upon which Christ stands has an almost wave-like form as if nature is rising to lift Him up.  It's lighter colour seems to point to His light that illuminates the world.

This Lent let us ascend the mountain with Christ.  Let us contemplate Him, our lives stripped of all that is not necessary and our hearts and minds focused on His Presence.  Let us place our hands over our mouths and, listening to the Beloved Son of the Father, hear again the words of the Word and put them into practice.

Aidan Hart, the foremost British iconographer,  has a great talk on "Icons as prayer without ceasing" at his website here.

Andreas Andreopoulos  Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology And Iconography  ISBN-10: 0881412953 ISBN-13: 978-0881412956.
  • Solrunn Ness The Uncreated Light: An Iconographiocal Study of the Transfiguration In the Eastern Church  ISBN-10: 0802817645 ISBN-13: 978-0802817648

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


This is the next image in the Dodekaorton sequence.  Here we see Christ being baptised in the Jordan.  On the left at the top Christ, accompanied by two of His disciples, is speaking to John the Baptist, the Forerunner of God.  In the centre John bends forward in a bow as he reaches out to baptize Christ.  Christ Himself, the largest of the figures, stands, clad only in a loincloth, in the chasm like river while on the right four angels, one looking up to heaven gather with hands to covered before the self-emptying incarnate Word.  Above Christ the Spirit, in the form of dove, descends from heaven.   Below John stands a tree with an axe laid against it.  This could refer to any number of texts, but the following seem to be the most probable:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. (Is. 11:1)
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Is. 53:2)
They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit. (Jer. 17:8)
The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Mt. 3:10) (NIV)
Christ's baptism makes our baptism possible as He sanctifies the waters of the world and through them the whole world.  This immersion into the waters of Jordan that God once used to wash away the leprosy of Naaman the Syrian is an anticipation of His immersion into suffering and death, indeed, into Hades itself.  This Trinitarian moment, this Epiphany, when the Father sends the Spirit to confirm the Jesus as Son is not for His benefit.  He did not lack the Spirit before hand.  This is for our benefit.  We are to hear the voice of the Father affirm the Beloved Son and see the Spirit descend on gentle wings, a manifestation in time and creation to the intimate union between the Persons of the All-Holy Trinity.  The angels look on in awe at His humility and yet will be even more astonished at His self-emptying on the Cross.  It is as if there is no place so low, so humble, so abject that Christ will not descend to it so as to reveal to us how worthy the Father is of obedience, worship and love.  In this self-emptying Incarnation, this identification with the lowest place, Christ embraces us and lifts us up into the very heart of God, the communions between the Three Divine Persons.

You are invited by Christ into the very heart of God.  He has opened the way through His humility and loving obedience.  Let this future glory inspire you this Lent.

Monday, February 18, 2013


I started this series some time ago and stopped after two so, at long last, I return to the task.  This is the third of the icons from the Dodekaorton, the twelve major events of Christ's life and  festivals of the Eastern Church that are featured on the iconostasis usually above the Deesis.  The Deesis is the icon of Christ enthroned with the Theotokos and St. John the Forerunner on either side.

This icon depicts the moment when the Theotokos and St. Joseph present the baby Christ in the Temple in Jerusalem.  St. Luke tells us:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 
 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant* in peace,
   according to your word; 
 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 
   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
   and for glory to your people Israel.’
 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:22-38)
Rather than reproduce the work of another though I refer you to the interesting post at A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Whilst cleaning out my room and sorting through the accumulated rubbish I acquire I found these pictures in a calendar from 1990.  All the work is by the Irish artist Richard King (1907-1974) who worked principally in stained glass and as an illustrator.  He worked for and succeeded the Irish stained glass artist Harry Clarke.  I posted some work by him before here.


Above: Mary, Mother of Christ and Queen of Saints

Above: Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy

Above: St. Attracta

Above: St. Aidan of Lindisfarne

Above: St. Brendan the Navigator

Above: St. Columbanus of Bobbio

Above: St. Brigid

Above: St. Finbar

Above: St. Ita

St. Caoimhin (Kevin) of Glendalough

Above: St. Kilian of Wurzburg

Above: St. Lorcan (Laurence) O'Toole

Above: St. Macartan


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