May 27, 2012
The Lord be with you
Today is Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter. Below is the Icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit and an explanation drawn from For All the Saints.
Icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit
The first representations of the icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit had Mary, the mother of God, in the center of the apostles as the biblical record suggests (Acts 1:14). However, with the gradual unfolding of the understanding of the significance of Pentecost, Mary was removed from the icon for theological reasons, just as Mary, not present at the Ascension according to the biblical record, was placed in the center of the apostles in the icon of the Ascension. Theologically Mary symbolizes the church as the bearer of Christ who received the promise of the Holy Spirit. Here in the icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit that promise is fulfilled, and the emphasis is placed on the multiplicity of the church’s members and their gifts united in one mission.
Looking at the icon one first notices a semi-circular bench around which the twelve apostles sit in perfect harmony, reminding the viewer of the icon of the Holy Trinity and the circle of love and oneness between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Here that unity is found in the circle (mandorla) at the top of the icon, symbolic of God the Father, with twelve rays descending, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, toward the head of each apostle. The rays then terminate in the tongues or flames of fire (which cannot be seen in this icon) resting on each of them, reminding us of the words of John the Baptist, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). Below the circle is an empty, unoccupied place at the head of the semi-circular bench between Peter on the left and Paul on the right, the place occupied by the invisible head of the church, Christ, who through the Holy Spirit, in the words of Luther, “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in unity with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
The icon appears at first to contradict the biblical record in Acts 2:1-21, since the external account of what the uninitiated saw was chaos—people were drunk with wine—but what is revealed in the icon is the inner experience of peace and calm of people of all nations united in the Spirit. The fathers of the church saw in the Pentecost event the restoration of what was lost at the time of the building of the earthly tower at Babel where humankind wanted to usurp the place of God and numerous languages were given so they could no longer communicate with one another (Genesis 11:1 -9). At Pentecost people of diverse languages were reunited in that all understood the promises of God in their own languages and were drawn back into oneness.
The diversity of gifts that the Spirit gives to each while uniting them is expressed in the individuality of each apostle. As they speak with one another each one’s face looks in a slightly different direction and no two of them have their hands or feet in the same position. Paul would later say, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” (1 Corinthians 12:4-13). The inverse perspective of the icon—the apostles grow larger in size as they recede to the background, making them all appear the same—shows that they are equal in honor and dignity.
Tradition says that, to fulfill the prophecy of Joel (2:28-29 and Acts 2:17-21), the Spirit descended not only on the twelve apostles but on all who were “together in one place” (Acts 2:1), that is, on the whole church. The icon also expresses this by showing apostles not belonging to the twelve. We have already mentioned Paul who sits opposite Peter, but others also appear who were not among the twelve such as Luke (third from the top on the left) and Mark (third from the top on the right). Collectively the twelve represent the fact that the work of the Holy Spirit is ongoing, and embraces the whole church of which they are a part. The evangelists each hold bibles in their hands and the rest hold scrolls, both being symbols of the apostolic message.
As the upper part of the semi-circular bench of apostles was opened to the heavens and the source of their unity in the Triune God, the bottom part of the semicircular bench opens on the world. In the oldest icons of the Descent of the Spirit the multitude mentioned as being baptized in Acts 2:41 were depicted by small figures in different costumes representing the people of the world. These were later replaced with the figure of a prince or king (as in this icon) whose name is “Cosmos,” a personification of the universe in captivity to the prince of death. But Cosmos holds in his hands a napkin or towel (expressive of reverence or respect) containing the twelve scrolls of the apostles, symbolic of the apostolic proclamation of the church and the promise of salvation to all who through the Spirit confess Jesus as Lord.
[For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church, volume IV (The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, Delhi, NY, 1996) 7-11]
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert