Friday, May 18, 2012

Icon of the Ascension

Friday in the week of Easter 6
May 18, 2012

The Lord be with you

Yesterday was the Ascension of our Lord. Kitty and I joined with other area Lutherans in a special worship service. The service was conducted at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Greenville. Good Shepherd is one of those congregations that appreciate art and some of that art happens to be icons. Now, when I write “icons,” I don’t mean those little cartoon images so prevalent on computers. In this case, icons are a very old style of painting quite common in the Eastern Orthodox denominations (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.). They are considered theology in paint and, as such, those who paint icons do not say they “paint” icons, but that they “write” icons.

At Good Shepherd, they have an Icon of the Ascension of our Lord, which had been placed in the altar area. Every element in an icon has significance. Below is an image of an icon of the Ascension of our Lord. It is not the exact icon at Good Shepherd. That doesn’t matter, because icons follow a distinctive pattern. All “real” icons of the Ascension “must” have specific elements. Therefore the significance in the icon of the Ascension is the same from icon to icon. Following the icon is an explanation of the icon which was made available at Good Shepherd. This explanation is drawn from For All the Saints, vol. 3, pages 1228-1232, 1995 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau), page 1228 and following. This is a wonderful devotional book.

The Icon of the Ascension of Our Lord

The earliest image of the Ascension comes from the fifth century and depicts Christs return to God the Father as recorded in Luke 24:50 and Acts 1:9-11.

At first one is puzzled when looking at the icon because Christ appears to be smaller than and secondary to Mary, the apostles, and angels. Also puzzling is that Mary is present at all since the biblical account does not record her being at the Ascension but rather at Pentecost (Acts 1:12-14). But this disparity expresses the theological meaning of the event, in which Christ establishes and defines the role and significance of the church in the world and her relationship to God. In the words of Paul, “...and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23).

Thus we notice that Mary, who dominates the icon, stands in the center of the angels and disciples. She is the one who has taken God into herself and become the temple of the incarnate Word, and thus symbolizes the church—the body of Christ. As the personification of the church she is placed directly beneath her Son. He is leaving her behind on earth but through the promised descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost the church will receive all the fullness of his being. This link between the Ascension and Pentecost is revealed in the words, “ is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

From the postures of the disciples and the placement of the angels in the sky and on earth around Mary and Jesus, the heavenly and the earthly appear to be joined. By looking carefully one can see a hidden design or pattern, with one triangle that points down extending from the lower part of the two upper angels to the feet of Mary, and another triangle that points up extending from the lower left and right through Mary’s head. The total image suggests movement and seems to say that by Christ’s Ascension “he fills all in all,” heaven and earth are joined, and the finite contains the infinite.

Mary’s hands are lifted in prayer, indicating the role the church is to fulfill in praying for the world, and her stillness expresses the immutability of God's Word, whose keeper is the church. In contrast, the disciples as they stand on either side of Mary are animated, their postures expressing awe and dismay. Each one is different in appearance, perhaps a foreshadowing of the icon of Pentecost and the multitude and variety of gifts that will be given to the church called to bear witness to one Lord.

Although Matthias has not yet been chosen, there are twelve apostles, for St. Paul appears, on Mary’s left. He is one who did not know Christ in the flesh, being “untimely born” (I Corinthians 15:8), but the icon represents the church in its fullness and not just those historically present at the Ascension. Paul also expresses the church’s mission to the Gentiles.

The angels’ hands point to the ascending Christ and announce to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). This is a reminder to the church to proclaim the Second Coming of Christ in Glory and that he will return to judge “both the living and the dead.”

The hilly landscape and presence of olive trees reminds us that the event took place on the Mount of Olives.

His hand raised in blessing calls to mind that as he ascended, he blessed them (Luke 24:50-51). Though Christ is here leaving the world in the flesh, we know that he did not abandon it in his divinity but is ever present, filling all things and promising “and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

This explanation is only partial and focuses on the elements unique to this particular icon. There are also a great many “standard” symbols in the icon. Just a few dealing with the depiction of Jesus include him sitting on a rainbow. This, drawn from Revelation 4:3, points to Jesus as the all-powerful God. The circle around Jesus reminds us that he has entered eternity. The “nimbus” (halo) always reminds us of heaven. Jesus’ halo is different from the others, divided into three parts. This reminds us of the Trinity, of whom Jesus is the “Second Person.” Even the position of our Lord’s hands, like the position of Mary’s hands, has meaning. These sorts of symbols are seen in icon after icon, and become something of a language by which you can “read” an icon, even the first time you see one.

I hope you enjoy this icon and appreciate a portion of the theology depicted in it. I also hope that maybe a few who read this post might be intrigued enough to learn more about this ancient art form by which the Church has taught for centuries.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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