Within A Mandorla

There is a small class of events within the gospels that are treated in a special manner by iconographers. This special treatment reflects the language of Scripture as well. In the icons of the Transfiguration, Pascha and the Ascension, there is a particular artistic device used called a Mandorla. Sometimes circular, sometimes almost star-shaped, it serves as something of a “parenthesis” within an icon. What is being set in the parenthesis is an event which somehow transcends what most of us think of as normal. 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.

In the icon of the Transfiguration, the transfigured Christ stands within the mandorla. The Church’s hymns remark on this in their own manner:

You were transfigured on the mount, O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners,
through the prayers of the Theotokos.
O Giver of Light, glory to You!

In this text for the Troparion (Hymn) for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Christ’s glory is described as having been revealed to his disciples “as far as they could bear it.”

The Kontakion of the Feast carries the same message:

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world, That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!

The disciples are described in the Scriptures as having been “afraid.” St. Peter speaks of building three tabernacles, “because he did not know what to say.” The experience is more than even the words of Scripture can express.

The depiction of the Ascension in iconography has this same artistic device. Some would perhaps wonder why an event that is described in a prosaic manner “a cloud received him from their sight” should need to be framed within the parentheses of a mandorla. Of course, this description is given only in the book of Acts. Mark and Luke simply say that he was “carried up into heaven.” We are at a place where language has a limit. Indeed, Mark says that he 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.

To acknowledge this is not to weaken the witness of Scripture or to make a concession to the historical uncertainty of liberalism. It is simply to recognize the nature of the Biblical witness. The iconographic witness of the Church affirms this – placing the Ascension of Christ within a mandorla – recognizing that this will only be known and understood by the mystical knowledge of faith (and by faith I do not mean an intellectual leap of judgment). I will return to this matter of faith shortly.

Very similar to this event is Christ’s Descent into Hades, the traditional icon of Christ’s Pascha. In this icon we see what is referenced in several places within the Scriptures and upheld in the Church’s dogma – that Christ descended into Hades and “trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” But when we confess this cornerstone of our faith we are not reciting what is known by eyewitness account. Eyewitnesses see Christ’s crucifixion and eyewitnesses place Him in the tomb. Eyewitnesses return to the tomb on early Sunday morning and find the tomb open and empty.

The resurrected Christ appears to his disciples. In St. Paul’s recitation of the “tradition” (for that is the word he uses to describe his recitation, we hear:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

There are interesting descriptions that accompany the Scriptural witness of Christ’s resurrection appearances. St. Mark says:

After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them (Mark 16:12-13).

This, of course, is St. Mark’s brief account of the encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus, described in detail in St. Luke’s gospel. We could add to that St. Mary Magdalen’s mistaking the resurrected Christ for “the gardener” until he speaks her name.

Such statements are not accidental “slips of the tongue” in which the gospel writers leave clues that indicate doubts about the reality of the resurrection. This is a silly conclusion drawn by some modern, liberal scholars. The gospels are carefully written. It is absurd to assume anything accidental within their pages.

What we have instead is a “verbal mandorla,” a description that points to a reality that impinges upon our reality but which has a depth that transcends anything we could imagine. This is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

This brings me back to the question of faith. There is a form of Christian literalism which belongs to a secular culture. The world is rendered only in a secularized, objective manner. Nothing is ever set within a mandorla. There is no perception of the mystery which has come among us in our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. In such a form of Christianity, faith is simply a description of what someone accepts as a set of “facts” in the same manner that we accept or reject what we read in a newspaper, etc. The facts are as static and empty as our perception. No change need happen in the witness of such facts. Either it happened and you saw it, or it did not happen. But the Scriptures themselves indicate that the nature of the witness has a radically different character:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

If Christ appears to them, how is it that some doubted? The Biblical witness would never have allowed such a statement if it was trying to defend the modern literalism of secularized Christianity. Instead, the witness of Christ points us towards the depth of the mystery that is the truth of our relationship with risen Christ. We know Him and perceive Him not simply through a set of intellectual arguments, or even simply through our trust in reliability of historical witness. A “faith” which is founded on argument, no matter how sound the argument, still fails to change the one who accepts it. The result of such “faith” is opinion, not true faith.

True faith ultimately requires a union, a participation, in the very life of the risen Christ. Thus, we are not Baptized into opinions, but into the very death and resurrection of Christ. To use the language of icons, our life is plunged into a mandorla which is nothing other than the Kingdom of God. We are called to live within that parenthetical state – where our lives constant refer and point to the reality which has now filled us. Such a life transcends the literalism of doubt and opinion and enters into a union with God that is itself a witness to the coming of the Kingdom. It is the banishment of secularism and affirmation of the living truth of Christ.

I would not dare to shake the faith of any nor suggest an element of doubt with regard to the events of Christ’s Transfiguration, Ascension or His Descent into Hades. Instead I want to push us towards a deeper perception and participation in those realities – for this is the very root of the Christian life.

The Fathers taught us: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” The iconic grammar of the mandorla, points us to the great mysteries made known to us in Scripture and make it clear that such mysteries may be known and entered into. Glory to God!

Within a Mandorla

There is a small class of events within the gospels that are treated in a special manner by iconographers. This special treatment reflects the language of Scripture as well. In the icons of the Transfiguration, Pascha and the Ascension, there is a particular artistic device used called a Mandorla. Sometimes circular, sometimes almost star-shaped, it serves as something of a “parenthesis” within an icon. What is being set in the parenthesis is an event which somehow transcends what most of us think of as normal. 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.

In the icon of the Transfiguration, the transfigured Christ stands within the mandorla. The Church’s hymns remark on this in their own manner:

You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners,
through the prayers of the Theotokos.
O Giver of Light, glory to You!

In this text for the Troparion (Hymn) for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Christ’s glory is described as having been revealed to his disciples “as far as they could bear it.”

The Kontakion of the Feast carries the same message:

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!

The disciples are described in the Scriptures as having been “afraid.” St. Peter speaks of building three tabernacles, “because he did not know what to say.” The experience is more than even the words of Scripture can express.

The depiction of the Ascension in iconography has this same artistic device. Some would perhaps wonder why an event that is described in a prosaic manner “a cloud received him from their sight” should need to be framed within the parentheses of a mandorla. Of course, this description is given only in the book of Acts. Mark and Luke simply say that he was “carried up into heaven.” We are at a place where language has a limit. Indeed, Mark says that he 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.

To acknowledge this is not to weaken the witness of Scripture or to make a concession to the historical uncertainty of liberalism. It is simply to recognize the nature of the Biblical witness. The iconographic witness of the Church affirms this – placing the Ascension of Christ within a mandorla – recognizing that this will only be known and understood by the mystical knowledge of faith (and by faith I do not mean an intellectual leap of judgment). I will return to this matter of faith shortly.

Very similar to this event is Christ’s Descent into Hades, the traditional icon of Christ’s Pascha. In this icon we see what is referenced in several places within the Scriptures and upheld in the Church’s dogma – that Christ descended into Hades and “trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” But when we confess this cornerstone of our faith we are not reciting what is known by eyewitness account. Eyewitnesses see Christ’s crucifixion and eyewitnesses place Him in the tomb. Eyewitnesses return to the tomb on early Sunday morning and find the tomb open and empty.

The resurrected Christ appears to his disciples. In St. Paul’s recitation of the “tradition” (for that is the word he uses to describe his recitation, we hear:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

There are interesting descriptions that accompany the Scriptural witness of Christ’s resurrection appearances. St. Mark says:

After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them (Mark 16:12-13).

This, of course, is St. Mark’s brief account of the encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus, described in detail in St. Luke’s gospel. We could add to that St. Mary Magdalen’s mistaking the resurrected Christ for “the gardener” until he speaks her name.

Such statements are not accidental “slips of the tongue” in which the gospel writers leave clues that indicate doubts about the reality of the resurrection. This is a silly conclusion drawn by some modern, liberal scholars. The gospels are carefully written. It is absurd to assume anything accidental within their pages.

What we have instead is a “verbal mandorla,” a description that points to a reality that impinges upon our reality but which has a depth that transcends anything we could imagine. This is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

This brings me back to the question of faith. There is a form of Christian literalism which belongs to a secular culture. The world is rendered only in a secularized, objective manner. Nothing is ever set within a mandorla. There is no perception of the mystery which has come among us in our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. In such a form of Christianity, faith is simply a description of what someone accepts as a set of “facts” in the same manner that we accept or reject what we read in a newspaper, etc. The facts are as static and empty as our perception. No change need happen in the witness of such facts. Either it happened and you saw it, or it did not happen. But the Scriptures themselves indicate that the nature of the witness has a radically different character:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

If Christ appears to them, how is it that some doubted? The Biblical witness would never have allowed such a statement if it was trying to defend the modern literalism of secularized Christianity. Instead, the witness of Christ points us towards the depth of the mystery that is the truth of our relationship with risen Christ. We know Him and perceive Him not simply through a set of intellectual arguments, or even simply through our trust in reliability of historical witness. A “faith” which is founded on argument, no matter how sound the argument, still fails to change the one who accepts it. The result of such “faith” is opinion, not true faith.

True faith ultimately requires a union, a participation, in the very life of the risen Christ. Thus, we are not Baptized into opinions, but into the very death and resurrection of Christ. To use the language of icons, our life is plunged into a mandorla which is nothing other than the Kingdom of God. We are called to live within that parenthetical state – where our lives constant refer and point to the reality which has now filled us. Such a life transcends the literalism of doubt and opinion and enters into a union with God that is itself a witness to the coming of the Kingdom. It is the banishment of secularism and affirmation of the living truth of Christ.

I would not dare to shake the faith of any nor suggest an element of doubt with regard to the events of Christ’s Transfiguration, Ascension or His Descent into Hades. Instead I want to push us towards a deeper perception and participation in those realities – for this is the very root of the Christian life.

The Fathers taught us: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” The iconic grammar of the mandorla, points us to the great mysteries made known to us in Scripture and make it clear that such mysteries may be known and entered into. Glory to God!

Standing at the Judgment Seat of Christ

“Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”

This statement by the 7th Council aptly describes the work of an icon – but fails to do justice to the reality. Scripture, as words to be read, necessarily becomes linear – words follow words and cannot be read except in the order in which they’re written. Icons, however, can do what Scripture does, but can also bring multiple Scriptures together in a single place, forming something of a commentary. Of course, icons that do this have a tendency to be somewhat jumbled, even busy. Formed by habits of reading, we frequently see such icons and attempt to “read” them, failing to notice the inner relationships within the various items and the commentary that they form.

This is particularly true in the traditional icon of the Last Judgment. Christ is seated (on the cherubim), surrounded by a mandorla, a circle that represents His transcendent glory. From beneath His feet proceeds the river of fire. The apostles are seated with Him. We see some who are being judged (with various demons being pictured as well). Of interest to me are a few details just below the seated Christ. They are the Cross, an altar, and the “balance scales (zygos) of righteousness.” This small collection does something Scripture (in words) cannot do. The three things are placed together because they are one and the same thing.

The Cross is itself the judgment seat of Christ. It is His throne. It is the place from which He reigns. It is also the place of atonement, and is thus the altar. Within the Church, the altar is understood to be both throne, footstool, place of atonement, etc. Lastly, the scales of righteousness, the judgment of Christ itself. Here the judgment is placed in a manner to say that these are all one thing. The Cross is all of these things, and all of these things are the Cross.

The icon directs our attention towards the manner of reading and understanding the Scriptures. Our tendency is to hear “judgment seat of Christ” and immediately picture a law court with the judge presiding, passing sentence. However, when that image is set within the context of the Cross, as in the icon, something different emerges. For example, we have this saying of Christ regarding judgment:

…God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” (Joh 3:17-21)

The imagery of judgment is changed. Here, it is not the assignment of punishment and reward, but the self-selection of all regarding the Light. Those who do evil hate the Light. Those who do the truth, are drawn to it. Compared to the imagery of the judge, the fire and the worms, such language is perhaps not as fascinating (in its original sense). But this language does much to reveal Christ’s Cross as the most faithful revelation of Christ’s judgment.

For so it was on the day of His crucifixion. The Judgment is revealed on Golgotha. The two thieves, sheep and goat, right and left respond to the Light. The words of judgment proceed from Christ: “Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing!” The hearts of the thieves are revealed (the Light reveals all things). One joins in the mockery of those who crucify and adds his own taunt, “Save yourself and us!” The other, whom tradition calls the “wise thief,” finds paradise in a single moment. He acknowledges his own shame and bears it. In his prayer he enters into communion with Christ. The forgiveness, already spoken by Christ, is made his own.

This is the true character of the Judgment. It is the Judgment prophesied by the elder Simeon when Christ was presented in the Temple as a child:

Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against…that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luk 2:34-35)

The Light always reveals things to be what they are. The heart of the wise thief is revealed in a manner that is truly surprising, and is not rebuffed. The other thief echoes the words of those who stand about and mock Christ. They rejoice at the shame they imagine themselves to have placed upon Him, though all that is revealed is the darkness and shame of their own lives. They will not bear any of it and would gladly thrust it on God Himself.

The shaming of God is a frequent thing, even to this day. “Why doesn’t God stop the violence, save the children, give us peace, make them stop, etc.?” All of the suffering in the world is a reflection of our own hearts, and we cannot bear it. It is too great in its enormity. Our shame is ultimately of our own making.

Christ brings no word of rebuke to the wise thief (nor to the thief who rejected Him). He says nothing to those who crucify. His words are for their forgiveness (strangely increasing the shame of those who hate the Light). His words are for His mother and His friend. He covers the shame of the wise thief who willingly yielded himself to public view (he acknowledges his crucifixion is just).

As I look at the icon of the Last Judgment, I realize that this same image stands before me every time I serve the Liturgy – the altar and the Cross. It is the dread Judgment seat of Christ.

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1Jo 1:7-10)

That is the Lenten journey. The Cross. The Altar. The Judgment.

A Christian ending to our life, painless, unashamed, peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask.

Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom!

God Has Gone Up with a Shout

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Ephesians 4:4-10

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Tomorrow marks the feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, 40 days after His resurrection. The icon of the feast notes the mystery of the event by placing Christ within a circle, known as a Mandorla, the traditional way to denote that something is beyond or normal vision or understanding. The Scriptures say that among the disciples who were present at His ascension, there were some “who doubted.”

It is a remarkable statement for those who presume an “objective” character to all forms of true knowledge. Obviously, the authors of Scripture did not share such a presumption.

Christ’s Ascension affirms that He has carried our humanity into the highest heaven and that it is seated “at the right hand of the Father.” It is a promise of a fullness to come and of the fullness which is made known to us, even now, in Christ Jesus.

The traditional greeting on the feast, taken from the Psalms: “God has gone up with a shout; the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.”

Indeed.

Facing the Consequences

Some thoughts on a comment by Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas:

Commenting on the stories of the Transfiguration in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas observed that each of the stories contains the phrase “coming down” in reference to the disciples’ descent from the mount of glory into the world of daily ministry. In each gospel, he noted, they come down to controversy and difficulties. In drawing a conclusion he stated:

We ourselves are filled with the same glory in the Divine Liturgy. But like the disciples, we have to ‘come down’ and face the consequences of our faith.

The icon of the Transfiguration, like the icon of Pascha and the icon of the Ascension, places Christ in a “parenthetical” position, portrayed in the midst of an artistic figure that is known as a “mandorla.” In the grammar of icons it frames Christ in a moment that is transcendent – a moment that somehow escapes our ability to see clearly or describe. They are moments of Christ revealed in His glory and moments that reveal the fullness of truth that is found in Him.

But the danger for us as believers is to make Christ Himself a “parenthetical” moment in our lives – occasions and encounters marked off from the rest of the day or week – sometimes from the rest of our lives – and kept somewhere under the heading of “religion” or “faith.” This is especially true when faith in Christ becomes a “private” matter – occasionally distorted with the name of “my personal faith.”

Encountering Christ in His glory – whether that of the Transfiguration when we know Him as God – or that of Pascha when we know His glory in the humility of the Cross – or that of the Ascension when we see Him return to the right hand of the Father – however we encounter Christ – there must and should be consequences to our faith.

To live as a faithful believer in this world is an assurance of difficulties. It is the promise of Christ to us:

 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mk. 10:29-30).

And St. Paul:

Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12).

There are many who have read the word “persecution” and have thought only of the literal persecution inflicted by a legal authority – which has not been uncommon in the history of Christianity but has not been nearly as universal as the promise. We have to understand persecution in a broader sense – that obedience to the gospel of Christ inherently brings us into conflict with the world, and even with much that is within our own lives. The gospel will have consequences.

I would argue that the gospel not only will have consequences, but that it must have consequences. The very action of its consequences in our lives is part of the saving grace of God working in us the treasure of our salvation.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us (Romans 8:15-18).

Returning to the image given us in the Transfiguration stories – we are shown the way through the “sufferings of this present time.” We must “come down”. That is, we follow Christ on the way of the Cross in which His self-emptying before the sufferings of this world were, in fact, the humility of God, indeed the power of God that is victorious over all things.

May God give us grace to “face the consequences” of the Gospel and to share in His victorious suffering. This same inevitability of suffering also makes it incumbent on the faithful to live in such a way that we can support one another in the sufferings each bears. This is part of the essential life of the Church and perhaps the part that is most often neglected or least developed. It is particularly difficult in the culture of individualism to understand that the sufferings of one are the sufferings of all, just as the joy of one is the joy of all. We are tempted to suffer alone rather that ask for help and we are hesitant to help when we are asked. But the consequences of the gospel would demand both of us – to humble ourselves to receive help and to help others in our humility.

Again – it is what the gospel terms: love.