Annunciation of the Theotokos
The Annunciation (March 25) is one of the earliest feasts of the Church. It is the beginning of man’s salvation and the first revelation of God’s eternal mystery. There are two stories told in this icon. First, is invitation from God delivered by the Archangel Gabriel to Mary to become the Mother of God in the flesh. She would conceive the Second Person of the Trinity and yet remain a virgin. Second, is her response. In humility, she questioned him as to how this would be since it would be against the laws of nature. The angel told her that she would be overshadowed by the Most High and her child would be the Incarnate Son of God. As a picture of our salvation, she chose to accept God’s will for her life and the race of man.
Details of this icon further illustrate God’s economy in the Incarnation. The Holy Spirit is shown as a blue ray (mendorla) descending upon Mary. Gabriel holds a staff in his hand, indicating his position as God’s messenger. The one upraised wing depicts his swift descent from Heaven. The Theotokos is holding a spinning instrument in her hand showing us that she is a human being engaged in ordinary work. Her right hand is somewhat raised showing her surprise. Her head is bowed in humility and consent. The Theotokos is always wearing red shoes, a blue tunic and red stole. The three stars on it show her virginity before giving birth, while giving birth and after giving birth.
Ascension of Our Lord
The Ascension (40 days after Pascha) of Christ was a sad, yet joyous event for the Disciples. They were sorrowful to have Him no longer with them in His glorified body, yet He promised to send them the Comforter. He ascended from the Mount of Olives as shown by the branches among the rocks of the mountain. The circular nimbus (mendorla) shows the glory of Christ with the light and a band of colors. He is carried by the angels, signifying His majesty and divinity. The position of the disciples and the Theotokos directly below Christ show the foundation of the Church. Although there were only eleven disciples remaining, St. Paul is included with them.
Christ gave His life for the redemption of humanity on Great and Holy Friday. He was accused of blasphemy and tried at both a religious and a political trial. Several events occurring at the Crucifixion are shown in this icon. He was crucified by Roman soldiers outside the city gates after being mocked and scourged. Nails fastened His hands and feet to the wood and a spear pierced His side. A sign was placed at His head saying, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” He committed his spirit to the Father, and his body was removed and taken down before the Sabbath. We see the Theotokos looking up in anguish at her Son and being comforted by the Myrrhbearers and St. John the Beloved Disciple at His feet. He was the only disciple who remained at the Cross and Jesus commended the care of His Mother to him. Next to him is Longinus the Centurion who saw the events and glorified God declaring, “Truly this was a righteous Man.” Below the Cross is a dark hole with a skull representing Adam, the first created man. Tradition says he was buried under Golgotha and he was therefore the first man touched by the cleansing blood of Christ. The rocks split as creation groaned at His death.
Dormition of the Mother of God (August 15)
Tradition tells us that the Holy Theotokos was living in Jerusalem at the time of her falling asleep. Gabriel appeared to her and told her she would soon depart from the world to be with her Son. She returned to Bethlehem and sent for the disciples. They were miraculously transported from their preaching all over the known world to her bedside. She blessed them and encouraged them in faith for the hardships they would endure for Christ’s sake. Then Her Son, accompanied by angels and the souls of the prophets and forefathers, came to her bed and called her to Himself.
The disciples and all those who loved her carried her bier to the Garden of Gethsemane. A cloud of the heavenly hosts encircled the procession and protected them and the body of the All-Pure One from the unbelieving rabble. The disciples wept and sealed her tomb with a large stone. The Apostle Thomas was not present but came three days later. He begged to see her body once more, and when the tomb was opened, they found only her grave clothes. She appeared to them later that day and promised to be with them and to pray always for them. Christ is seen in the icon receiving her soul depicted as a small child wrapped in swaddling clothes. In front of her bier stands a candlestick with a lighted candle which is a symbol of her in our hymnography. She is the Mother of Life, and her falling asleep is a picture to us of Christian death.
The Elevation of the Cross (September 14)
This icon depicts the lifting up of the True Cross found in 326 by St. Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. After the persecutions of the Christians had ceased, the emperor sent his mother to Jerusalem to find the Cross of Christ. An old Jewish man told her it was beneath a pagan temple, where after its demolition three crosses and four nails were discovered. The identity of the True Cross was determined by miracles that occured when it was placed in contact with a woman seriously ill and a corpse from a passing funeral procession. A throng surrounded the precious and life-giving Cross, and the Patriarch and other spiritual leaders raised it up so the crowd could see and venerate it.
Nativity of Christ (December 25)
This icon shows several events surrounding the actual birth of our Lord. God came in the flesh to redeem humanity. Christ is in the center with a light over His head contrasting the Light of His Presence against the black entrance of the cave, the world, in which He was born. The angels are shown worshiping Him and summoning all creation to see the miraculous event. The shepherds came with their flocks and the wise men traveled from the East. The manger looks like a coffin and the Divine Child is wrapped in swaddling clothes, like a winding sheet foreshadowing His death. The animals next to the manger represent the prophecy in Isaiah, “An ox knows its owner, and an ass its master’s manger.” Two women bathe the infant Jesus showing His humanity. St. Joseph is seated on the other side while an old man or a demon tries to trouble his mind with doubts about Jesus’s birth. A nearby tree symbolizes the Tree of Jesse from which Christ comes.
The Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8)
Like many couples in the Scriptures, Sts. Joachim and Anna were advanced in years and barren. In their day, childlessness was considered a curse. It was a cause of derision by the Jews, and Tradition tells us that even their gifts were refused in the Temple because of it. Joachim retreated to the desert and cried out to God, and Anna wept bitter tears. Gabriel told them that God had heard their prayers and looked upon their life of piety. Anna would bear a daughter who would bear the Savior of the world. In the icon a group of virgins are shown ministering to Anna while Joachim looks down from a window. A midwife holds the Theotokos wrapped in swaddling clothes. This is truly a joyous event, as the birth of Mary is the beginning of our salvation.
Pentecost (50 days after Pascha)
Before the Ascension, the disciples had been instructed by Christ to go to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Jewish feast of Pentecost and await the descent of the Holy Spirit. A sound like a mighty wind filled the room where they had gathered and tongues of fire rested on each one. They miraculously spoke to those gathered for the feast from every nation in their own languages. St. Peter preached to them of Christ, and 3000 were converted. In the icon, twelve Apostles are seated in a semi-circle which shows their unity. Some gesture as if conversing. The authors of books in the Bible hold books and others hold scrolls which represent the gift of teaching. The center place is shown as empty because it is held for Christ, the invisible Head of the Church. The figure at the bottom is Cosmos, who depicts the world. He is in darkness because the world was formerly without the Light of Christ. He holds the message or scrolls of the Apostles on a white cloth. The eleven original Apostles are shown with St. Paul.
Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple (February 2)
Christ’s mother and St. Joseph presented Him in the Temple when He was forty days old, according to the Jewish custom of purification for a new mother of a male child. She had no need of purification but obeyed the law. Behind them is the Prophetess Anna who lived there in prayer and fasting for many years. Christ is held by St. Simeon, who with St. Anna, represents all the faithful who looked forward to God’s Revelation. St. Simeon was a very old man whose prayer to see God’s salvation was answered when he held Christ in his arms. His hands are covered as a sign of reverence; the hand of the Theotokos is covered and outstretched in giving her child to St. Simeon. St. Joseph is carrying two doves, the offering prescribed for the poor as the sacrifice of purification. The icon not only depicts an actual event, but also calls us to receive Him. Tradition says that St. Simeon is a powerful intercessor and that Christ is presenting him to God as well.
Presentation of the Theotkos into the Temple (November 20)
This icon shows an unusual event in Jewish religious custom. The Theotokos was taken by her parents, Sts. Joachim and Anna, to live in the Temple at age three. In their prayers for a child, they had vowed to dedicate her to God’s service. She is accompanied by virgins holding candles and presented to the high priest. She lived, prayed, studied and worked there until her betrothal to St. Joseph. In the window in the upper corner she is shown being fed by an angel. The Theotokos has a vital role in our salvation. She led a life that prepared her to be the living throne of God. Through her, God was incarnate. He took flesh from her and trampled down death by death.
Resurrection of Our Lord (Holy Pascha)
The Resurrection is the foundation of the Christian Church. Jesus was not only the Messiah, but the Son of God who destroyed death by dying and restored all of creation to life. The icon represents events occurring at that point since the Resurrection itself is unexplainable. Christ has descended into Hades and trampled down death. He is raising Adam and Eve by their hands and giving them life. Death is bound in chains. Christ’s divine Presence gives Light to the world, and His garments shine as He stands on the gates of Hell. Chains, locks and keys are broken and scattered. The stylized coffins look like the manger at His Nativity. With Him stand Kings David and Solomon, John the Baptist, and Old Testament Prophets. On His left stand others who have looked for God’s salvation.
Theophany (Baptism) (January 6)
This icon shows us the baptism of Christ, the event in His life with the greatest theological meaning. Primarily this was the first public manifestation of the Holy Trinity. He was baptized in the Jordan River by St. John the Forerunner. Although there was no need for His cleansing, He did so to fulfill the law, to sanctify the water, to cleanse human nature by water and to set an example to us. A depiction of the Father and the Holy Spirit are at the top of the icon, shown by a portion of a circle with a ray of light (mendorla) with an encircled dove and three rays descending to Christ’s head. Christ is shown as immersed and blessing the water with His right hand. All creation is now renewed. St. John has his left hand lifted in prayer and his right hand on Christ’s head. Angels are present with their heads bowed and hands covered in reverence. An ax is shown in the lower left corner showing the Baptist’s own words to the Pharisees and Sadducees recorded in Matthew 3:10, “And now the ax is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”
Transfiguration of Christ (August 6)
The Transfiguration shows us humanity meeting divinity in Christ and New Testament men seeing those who lived hundreds of years before them. Days after telling His Disciples of His death and resurrection, Christ took three of His Apostles, John, James and Peter, to Mount Tabor. There they saw His face and clothes shining in radiant light. They are shown at the bottom of the icon; Peter kneeling and shielding his eyes, John fallen to the ground, and James running from the light. Moses the Prophet, holding the Tablets of the Law, is on the left of Christ. Elias the Prophet is on His right. The Disciples saw them speaking with the Lord, then heard a voice from Heaven say, “This is my beloved Son; hear Him.” Moses represents the law and Elias represents the Prophets. Therefore Christ is the Lord of the Law and Prophets.
Triumphal Entry of Our Lord into Jerusalem (Sunday of Palms)
The Triumphal Entry is the feast which celebrates Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem. He is sitting on a young donkey which represents the Gentiles and is turned facing and blessing the Disciples. The crowd welcomed Him as a king, and children are shown placing cloaks on the ground and cutting palm branches. They greet Him crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” The Entrance is a fulfillment of the prophecy, “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.” The joyful Entry was short-lived, as soon the people rejected Him and demanded His crucifixion.