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The Conception of the Holy Theotokos
According to the Church Fathers, the obedience of the Holy Theotokos to God’s calling reverses the consequences of Eve’s first disobediance to His commandment. The Feast of the Annunciation was the first feast to be honored liturgically, and when the date of this event was identified, it became the starting point of what is called the Nativity cycle.
The Theotokos became the Mother of God because she first became His “ever-holy” one. Her holiness precedes her mystical Birthgiving. A contemplation for this feast: “Awed by the beauty of your virginity and the exceeding radiance of your purity. Gabriel stood amazed and cried to you, O Theotokos: ‘what grace my I offer you that is worthy of your beauty? By what name shall I call you? I am perplexed and stand in awe; but I shall greet you as I was commanded: Hail, O full of grace!’”
As we honor St. Mary’s willingness towards God’s will and cooperation with His plan for our salvation, we pray that our own vocation may be honored with the same courage, humility and love.
In this icon, Archangel Gabriel is the represented in swift motion as God’s messenger and also holds in his left hand a staff, the ancient symbol of a messenger. His right hand extends toward the Mother of God in both greeting and communion. Seated to emphasize her superiority over the Angel, the virgin accepts God’s calling with her arms raised in a gesture of submission.
Mystery of the Incarnation
The Incarnation is the self-emptying love of God. Christ took upon Himself our human nature, except without sin, that He might restore the original beauty of mankind that was made according to His image and likeness.
One of the hymns composed for this feast, states: “Today, the Virgin comes to give birth to the Transcendent One and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels with shepherds, glorify Him! The Magi journey with the star! Since for our sake the Pre-Eternal God was born as a little child.”
In this icon, the rays of light shining down from heaven onto the Child indicate the Trinitarian participation in this event. The Virgin is resting upon reddish bedding, the color of royalty. The shepherds represent the Jewish people while the Magi, the Gentiles. Joseph sits apart assuring that he is not the father. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, Christ was born in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes (foreshadowing His future death, burial, sepulcher and burial clothes). According to tradition, Christ was born between two animals, an ox and an ass; that the words of the Isaiah the prophet may be fulfilled: “The ox knows its owner and the ass its Master’s crib…” (Is. 1:3). According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, the ox as an imagery of the Jews bound by the Law and the ass as pagans who are enslaved to idolatry. The Magi offered their gifts: gold for a King; frankincense for He is God; myrrh for becoming a mortal man.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
The Manifestation of the Triune God
“The Savior of sinners was pleased to be baptized among sinners, not to be cleansed Himself but to sanctify the waters,” says St. Ambrose of Milan, “that is, to give them the virtue to cleanse away the sins of men.”
Christ took upon Himself the sin of mankind. He died under the water (immersion) and rose again that we might die to the old, sinful man and rise again, cleansed, renewed and reborn. Thus, He not only provided a pattern for the Mystery of Baptism but His Crucifixion and Resurrection are prefigured. St. Paul the Apostle says: “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ!” (Gal. 3:27)
“When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest, for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee and called Thee His Beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a Dove confirmed the truthfulness of His Word; O Christ our God, Who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, Glory to Thee!” a hymn by one of the Fathers.
In this icon, Christ, immersed in water, crushes the head of the dragon (Satan) in the depths. His nakedness and raised hands depict His self-emptying love and submission. St. John is on His right and three angels on His left, holding cloths as a sign of veneration. An axe is “laid to the root of a tree” (Mt. 3:10) in the corner.
Entry Into Jerusalem
Hosanna in the Highest
All four Evangelists record the triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, a prefigurement of His final victory over death. At the same time, His Entry into Jerusalem images our Lord’s installation in the Kingdom of His Glory, the New Jerusalem shining in the Glory of the Lord.
Dedicated to this occasion, a hymn of praise resounds: “Seated in heaven upon Thy throne and on earth upan a foal, O Christ our God, Thou hast accepted the praise of the angels and the songs of the children who cried out to Thee: ‘Blessend art Thou that comest to call back Adam.’”
In this icon, the focus of attention is on the portrait of Christ, seated sideways on a donkey. In contrast with emperors who rode mounted upon a war-horse, Christ rides the best of kings who come in peace. This fulfills Zachariah’s prophesy: “Behold your King is coming to you… mounted on a donkey” (Zach. 9:9). The colt “on which no one has sat” typifies the new people called from among the heathen. The two disciples who untied it represent the two orders of Christ’s subjects through whom the Gentiles will be converted: the prophets and the apostles (St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, homil 130). Christ’s right hand is extended toward the city (the Church) with a gesture of blessing. The children in the icon also play a prominent role; two are high in a tree cutting palm branches (symbol of joy and celebration as well as His victory over Satan and death). Another child spreads out his cloak before Christ’s advance; this is a sign of rooyal welcome (2 King 4:13). The Gospels specify the presence of children at this joyous event and the Church views them as the embodiment of the Biblical reference: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants hast Thou perfected praise” (Ps. 8:3).
The Feast of Pascha
After the tenth plague (the death of the firstborn), Pharoah finally let the Israelites leave Egypt. While on their way, Pharoah had a change of heart and fled to their pursuit. God set forth a pillar of light by night that guided the Israelites till they came to the Red Sea.
By God’s power, through Moses’ rod (symbol of the Cross), the Sea divided and the Israelites went safely ashore while the Pharoah (Satan) and his armies (devils) drowned therein. In their triumph over the enemy, the Israelites with Moses praised God, saying: “Let us sing to the Lord, for gloriously He is glorified; the horse and its rider He hath hurled into the sea” (Ex. 15: ).
According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, “In Pharoah’s chariot there are three drivers (the tripartite division of the soul: the rational, the appetitive, and the spirited).” Likewise according to him, “All those who pass through the mystical waters of baptism must kill in these waters the entire host of sins which make war on them.
Although water is the source of life, it can also become an instrument of devastation and death. Through Christ’s baptism, which inaugurates our own, He leads us into the Red Sea as if on dry land; the arrows from Pharoah’s (the Evil One’s) chariots cannot reach us as long as we follow after Him.
“Verily, the springs of the deep appeared dry and the foundations of the tumultuous sea were uncovered; for Thou didst rebuke the tempest with a sign, and Thou didst save Thy chosen people singing to Thee, O Lord, a triumphant song” (a hymn composed by a Hymnographer).
In this icon, Moses is leading the Israelites with his staff followed by Aaron and Miriam. They are all led by an angel of light and pillars of light also surround them as they cross the Red Sea. Pharoah and his hosts are depicted drowning in the raging sea.
On the Holy Spirit
The role of the Spirit is not to add anything to the riches of Christ but to enlighten, manifest and interpret. The Spirit Who is given to the apostles reveals the full meaning of Christ’s words and works without replacing them.
The Spirit is sent to us by the Son, Who is revealed to us by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not a substitute for Christ, but prepares us for Christ, forms Him in us, makes Him present in us.
Our Christian Feast of the Pentecost is celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection of Christ.
St. John Chrysostom, on this feast, remarks: “Observe, how when one is continuing in prayer, when one is in charity, then it is that the Spirit draws near.” (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles IV)
A prayer to the Holy Spirit (taken from the prayer of the Third Hour of the Agpeya): “O Heavenly King, the Comforter the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life; come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity and save our souls, O Good-One!”
The Icon of Pentecost is a marked contrast with the biblical description of the Descent of the Spirit.
Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Meeting of Our Lord
In the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Old and New Testaments “meet.” Christ, the Founder of the Law, submits Himself under the Law in order to fulfill it. Simeon, witness to this event, was one of the Seventy scholars appointed by Ptolemy II, king of Alexandria, to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek language, a translation now known as the Septuagint. According to tradition, as Simean was translating Isaiah’s prophesy “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Child” (Is. 7:14), he wanted to write “a woman” instead of “a virgin” but he received a revelation that he would not see death until this very prophesy should be fulfilled before his very eyes.
St. Luke relates to us that Simean, holding and worshiping Christ in his arms, said: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy Word, for mine eyes have seen Thy Salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:22-40).
An ancient hymn for the feast proclaims: “Hail O Virgin Theotokos, full of grace, from you rose the Son of Righteousness, Christ our God; He has enlightened those in darkness. Rejoice, O righteous elder, you received in your arms the Redeemer of our souls, Who grants us the Resurrection.”
In the icon, St. Mary is handing her Son over to Simean as though to the whole world. St. Joseph carries the prescribed sacrifice of purification, “two turtledoves” or “two young pigeons” (Lev. 12:8) – symbolic of the Church of Israel and the Church of the Gentiles. Moses received the tablets of the Law, but Simean received the Son of God in Whose Incarnation the “shadow” is replaced by the full reality of God’s presence with His people. The Old Testament people, personified by Simeon, reached their fulfillment. Anna, the prophetess, is also presented as she announces Christ to be the Creator of heaven and earth to those in the Temple.
The Holy Family in Egypt
The Life of Joseph the Righteous
Joseph, whose name literally means “one who increases” was a righteous man from the tribe of Judah in David’s lineage and an inhabitant of Nazareth. A carpenter by trade and well-advanced in years, he was betrothed by God’s will to the Virgin. He was chosen by lot when the priests sought a guardian for the Virgin when she was in the temple.
God chose him to minister unto His Great Mystery of Dispensation by protecting the Virgin, providing for her, and acting as her husband so that she, being a virgin, might not suffer reproach whe she was found with child. He was married and widowed before his betrothal to our Lady. From his first marriage, he had children, mentioned in the Gospels (Mt. 13:55-56). From Scripture it is made known that he lived at least until the twelfth year after the birth of Christ since there was no mention of him in Scripture and he was not present with the Virgin at the Crucifixion.
A hymn on his behalf urges: “Proclaim, O Joseph, the amazing wonders for you have seen a Virgin great with Child; for with the shepherds, you gave glory, with the Magi you worshiped, and by the angel it was revealed to you. Wherefore, plead with Christ God to have mercy on our souls.”
In this icon, he is portrayed as a protector of the Mother and Child, in adherence to God’s command to flee to Egypt.
Entry of Christ into Egypt
The Holy Family in Egypt
After Herod gave the command to slay the children in Bethlehem, the just elder Joseph was warned by God in a dream to depart into Egypt (Mt. 2:13-16). According to tradition, as soon as Christ entered Egypt with his Mother and St. Joseph, all the idols fell on their faces, shattered and broke to pieces in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. When the dwellers saw this, they asked the Holy Family to leave.
They journeyed from Palestine to Dair Al-Muharraq, entering into several villages and countries in between. They entered the Nile Delta at Basatah (“Tell Al-Basatah”) where they beheld two robbers, one of whom was Demas (the future right-hand theif). The latter protected them from possible harm by the other robber, and, as a result, the Virgin promised that Christ would reward him for having spared Him. From there, they went through the desert of “Wadi El Natrun,” where their presence brought blessings for it became the site of more than fifty monasteries, only four of which are inhabited today.
At “Matareya,” a fragrant balsam tree sprouted where the Virgin had thrown the water with which she washed Christ’s clothes. This plant is used as one of the ingredients for making the Holy Myron; the Sacred Oil used in Baptism and other sacraments. Then they headed southward to Babylon of Old Cairo and finally to Upper Egypt where they settled at Cusae (“Qusam”), where a famous monastery for the Virgin, known as “El Muharraq” is located until this day.
In the icon, there are twenty-four plants symbolic of the 24th of Pachons (the feast day). The Ibis bird was called “the savior” by ancient Egyptians because it uprooted the worms from the fields. In similitude, our Savior came into Egypt and destroyed the pagan idols.
The Wedding at Cana
The First Miracle of Our Lord
This occasion is celebrated among the 14 Great Feasts of our Savior. It also finds reference at the Wedding Service in the entreaty on behalf of the new Orthodox couple: “As Thou wast present at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, and blessed that wedding and changed water into wine by Thine Divine Authority, bless and protect the marriage of Thy servants…”
The Cana incident is frequently chosen to illustrate the Theotokos’ intercession. She is the intermediary between her Son and the bridegroom, whereby, she bypasses the chief steward and the waiters too.
St. Ephrem the Syrian here chants on this occasion: “Bridegrooms with their brides rejoiced. Blessed be the Babe, Whose Mother was the Bride of the Holy One! Blessed be the marriage feast where Thou wast present, in which when wine was suddenly wanting, in Thee it abounded again!”
He also said: “O Christ, if at a wedding feast not Thy own, Thou didst fill six jars with good wine, how great is Thy banquet for the whole Church! Where Thou dost offer Thy own wine, Thy Blood, for our sanctification, therefore we glorify Thee.”
In this icon, the Virgin is motioning to her Son to assist the wedding party and He, gesturing to the servants, grants her request. According to Church tradition, the bridegroom at this marriage was Simon the Zealot, the future disciple and Apostle of Christ.
The Last Supper
The Institution of the Holy Eucharist
The Last Supper incorporates the feasts of the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. During the celebration of the Divine Liturgy the priest says: “Therefore, we commemorate His Holy Passion, Resurrection, Ascension…Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee on behalf of all and for all!” This represents a remarkable synthesis of the Eucharist and of the entire mystery of salvation.
This was not an isolated incident that occurred in history but a dynamic reality that is ever occurring until this day. At every Divine Liturgy, Christ Himself satisfies us with His Body and Blood in all places throughout the world.
The Paschal Mystery encompasses three elements: the Last Supper (Holy Thursday), the Crucifixion (Great Friday) and the Tomb (Holy Saturday). Likewise, the Jewish Passover included three exceptional events: the eating of the lamb, whose blood was used on the lintel of the houses to protect the Jews from devastation, and the liberation of exodus from Egypt and entrance to the Promised Land.
“At Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Thy Mysteries unto Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss, but like the thief will I confess Thee: remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom.”
This icon is not only the image of Christ that bears witness to His Incarnation but also to the penetration of the Spirit into matter into a transfigured human existence. The table is set with Christ at the head of the table as the presiding Minister and His disciples surrounding Him on either side. Opposite Christ, there is a place at the table for anyone who wants to be there.
The First Sunday After Pascha
Thomas, being the image of the modern man who is conditioned to believe only what he can see, touch and smell, is transformed into believing in He Who is Unseen and Untouchable. In spite of the joyful account given by his fellow disciples, Thomas is unable to overcome his disbelief. However, his doubt is changed into an abiding faith upon his encounter.
“My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28) – by these words, Thomas recognizes the two natures (Humanity and Divinity) of Christ. To believe is to recognize Jesus as God.
The first Sunday after the Feast of Pascha is called the Sunday of Thomas. The name comes from the Gospel that is read on this Sunday.
The event takes place in the upper room where the disciples gathered eight days after the Resurrection.
A hymn reflecting this event declares: “Though the tomb had been sealed, from the tomb Thou didst arise, O Christ God; and though the door had been locked, Thou didst appear among the disciples, O Resurrection of all, restoring an upright spirit for us by this according to Thy great mercy.”
This icon is a witness of the Resurrection. In it, Christ is standing and showing Thomas His hands and inviting him to put his fingers into the print of the nails.