25 June 2024

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
47, Tuesday 25 June 2024

The icon of the Ascension in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The week began with the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IV, 23 June 2024), and yesterday was thr Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist.

I was ordained deacon 24 years ago today on 25 June 2000, and priest 23 years ago yesterday, on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist (24 June 2001). I marked those anniversaries yesterday at the mid-day Eucharist and Evening Prayer in Lichfield Cathedral and in a visit to the chapel in Saint John's Chapel, Lichfield.

I am back in Stony Stratford, and before today begins I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The icon of the Ascension is to the left among the 12 feasts depicted in the upper tier of the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images to view full screen)

Matthew 7: 6, 12-14 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 6 “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.
12 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

13 “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy[a] that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Christ ascending … a detail in the icon of the Ascension in iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 10: the Ascension (Η Ανάληψη του Ιησού):

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Beautiful Gates, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Traditionally, the upper tier has an icon of the Mystical Supper in the centre, with icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on either side, in two groups of six: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September), the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

In Stony Stratford, these 12 icons in the top tier, on either side of the icon of the Mystical Supper, are (from left): the Ascension, the Nativity, the Baptism of Christ, the Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion; and the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, the Presentation and the Annunciation.

The first icon in this top tier of 12 icons in Stony Stratford is the icon of the Ascension. The icon of the Ascension (Η Ανάληψη του Ιησού) is based on the accounts of the Ascension by Saint Luke in his Gospel (Luke 24: 36-53) and in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1: 1-12).

The icon shows Christ ascending with the angels, with his mother Mary and the Disciples standing below. Traditionally, the icon is divided into two parts, with heaven figuratively above and the earth below. The top is in order, the bottom, except for the Theotokos, is in confusion. The figures are set against the hilly and rocky landscape of the Mount of Olives, represented by the rocks and the stylised olive trees that appear to sway and point towards Christ.

This is a joyous icon with bright colours for the robes of the Apostles, the Mother of God and the Angels, and Christ himself surrounded by light. All this is suitable for the Feast of the Ascension, which is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church and a joyous celebration.

The concentric circles surrounding Christ are known in iconography as a mandorla. A mandorla portrays Christ’s glory, and in this icon it also signifies the highest heavens to which he is ascending.

Two angels are supporting the mandorla, and Christ is shown inside the mandorla, blessing those below with his right hand: ‘Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven’ (Luke: 24: 50-51). In his left hand he holds a scroll, a symbol of his teaching and of his divine word.

The focus of the lower part of the icon is on the Theotokos, who represents the Church waiting for Christ’s return. The entire group – the Theotokos and the disciples – also represents the Church. The disciples are waiting for the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and are shown in confusion.

The two angels in white clothes are saying to the disciples: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’ (Acts 1: 11). The disciples then return to Jerusalem (Acts 1: 12).

The Theotokos is directly underneath Christ, in the centre of the foreground. She does not look up, but looks intently towards us. In contrast to the apostles who seem unsettled, she appears still and peaceful. Unlike them, she has a halo around her head, signifying that while the apostles waited for the Holy Spirit, she was been chosen by God and was already overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1: 35).

She stretches out her arms in prayer, signifying the prayers of the Church and inviting us to join her in those prayers. The two angels stand on either side of her are pointing up to Christ.

The apostles are arranged either side of the Theotokos – six on the right and six on the left, with the Apostle Paul on her left and Saint Peter on her right. Although the Ascension takes place before Saint Paul’s conversion, he is depicted for important theological reasons, and his presence signifies the completeness of the Church.

In Orthodox theology, the icon also looks to Christ’s second coming as he said he would return as he ascended. The icon does not show direction, for Christ’s love and teachings are still with the Church. Although the icon depicts the events in Saint Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, it is not meant to be an historical image, but a representation of the Church and an image of the Church waiting for the Second Coming.

This ahistoric depiction is not uncommon in icons: the icon of Pentecost also shows the Apostle Paul, and it too is an icon of the Church. The differences and similarities between the two festal icons – the feasts are separated by only 10 days – are deliberate.

One of the earliest surviving images of the Ascension, a full-page illustration in the sixth century Rabbula Gospels, is remarkably similar to later icons, with few variations. Icons from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, for example, show little change between icons of the Ascension in the 6th century with those made almost 600 years later.

The Virgin Mary and the 12 Apostles in the icon of the Ascension in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 25 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Anglican support and advocacy for exiled people in Northern France.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a programme update by Bradon Muilenburg, Anglican Refugee Support Lead in Northern France, the Diocese in Europe, the Diocese of Canterbury and USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Tuesday 25 June 2024) invites us to pray:

Comfort the families that have lost and will lose loved ones at the France/UK border. That those of us living in the lands of the comfortable would find ways to come alongside them in their grief.

The Collect:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal God,
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you have fed us at the table of life and hope:
teach us the ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Gracious Father,
by the obedience of Jesus
you brought salvation to our wayward world:
draw us into harmony with your will,
that we may find all things restored in him,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The new iconostasis or icon stand installed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis (15 June 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Ascension depicted in a fresco in the ceiling in the Church of the Transfiguration in the village of Piskopianó in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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