24 June 2024

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
46, Monday 24 June 2024,
the Birth of Saint John the Baptist

The icon of the ‘Mystical Supper’ above the Royal Doors 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 yesterday (Trinity IV, 23 June 2024), and today is Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist. The Birth of Saint John Baptist (24 June) is one of the few birthdays of a saint commemorated in the Church Calendar.

I was ordained priest 23 years ago today, on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist [24 June 2001], and deacon 24 years ago tomorrow, on 25 June 2000. I am hoping to mark those anniversaries later today by being present at the mid-day Eucharist and Evening Prayer in Lichfield Cathedral and visiting the chapel in Saint John's Chapel, Lichfield. During the day, I may go for some walks around Lichfield, and may even get to visit Comberford.

But, 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.

An icon of the Mystical Supper above the Royal Doors and the feasts tier with 12 icons of the liturgical year in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images to view full screen)

Luke 1: 57-66, 80 (NRSVUE):

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For indeed the hand of the Lord was with him.

80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

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

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 9: The Mystical Supper, Ο Δείπνος ο Μυστικός:

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.

Immediately above the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, and between these 12 icons is the icon of the Mystical Supper or Last Supper.

The icon of the Mystical Supper, Ο Δείπνος ο Μυστικός ( O Mystikos Dypnos) or Ο μυστικός δείπνος, or the Last Supper, is seen in the royal doors of the iconostasis in most Orthodox churches. It is in front of this icon where people come to receive the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy. The Mystery of the Eucharist is celebrated beyond the icon and royal doors, on the Altar or the Throne.

This icon is also commonly found in the dining rooms of Orthodox families. There are various versions of this icon with different iconographic traditions and interpretations.

The icon depicts the last meal of Christ and his disciples in the Upper Room before his passion, death and resurrection. The scriptural references for this icon are: Matthew 26: 17-30; Mark 14: 12-26; Luke 22: 7-38; John 13: 1-30.

Christ is the central figure in the icon, and he is sitting prominently at the centre of the table. His size is also usually larger than that of the disciples to accentuate his importance. He is the only one usually shown with a halo, as the Holy Spirit has not yet descended on the disciples yet, though in this icon all the disciples, except Judas, have halos.

As always, Christ is wearing blue on the outside to symbolise his human nature, and red on the inside, to symbolise his divinity.

The chalice or cup is on the table or sometimes held by Christ. In this icon, Christ is holding a scroll in his left hand, representing the New Covenant. The Paschal lamb, the main component of the Passover meal, is absent from the table. Instead, Christ is the Paschal lamb and he seals the New Covenant with his body and blood.

The background in this icon usually – though not in this instance – depicts a symmetrical building with a central dome behind Christ, to help accentuate and differentiate him from the disciples, with a red canopy hanging on top of the building to symbolise that the event took place indoors.

Symbolically this also alludes to the secrecy of the Holy Mystery. Spiritually, this upper room is the raised intellect illumined by the divine light of mystical knowledge, which is usually indicated by the lit candles found on the table or, in this case, in front of the table.

The table is not straight all around: it is usually curved at the top and straight at the bottom; this symbolises that the table is round, without end, to symbolise the eternal heavenly communion in the Kingdom of God.

On the table are food, drink, and eating utensils, in different variations depending on the icon. Nevertheless, there are always pieces of bread in front of each disciple.

Saint John the Beloved Disciple or the Evangelist is seated next to Christ, on his left-hand side. As the youngest of the disciples, he is shown without a beard. In some version of the icon, he receives a piece of the shared bread in his left hand. He is usually bent over, leaning on Christ’s chest (see John 13: 23-26). Tradition says Saint John received the grace of theology when he leaned his head on Christ’s heart.

Saint Peter is sitting on Christ’s right-hand side. Saint Philip and Saint Thomas, the youngest two of the disciples – we can tell they are young because they have no beards – are always placed at the two lower outside edges of the table, furthest from Christ.

Judas Iscariot is usually placed on the left side of the table, leaning forward to dip his piece of bread in the common dipping bowl at the centre of the table (see Matthew 26: 20-25). Besides indicating his hidden greediness, this also shows how Christ identified who would betray him. I am familiar with other icons in which Judas is missing from the scene.

The table is usually filled with utensils, flagons of wine, herbs and some bread in front of the disciples, with Christ blessing the bread and wine with his right hand to mystically offer them as his body and blood (see Luke 22: 18-20).

This icon is quite different from Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’. This meal is not the end of the story, nor is it the last supper. Three days later, on Easter Day, Christ shares a meal with the disciples by the shore, and an evening meal with two disciples in Emmaus.

Christ tells his disciples to continue to offer this sacrifice of bread and wine, which is his Body and Blood of Christ, and teaches them to celebrate this until they feast together once again in his Kingdom.

In the Orthodox Church, this event was never called a Last Supper, and instead calls it the Mystikos Deipnos or Mystical Supper. It is not simply associated with the tragedy of the crucifixion, as the title Last Supper implies, but instead focuses on the mystical transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

An icon of the Mystical Supper or the Last Supper in a shop window on Eth Antistaseos street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Monday 24 June 2024, the Birth of Saint John the Baptist):

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 yesterday 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 (Monday 24 June 2024, the Birth of Saint John the Baptist) invites us to pray:

O Lord Jesus, we pray that the unjust structures of society will be transformed. Give us the courage to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.


Almighty God,
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist
was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour
by the preaching of repentance:
lead us to repent according to his preaching
and, after his example,
constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice,
and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Merciful Lord,
whose prophet John the Baptist
proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world:
grant that we who in this sacrament
have known your forgiveness and your life-giving love
may ever tell of your mercy and your peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Birth of Saint the Baptist (see Luke 1: 57-66) … an icon from the Monastery of Anopolis in the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklion, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

The Last Supper … an icon in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

An icon of the Mystical Supper or the Last Supper in a shop window in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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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