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  • Fr. Garabed Kochakian

There Is Still Fire Upon the Earth: Icons of Pentecost

The Coming of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles in the Upper Room sparked and ignited the completion of God's Trinitarian revelation defining the Church's Dogma of The Holy Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit absolutely and identically one and the same- One God One Divine Nature in Three Persons, One in Essence and Undivided.

Saint John Chrysostom's, trilogy of prayers read during the celebration of Pentecost in the Armenian Church beautifully describes Pentecost as the Adoration of the Holy Trinity. The first prayer acknowledges the majesty of God Father - Creator, the second prayer God the Son as Redeemer, and the third prayer, the The Holy Spirit, Renewer, and Enabler and with fiery tongues, turning earth into heaven.

In some Eastern and Western Christian traditions Pentecost is called Trinity Sunday In the Armenian Church's theology and worship it is named Hokehkaloosd /Հոգեգալուստ, The Coming of the Holy Spirit sent from the Father, and with the Son is worshiped and glorified.

In addition to the writings of Sacred Scripture and the Holy Fathers of the Church, Armenian Iconographers and Illumination artists have likewise captured this dogmatic teaching in varying images, with varying interpretations. I have chosen three images, two from Armenian Manuscript Illumination and the other, a mosaic from St. John Armenian Church in Michigan, which keys into the theology unlocking the meaning of this great celebration of the Church.

A word on Pentecost

This Feast of the Church has a correlation with Jewish Pentecost or Shavuot, -also known as the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Harvest and Firstfruits, celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover. It was a joyous time of giving thanks and presenting offerings for the new grain of the summer wheat harvest in Israel was offered. Also it was the celebration of the Giving of the Ten Commandments called Matin Torah or "Giving of the Law." Jews believed that it was exactly at this time God gave the Torah to the people through Moses on Mount Sinai.

In the Illumination icon Pentecost of the Church, the artist makes the statement that it is Jesus, Creator God, visible God Incarnate as the Son, who promised to send His Holy Spirit. Jesus the Lord, God of God, Light of Light Very God of Very God. offers a blessing, is central and with the image of the Dove is sending, as promised, His Spirit. Note the emanating rays darting toward the Apostles, as a sign of the Spirit's Fire upon the Earth, we recall the words of Christ, … the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you. [Jn. 14:26]

In this Christian Feast, Christ is celebrated as the Fulfillment of the Divine Law 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished [Mt.5: 17-20]

St. Gregory the Theologian writes that …with the works of Christ, in the flesh finished, the works of His Spirit commences [Discourse 41: P.G.36]. Christian Pentecost fulfills the promise of the Father [Acts 1:4] .It is the Baptism and Birth of the Church by fire, and the institution of grace-given gifts. As Christ descended into Hades to rescue fallen mankind to give new life, by the power of that same Spirit that makes Him alive in the Eucharist, the Lord is now actually and substantially present in the life of the Church.

Another image, another message

While in some icons St. Mary may be absent, in this mosaic icon of Pentecost, the Mother of God appears center, and giving us yet another message about Pentecost. She is at the center because her presence is vital in the Church. She is the heart of them Church, the Bride of Christ and the embodiment of faith, hope, and love. Placing her amidst the Apostles, the artist presents St, Mary as an example of a truly sanctified life to which all Christians are called. She is mediatrix and intercessor*/ Arm. parekhos բարեխօս to Christ - Including her, is a testament that every human, male and female is part of the One Holy Church, the Bride of Christ…

Also, the very orderly rhythmic design and arrangement in the icon, and it's almost stoic composition, further emphasizes the inner unity expressed… in Christ, there is neither male or female [Gal. 3:38]. Though, in Acts 2:1-13 St. Luke describes The Coming of the Holy Spirit quite full of motion and sound and perhaps even a bit chaotic, here we see the reverse. The twelve as stated are seated around the Holy Mother in a harmonious order. This similar composition prevails in many other illuminated icons as well. Unlike the gesticulating movements in the Ascension icon, The Apostles here are almost stoic full of solemnity.

One can imagine that in their seated arrangement, the Apostles are conversing with each other, having their 'first meeting,' sort to speak, before starting their work.

Their calmness though incongruous with the fury of the windy storm described by Luke, as a “sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind” (Acts 2:2). nonetheless connects both, the power of the wind with the power of God’s Holy Spirit thus making them both truly one. These followers of Jesus are receiving the heavenly grace, holy wisdom and the Divine Light from God, with the tongues as of fire, resting on one each of them now truly and now on fire. The Spirit of God is planting in their hearts, souls and minds the grace-given gifts …to one …the Spirit of the word of wisdom, to another the word of Knowledge, to another the gifts of healing [1 Cor. 12-4-31].

On Pentecost, the Divine Light and Might was born in their skulls, and fire ignited in their bellies enabling them to Teach, Preach and Baptize as Jesus commanded. By the Holy Spirit, the Church on earth is born and baptized.

Other details, and more

In a third variation by yet another illumination artist, writes an image about Pentecost with more information and detail

Behold we see the Twelve Apostles, again in a unifying composition and calm posture. This time they are seated in the upper register of the composition. The blue aureole above their heads shows heaven from where the Invisible God The Father sends the Holy Spirit. From the bluish cloud rays of light protrude, pointing toward the tops of the Apostles' heads indicating at that moment each was being given 'gifts of the Spirit', while the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends upon them.

Below the Apostle, to the left and right, at ground level, there are staircases indicating where they were gathered and how they got to, the Upper Room. Finally, In the middle opening there stand people gathered attired differently, with a strange feature. The Book of Acts describes them as the 'multitude' who were with the Apostles … with one accord and in one place, mentioned in Luke's account [2:1]. They too are part of the earthly Church as some commentaries state.

But more importantly and regrettably even in the Church on earth there is a temptation to sin, disunity, even attempts to destroy... The figure with a beastly double head wearing a red garment signifies Satan's blood-sacrifices and how that blood can stain the members of the Church in the world. a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but … should be holy and without blemish [ Eph. 5: 27]

The robed man to the left a pagan and non-believer, perhaps waiting to enter the Church. The two additional figures wearing red crowns point to the nations of the earth where the Apostles have been commissioned to 'go unto.' Each single figure is a leader to whom they are to bring this one and the same Spirit of God to touch their hearts and setting them afire with God's love.

The icon pulls together many aspects of Pentecost pronouncing it as the beginning of the new world order, the reign of heaven on earth. As the Apostles, left their homes, travelled on to unknown frontiers, driven by God’s Holy Spirit of Light and Love by God's grace and Christ's Divine Power, no less, we too are participants are in the Great Commission even in this modern time far removed from the Day of Pentecost, but still very much participants; armed with the faith, fervor and spirit, and on Fire.

And the icon of Pentecost is our prayer as well, speaking to us;

O Christ, grant to us the gifts of Your Holy Spirit as you did at Baptism, renewed with the power given by Your anointing that became a gift of spiritual wisdom, a courage to struggle and a triumph over Evil. Continue to ignite like tongues of Fire, our minds so that we may live in this world for the salvation of our souls and for the honor and glory of the All-holy Trinity, making us worthy, to receive the same heavenly inheritance given to your saints, so that together with them we may continue to give you glory O Father and Holy Spirit, now and forever and ever. Amen.

* in Mariology refers by her son Jesus Christ, and that he bestows graces through her. Mediatrix is an ancient title that has been used by a number of saints since at least the 5th century

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