The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (17B)

In the church, Pentecost is a beginning and end. It is an end in the sense that it is the fulfillment of Christ’s mission on earth. In fact, it is the fulfillment of all the prophesies and predictions about the coming of the Messiah which run through the whole Old Testament. But Pentecost is also the beginning of the Church. In fact, Pentecost is often called the “birthday of the Church” because the Church could not begin without the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a historical religion and is not based simply on philosophy or ideas. Rather it is based on God’s actions in history. To give some examples, God called Abraham to leave his homeland so he could become the father of many nations; Moses led the Jewish people out of captivity in Egypt; Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, died and rose from the dead in Jerusalem.

However, our faith is not based simply on historical events. One has to see the meaning in historical events. For example, many historians would admit that the Jewish people escaped from Egypt but would say the parting of the sea was a natural phenomenon of winds and tides, not believing that God had worked a miracle. Many critics would accept that the Myrrh-bearing women and the Apostles could not find Christ’s body in the tomb on Easter morning. However, they do not accept that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. They offer alternative interpretations.  They will say that the Apostles stole the body of Christ so that they could start the Church. Others have said that the women and the Apostles went to the wrong tomb. Still, others would say that the Apostles were hallucinating. It is only we who accept that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God will understand that Jesus came into the world to die and rise again to destroy the power of death. This is the Christian confession of faith and without this faith, the story of the empty tomb is just a story.

For these reasons, icons are not simply naturalistic portraits about events in history. Rather, they explain the meaning of what happened through the language of symbols. This is true in the case of the Pentecost icon. In this icon we see the Apostles gathered on Mount Zion and the Apostles sitting in a semi-circle. At the top of the icon, there is a semi-circle with rays coming from it. The semi-circle symbolizes the Holy Spirit sending the rays as tongues of fire signifying the descent of the Holy Spirit. In the center of the semi-circle of the Apostles, there is an empty place. This is the place of Jesus Christ, the head of the Church. It is unoccupied of course because Christ had ascended into heaven and is no longer visible in this world. St. Paul is also found in the icon. St. Paul was not present on the day of Pentecost and was not even a Christian at the time. However, though is preaching and writings he is an important part of the foundation of the Church. The four Gospels writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are present holding their Gospels, although they had not yet been written at the time.

In another semi-circle at the bottom, we see a figure of a king in a dark place. He is cosmos, representing the whole world as it was bound by sin. His presence reminds us that Christ came to save the whole universe in addition to saving humanity. In some icons, he is shown coming out of the darkness into the light, showing Christ’s victory over the darkness of sin.

So we can see the icon of Pentecost give us the Christian meaning of what happened on the day of Pentecost.

To summarize, our faith is based on God’s actions in history, but we wouldn’t understand this without our faith. In this way, icons such as the Pentecost icon, show us the true meaning of the events.

Fr. John