Tag: christian orthodoxy

Icon, Part 15: The Dormition of the Theotokos


When Christ our God wanted to take to Himself his own Mother [to be] with him, then three days before, through an angel, He informer [her] of her departure from Earth. “[It is] time,” he said, “to bring my Mother to me. So do not be disturbed about this but accept the word with joy for you will receive eternal life.” And through [her] desire about departing to Sion, she went up to the Mountain of Olives to pray with sincerity in [her] usual way…⁠1 (St. Andrew of Crete, 8th Century)

On August 15 in the Orthodox Church, we commemorate the final Great Feast of the liturgical year, which began on September 1, and whose first Great Feast was the Nativity of the Theotokos,⁠2 with Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Theotokos. This is more commonly called The Dormition of Mary, since “dormition” is a Latin-derived word that means “the falling asleep.” In Greek this is called “Koimesis.”⁠3 In the Roman Catholic Church this same day is observed as “The Assumption of Mary,” and frankly quite a lot of Orthodox may refer to the feast by the same name. There are subtle differences in the meanings and theology between Assumption and Dormition, but these are fairly minor.

The Dormition, as the last of the Great Feasts, is also the last of the Marian feasts, during which we commemorated not only her Nativity (her birth) but her Presentation at the Temple,⁠4 and the greatest of all her feasts, the Annunciation.⁠5 We have also been with her at Jesus’s Nativity⁠6 (Christmas), Jesus’s own Presentation at the Temple (Candlemass),⁠7 His Crucifixion,⁠8 and his Ascension,⁠9 as well as at Pentecost.⁠10 Mary is the mother of the Church. Jesus, on the cross, put her in the care of the apostle John, and tradition tells us that John cared for her to the end of her days. And while Luke may not have written an account of her death, many believe that the personal touches and remarks of Mary in Luke’s gospel may have been directly due to Luke know her. It is fitting that we honor her death.

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The moral collapse of supposedly patriotic Americans and supposedly faithful Christians in the face of leftist identity politics has been dismaying. It should not have been unexpected. Read the Good Book and you will find fair weather followers and leaders from cover to cover. What is exceptional, what becomes remarkable because it stands in stark […]

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Icon, Part 12: Ascension


The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.

Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.

And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.1 — Acts 1: 11, ESV

The 3rd Sunday of Lent: The Precious and Life-Giving Cross


In Paradise of old the tree stripped me bare; for by giving me its fruit to eat, the enemy brought in death. But now the Tree of the Cross that clothes men with the garment of life has been set up on earth, and the whole world is filled with boundless joy. Beholding it venerated, O ye people, let us with one accord raise in faith our cry to God: His house is full of glory.  Third Kathisma for the Holy Cross

The 3rd Sunday of Lent is The Sunday of the Veneration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.  We are now at the midpoint of Great Lent proper, and then at halfway through the week following the 3rd Sunday also halfway to Pascha (Holy Week is not considered part of Great Lent).  In some outward respects, the purpose of the Sunday of the Cross is similar to the Elevation of the Cross commemorated in the early Autumn, yet it is also different.  Christ is coming and will enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and as one writer expresses it, “…before the arrival of a king, his royal standards, trophies, and emblems of victory come in procession and then the king himself appears in a triumphant parade… so does the feast of the Cross precede the coming of our king, Jesus Christ.” (Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion, p79)  

Every Sunday during Lent serves to remind us of the coming of Pascha – the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, and His resurrection signaling the defeat of Death, and the restoration of Mankind to communion with God.  We have had two commemorations of Orthodox history and theology, first with the Sunday of Orthodoxy (with the final affirmation of the Incarnation of God in the flesh), and then the Sunday of Gregory Palamas (affirming that while God is unknowable, He makes Himself known to us through His energies), and now the affirmation of how the symbol and tool of a painful death is turned in its purpose into a symbol of eternal life.  Throughout the services of this day, we are reminded of this counterpoint time and again.  As Adam brought death into the world through consuming fruit from a tree, the Cross has instead become the tree of life, and the curse of Adam has been broken.  The outstretched arms of Moses before the Red Sea are compared to the Cross as well.  There are many more besides, referenced throughout the Canticle read during Orthros.

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Can one know God?  Can one experience God?  Saint Gregory Palamas, an ascetic monk, priest, and later Archbishop of Thessalonica asked these very questions.  His answers, based on centuries of understanding and experience, became the foundation of the final major dogmatic development in Orthodox Theology.  For this, St. Gregory is commemorated on the second Sunday […]

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Icon, Part 8: The Annunciation


“Rejoice, O Theotokos, O deliverance of Adam from the curse! Rejoice, O chaste Theotokos! Rejoice, O living bush! Rejoice, O lamp! Rejoice, O throne! Rejoice, O ladder and door! Rejoice, O divine chariot! Rejoice, O bright cloud! Rejoice, O temple, O most-gilded jar! Rejoice, O mountain! Rejoice, O tabernacle and table! Rejoice, O deliverer of Eve!” – Orthros of the Feast, Tone 2​“

On March 25, in both the Orthodox and Catholic churches, The Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary, and of her assent to bear the Son of God is commemorated.  This is exactly 9 months before the Nativity of Christ (Christmas).  It is, on the Eastern calendar, the 7th Great Feast of the liturgical year.  The primary Gospel account of this miraculous event is in the Gospel of Luke, but as with much else in the liturgical cycle, Church tradition, theology, and hymnody has so much more to say.  In the centuries after the brief ministry of Jesus, succeeding generations of Christians had to come to terms with what, and moreover whom they had witnessed, and then work out and come to an understanding of the significance.  Part of that reckoning was understanding who Mary was, and how profound her own role had been.

The Feast

The first Sunday of Lent: The Triumph of Orthodoxy


The Triumph of Orthodoxy – Theodora’s restoration of icons. By Anonymous – National Icon Collection (18), British Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7306236

Great Lent is the most profound time of the Orthodox year.  The rigors of fasting (to the extent that you can do it – not everyone can, and if you can’t it’s nobody else’s business), the added services throughout the weeks, the very special nature of those services, the change in the tones of chanting from major keys to more muted and plaintive minor keys, and the change in the vestments and various draperies, covers, and hangings to darker colors, all together carry the change of the season.  There is also a cycle of Sunday services as Lent approaches, with each Sunday being set aside for something significant to the history of the Church, to remind the Orthodox annually of the commitment they have made to carry on with the living tradition and faith of nearly two thousand years.

Lent Part 2: The Triodion


In the first part I gave a brief overview of the services of the Orthodox Church that signal that Great Lent is not far off.  But these were still basically “regular” services.  In the three weeks and four Sundays before Great Lent, however, we enter into a new phase in the liturgy that carries all the way through Great And Holy Pascha (Easter), a phase that departs from the regular service orders and is called the Triodion (the canons chanted during this time originally had but three odes each, hence the term).  In the Orthodox Church, this is the most sacred and special time of year, far exceeding Christmas in its significance, and in the physical and spiritual preparation we undergo. 

However, we’re not quite there… yet.  There is something of a joke that I heard a priest say.  If Lent is a preparation for Pascha, the three weeks beforehand are a preparation for the preparation.   There are four rather special services, the first three of which each begin a week of this pre-preparation.  First there is the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican, then the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, followed by Sunday of the Last Judgement, and concluding with the Sunday of Forgiveness.  As I heard another priest put it: these services are like your mother calling out to you to get inside as it’s getting dark.

Icon, Part 6: Theophany


Rejoice, O River Jordan, be glad; for within thee the Maker of all things now is here, moved by mercy to seek at a servant’s hand saving Baptism for our sakes. Dance, be glad, O Adam, and, O Eve, our foremother; God supremely good, Who is redemption for all men, is come down to dwell with us.

The Torrent of Delight, Who is Master of all things, doth come unto the river’s swift streams to be baptized; for He willed to give me drink of waters that purify. And when John beheld Him, he cried out to Him, saying: How shall I stretch out my hand upon Thy divine head, whereat all things quake with fear?  Orthros Kathisma of the Fore-feast of Theophany

Coming out of the Advent season, and the 12 days of the Nativity (Christmas), we have reached the Great Feast that marks the end of the Christmas season: Theophany. In the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox churches (the so-called Oriental Orthodox), Theophany is of far greater significance than the Nativity, and indeed, it is often remarked that in the early days of the Church Theophany was universally the greater occasion than the Nativity, with the Nativity having been originally intended to amplify Theophany. Outside of the liturgical Christian churches, however, this observance has largely been forgotten, which is, I would argue, a significant loss to the understanding and practice of the Christian faith.

Icon, Part 5: The Nativity of Christ


Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath given rise to the light of knowledge in the world; for they that worshipped the stars did learn therefrom to worship Thee, O Sun of Justice, and to know that from the east of the Highest Thou didst come. O Lord, glory to Thee. Apolytikion of the Nativity of Christ 

The Orthodox icon of the Nativity is jarring to our western eyes. We are accustomed to seeing Joseph and Mary in a warm-looking and very clean wooden barn, each about the same age, kneeling before a wooden manger that has a glowing Christ-child within, while angels shout triumphant above, shepherds approach, and the Magi, newly arrived, kneel with their gifts while the star that guided them shines brightly above the entire scene. Look closely at this scene, though, and things seem off. There is no warm and clean wooden barn, but a jagged mountain with a dark yawning cave. The Christ-Child is within, but He’s wrapped up in bandages? And is the manger really a stone box that looks more like a coffin? Mary is laying out on a blanket, dominating the scene, while Joseph (an older Joseph) is down the mountain looking forlorn while a very strange and sinister figure talks at him. What is happening here? This is not the quiet and happy Nativity we know and cherish in our candle-light caroling, nor is it the Stille Nacht we envisage while the snow quietly falls.

For us, Christmas comes not only just past the darkest night of the year, as winter bears down ever more upon us, but also at the end of the year, at a time when we are busy making resolutions, travel plans, loading up on presents, and gathering with family. It is a time where many of us are granted rests from work, a vacation in the midst of everything. We can kick up our feet in front of the fire, pour some egg nog, watch Christmas TV specials, and relax through the New Year, which we’re going to cap off with another party. But look closely at this icon instead. Mary looks exhausted, Joseph is worried, and the layered scenes have an underlying urgency to them.  Clearly, the Nativity of Christ is here depicted not as an end goal, but (to borrow from Winston Churchill) the end of the beginning, a portentous marking of things yet to come.

Icon, Part 3: The Presentation of the Theotokos


“And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  Luke 1: 30, ESV

November 21 (New Calendar) marks the Great Feast of The Presentation of the Theotokos, the third in the annual liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church.  The Feast occurs one week into the Advent season, which starts on November 15, and runs until Christmas Eve Vespers, and commemorates the presentation of Mary, still a young child, to the Temple in Jerusalem, where she will live a life consecrated to God.  Like the first feast of the liturgical year, The Nativity of the Theotokos, this Feast both parallels and foreshadows other narratives, and like the earlier Nativity, it is an expression both of how special Mary had to have been to have borne the Incarnation, and of how venerated she has been since the very early days of Christianity.

As with first Feast, we are still primarily drawing on the Protoevangelion of James, a non-canonical work of the 2nd century which was both in circulation in the early days of Christianity, and much beloved by Christians for centuries afterward.  We will return to this work at least two more times in the series.

Book Review: Hidden and Triumphant


Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography, by Irina Yazykova (translated by Paul Grenier), is a short work on how Russian Orthodox iconography, and indeed Christianity itself, survived the Soviets, found renewal in the Russian diaspora, survived the Nazis, spread into the greater Orthodox diaspora abroad, and returned home to its roots. As destructive as the Soviets were in their closure, desecration, and demolition of churches, not only were they unable to ever entirely squelch Christianity, but the very people they exiled were able to maintain the faith and provide outside inspiration and support to their people trapped within their homeland.

That traditional iconography survived the Soviets is remarkable in itself, yet that it survived at all as more than a novelty or as primitive folk art is just as significant.  Iconography, introduced during the conversion of Kievan Rus by Byzantium, developed its own Russian voice and style in the centuries after Byzantium’s conquest by the Ottomans, entering into a sort of golden age under such masters as Rublev during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Yet first, due to the schism with the Old Believers, and especially under the modernizing reforms of Peter the Great, much of that history was deliberately destroyed or hidden away.  From the time of Peter up until the eve of the disaster of World War I, Russian liturgical art was very often little distinguished from that of western European styles, save that its topics remained Orthodox and Russian in character.  Older, traditional icons, blackened with age and soot, were removed and relegated to barns or backwater churches far from the artistic centers of the major cities, and nearly the only practitioners of traditional iconography were rural artists or peasants.  Yet in that final generation before the Great War, these old masters were being rediscovered as these older panels were unearthed, cleaned, and restored, often for the first time in centuries, and Russian artists set about re-appraising their older traditions.

World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution ended that renewal at home.  And yet, as many Orthodox Russians fled the newly-created Soviet Union, they took with them these rediscovered forms, and in their communities of the diaspora, particularly in France, they laid the foundation for new schools of Russian liturgical art.  Yazykova profiles a number of such artists as they created new works for their churches in exile, and how they influenced new generations of iconographers, or changed what had been traditional roles.  In pre-Revolutionary Russia, for instance, only men could be iconographers in paint, while women were restricted to embroidered forms, yet with such a small community abroad, and the need to construct new churches in the expatriate communities, women stepped forward for the first time as skilled iconographers in their own right.  Sister Joanna Reitlinger, for instance, was a prolific artist, as was the highly skilled Mother Juliana (nee Maria Nikolaevna Sokolova), both of whom returned to Russia after the death of Stalin in order to continue their work and teach Russians (often in secret) in their own lands again.

Icon, Part 2: The Elevation of the Holy Cross


The second Great Feast of the Orthodox liturgical year is on September 14, and marks two related events: first, the finding of The True Cross by Saint Helen, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, and secondly, the recovery and restoration, by the emperor Heraclius, of the cross to Jerusalem after its theft by the Persian Empire in its last major war against the Romans.  This feast day is notable for being the only Great Feast day that is not commemorating any Biblical or Biblically-implied event.  It is also the last such Great Feast day until mid-November.

It is also a profound story of imperial conquests, defeats, and cycles of losing and re-finding, played out over 1700 years.  It involves the Christianization of the Roman Empire, a brutal war for the very survival of that empire, coups, assassinations, the elevation of the Cross itself as the single prevailing symbol of the faith, and many figures who loom large in our histories even today.  Its story begins even before the finding of the Cross, with a commoner named Helen, who son Constantine would fundamentally reorder the Roman world.  The story echoes even today in rural Ohio, in small but ornate wooden box, where a tiny fragment of wood, almost too small to be worth noticing, carries with it the arc of Christian history.

The History

Icon, Part 1: The Nativity of the Theotokos


September 1 marks the start of the liturgical year of the Orthodox Church. This goes back both to the Romans, who assessed a tax called the Indiction on this date, and to the Jewish calendar, with Rosh Hashanna marking the new year at about this same time. As this is the start of the liturgical cycle of great feasts and great fasts, I’ve decided to put out a series of posts on one of the most recognizable features of Orthodoxy: The Icon.

There are 12 Great Feasts in the Orthodox liturgical year, plus Pascha (Easter), which is the Feast of Feasts (there are also 12 in Catholicism, but with differences). In this series, each part to be posted close to the feast, I’ll be looking both at the event commemorated, and at its iconographic depiction. Through this series I will also try to lay out the functions of icons, their liturgical use, and their accepted proper forms both historically, and as they have developed throughout time (and have both departed from, and returned to their older roots in the process). Here and there I’ll fill in with some additional posts on related topics, certain saints, and the major other icons. Our first selection, corresponding with the first of the Great Feasts, is the Nativity of the Theotokos, which occurs on the eighth of September, just a few days hence.  (Nota Bene: any errors in this series are my own fault.)

The liturgical year in part follows the lives and ministries of two people, Jesus and his mother Mary, as well as significant events in the lives of the Apostles, and of the Church itself. Two of the Marian feasts mirror or foreshadow similar feasts of Christ. Thus we have the Nativity of the Theotokos, and later the Nativity of Christ; and we have the Presentation of Mary at the temple, followed later by the Presentation of Christ at the temple. These two foreshadowing events of the Marian feasts, however, do not celebrate events depicted in the Gospels of the Bible we know today, but events that nonetheless entered the Christian cannon at a very early date. These events are told in the apocryphal gospel of James (The Protoevangelium of James), which, while not accepted into the formal cannon of scripture, is nonetheless considered to illustrate something that was spiritually true or necessary, even if not completely verifiable.

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Christianity and Eros: Essays on the Theme of Sexual Love, by Philip Sherrard, first published in 1976, is a modest attempt by an Orthodox theologian to begin to address the “sacramental potentiality of sexual love” from a Christian perspective, to correct what the author sees as several ways Christian thought has mis-stepped or erred over […]

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