June 02, 2011

Ascension Thursday + the Holy Spirit Novena

Look at these two icons of the two last feasts of Eastertide: The Ascension (today) and Pentecost (in 10 days).  As I was writing the post encouraging you to start the Holy Spirit Novena (see below), I was looking for icons (because you know I love icons), and the icons of these two feasts struck me in their similarity and their contrasts.

Of course these two feasts are thoroughly entwined--historically as well as theologically.  40 days after the Resurrection Christ ascended into heaven, leaving the apostles the charge to Baptize.  Ten days later the apostles, afraid and perhaps lonely but also expectant, are gathered and the Holy Spirit descends upon them filling them with terrible grace, and driving them out into the people to begin the good work Christ charged them to do.  These are historical facts, and the very birth of the Church.

Now the icons are clearly closely related, though almost inversions of each other.  Recall that very few icons are inventions--they are copied and written over and over again by new hands.  (If you do a Google Image Search for "Ascension Icon" or "Pentecost Icon" you will see that most of the icons follow a similar structure and pattern--the differences are in the details--the color of the apostles robes, or the style of the room.)

In both icons the apostles gather around Mary, and gaze heavenward. At the Ascension, they are active, moving, dynamic (quite dynamic considering the traditional solidity of Byzantine figures)--reach up to Christ who is, they know, leaving for the last time.  I can imagine their trepidation and their yearning: Christ has given them a great charge, and the see it and know it is good, but they are afraid to be left alone to do it.  (Isn't that our fear every-time we know what good we must do.)  Mary alone is still--her grief expired at the tomb--and, having seen her Son, risen, she lives her fiat still.  they are out among the rocks, in the desert, alone, desolate, though the angels stand among them.

At Pentecost, they are seated, indoors.  The walls surrounding them traditionally evoke the image of the Church, which has just been born.  They are still, yet turned to each other in wonder--with their hands raised as if all talking at once.  Whether they are singing a hymn of praise or merely filled with wonder, I do not know, but they are at peace, about to begin the work Christ gave to them.  I like to imagine that five minutes earlier, they would be quite differently arranged. Peter might be pacing in impatient, zealous agitation. John might be chatting quietly with Mary.  Others would be fiddling idly.  But now they are united in wonder and purpose, and filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Now they are sure of the road ahead.  Now they are on fire.

How fittingly these two icons are tied together in content and power--showing the genuine change in the hearts of the Apostles, as they wait these ten days.  That change must also be in our hearts.  Which means, of course, that it's time to begin the Holy Spirit Novena. I have never actually prayed this Novena, though I have always meant to, and I am determined to do so this year. Clearly, the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit are always worth asking for, but I think it is especially timely now that I am in my late twenties to take a moment and consider where I have been and where I am going.

The prayer is long and has different readings every day, so I hope you'll click here to find it all, and pray it too. It ends, of course, on the Feast of Pentecost, next Sunday (June 12).

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