Updated: Jul 4, 2020
Christians celebrate Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and brings the church into existence. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise to pour out his Holy Spirit on all flesh, empowering diverse people to exercise divine power.
The moment of Pentecost, filled the world with spirit, and opened the gates to begin a new era for humanity. Gazing at an icon generates insight into the Church’s understanding of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This contemporary icon of Pentecost was purchased by Rev Gail Greenwell for a chapel in the Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati.
The Holy Spirit Descending
A half circle of twelve descending rays is commonly found at the top of any Pentecost icon. This representation is critically important for the beginning of our narrative. “Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:2-4)
Imagine that these rays represent the un-created energies filling the universe, the same rays any of us might feel when touched by grace. These divine rays envelope us as they come from beyond time and space.
Nowhere does Scripture teach that the Holy Spirit comes down on Pentecost in the form of a dove. Orthodoxy frowns on using a dove to represent the Holy Spirit. However many icons throughout the ages have used the symbolic rendering in icons of Pentecost, attempting to allude to a world filled with spirit that begins with a bird. How can iconographers dare to portray the all inclusive divine spirit as a small bird?
The Apostles Sitting
In the middle of the Pentecost icon we see the twelve Apostles sitting in a half circle in perfect harmony. This reflects the historic Day of Pentecost. When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were brought to one accord in one place.
One important means of understanding a narrative icon is to look at the posture taken by the main characters. The Apostles sitting in community indicate their coming into a new understanding. They are digesting the significance of this new wisdom fire which they feel within, having received it from above.
Classic Icons of Pentecost have Mary the mother of Jesus placed at the very center of the icon with six disciples on either side. She is mentioned as having been present in the Biblical text. Whether Mary is included or not, most women imagine they were there with her and at the Baptism of Christ in the river Jordan as well as at the Last Supper. However, women have not been abundantly represented in the theology, image or text. Christians are taught to believe the Holy Spirit was poured out onto all people, male and female and all of creation.
In this icon, I have eliminated two of the disciples and the four “special” disciples, the ones in their priestly stoles typically adorned with giant crosses and holding their gospel books. I have substituted them for six women.
This group of twelve are exceptional people who love; champions of faith who are remembered and whose earthly lives are considered instructive and worthy of imitation. They can perhaps be Salome, Bartholomew, Andrew, Luke, Mother Teresa, Mary Magdalene, Paul, Tabitha, Mark, Susana, James, and Martha sitting together in harmony. The Saint or recognizable person is not the point of the icon. Rather it illustrates our sitting together in relationship, in peace, and receiving the Holy Spirit. This group of twelve are one body and one mind in God; they sit comfortably with one another without debate as to who is best, better or right.
The icon presents Pentecost, not so much as a historical event but a spiritual reality that transcends history. Pentecost was not a one-time event but is an ongoing reality flowing into our human history. Divine grace was manifested in the God-Man Jesus Christ, but at Pentecost divine grace is manifested in the Church, the mystical body of Christ and all of creation. The Church is not a mere human organization, but a sacrament for the world.