St Stephens Day

You desire that which exceeds my humble powers,
but I trust in the compassion and mercy of the All-powerful God.

Saint Stephen


(portion of the Demidoff Altarpiece 1476 / The National Gallery / London, England)

In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke praises St. Stephen as
“a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” who
“did great wonders and signs among the people”
during the earliest days of the Church.

Luke’s history of the period also includes the moving scene of Stephen’s death –
witnessed by St. Paul before his conversion –
at the hands of those who refused to accept Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

Stephen himself was a Jew who most likely came to believe in Jesus
during the Lord’s ministry on earth. He may have been among the 70 disciples
whom Christ sent out as missionaries, who preached the coming of God’s kingdom while traveling with almost no possessions.

This spirit of detachment from material things continued in the early Church,
in which St. Luke says believers “had all things in common”
and “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all,
as any had need.”

But such radical charity ran up against the cultural conflict between
Jews and Gentiles, when a group of Greek widows felt neglected
in their needs as compared to those of a Jewish background.

Stephen’s reputation for holiness led the Apostles to choose him,
along with six other men,
to assist them in an official and unique way as this dispute arose.
Through the sacramental power given to them by Christ,
the Apostles ordained the seven men as deacons,
and set them to work helping the widows.

As a deacon, Stephen also preached about Christ as the fulfillment of the
Old Testament law and prophets. Unable to refute his message,
some members of local synagogues brought him before their religious authorities,
charging him with seeking to destroy their traditions.

Stephen responded with a discourse recorded in the seventh chapter of the Acts
of the Apostles.
He described Israel’s resistance to God’s grace in the past,
and accused the present religious authorities of “opposing the Holy Spirit”
and rejecting the Messiah.

Before he was put to death, Stephen had a vision of Christ in glory.
“Look,” he told the court,
“I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

The council, however, dragged the deacon away and stoned him to death.

“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,’”
records St. Luke in Acts 7.
“Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice,
‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’
When he had said this, he died.”

The first Christian martyrdom was overseen by a Pharisee named Saul –
later Paul, and still later St. Paul –
whose own experience of Christ would transform him into a believer,
and later a martyr himself.

—Catholic News Agency

Pantocrator

“According to greek mythology, humans were originally created with 4 arms, 4 legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”
Plato

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I don’t know what first drew me to this particular image, or more aptly put, Icon. Oh I’ve written about Icon’s before, quite some time ago, which means I don’t want to rewrite a post (see “What is an Icon” dated 3/1/13) however there is a little background necessary in order for one to fully appreciate the image accompanying this particular post.

An Icon, which translates to “image” is just that, an image. A bit of an artistic photograph if you will. It should be noted that Icons are not considered paintings at all, but rather are referred to as written images– as in the artist is not painting but actually “writing,” what I like to describe as, a love letter.

Now back to this particular image.
No doubt you have seen it at some time or other as it is quite notable as far as Icons are concerned. It is an image of the Christ, or Pantocrator as He is known in Greek/ Παντοκράτωρ—–meaning Divine (translated from the Hebrew El Shaddai). This particular image dates to the 6th century–let’s say 500 years or so after the death of Christ. It is considered to be the oldest known image of Christ or as He is known to many, as the Chirstos.

I don’t want to give an in-depth mini history lesson today regarding icons, or of this particular image, as there is so very much out there in the form of books or on the web for the curious to discover. I simply want to share with you something that is very meaningful to me. I think it is important to share with others the things that significantly impact our own lives as those are the things that make us who we are.

As a person who grew up with Western Christianity, or that of the Roman or Latin branch of Christianity, I was always accustomed, as no doubt you were, to what typically is considered to be images of Jesus. Benevolent images of a young man of fair skin complexion, soft brown hair and beard who most often had blue eyes. But the problem with that stereotypical image is that Jesus was not European. He was a Middle Eastern Jew. Therefore that meant he most likely had a more dark or olive skin tone, with a thicker head of very dark hair. He was an orthodox, meaning devout, Jew, so it is theorized that he most probably wore the hair ringlets as do the modern day Hasidic Jews. His features were not as close to ours in the West but rather he was closer in appearance to those currently living in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, etc.

Knowing all of the geographical information of Jesus, I’ve never gravitated to the images depicted in much of our Western Culture’s art and literature regarding Jesus, as I just didn’t think it a true likeness. I knew he didn’t look like me– as he grew up in an entirely different area of the planet that does not have many light haired, blue eyed folks running about. I wanted to see Jesus for who is was, not some stylized image.

And so it was when I first saw this image—I was truly taken by this image. The question of whether or not I was glancing at the closest image of the man who has had the greatest impact on humankind–let alone my life, resonated in my head.

This particular image is considered to be the benchmark for all other artistic images of Jesus—that is until the expansion of the Christian Church in the West, meaning Europe and eventually the new continent of the Americas.

This Icon is located in St Catherine’s Monastery in the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula. St Catherine’s is located at the foot of the mountain, Mt Horeb, in which it is believed that God spoke to Moses in the form of the burning bush. It is also within these mountains that Moses later received the Ten Commandments. St. Catherine’s has been in existence as a practicing Monastery since the year 564—making St Catherine’s Monastery one of the oldest practicing monasteries known in all of Christendom.

It is troubling, given the current political crisis in Egypt, that St Catherine’s has had to shut its doors to pilgrims most recently as the safety of Christians, particularly in Egypt, is a perilous situation. I’m attaching a short nice informative link to a Youtube clip concerning a brief overview of St. Catherine’s as narrated by the monks:

There is also a most fascinating book based on the travels of two of the first Western woman, sisters from Scotland, who journeyed to St Catherine’s in the mid 1800’s. The Sisters of the Sinai by Jancie Soskice– Theirs was a journey of the discovery of ancient manuscripts. A most interesting true tale.

To the casual observer the life and worship at this most ancient of monasteries is something of another world and time—And so it is—yet it must be understood that the monks at St Catherine’s have been practicing these rituals since the year 500 with little to no change. . . so if anything, it is our worship today that is otherworldly and foreign. It is on my bucket list to one day travel to St. Catherine’s. The original burning bush is purported to be within the walls of the monastery as the bush in question actually does date to the time of Moses. The library is full of ancient texts as well as the largest collection of original ancient Icons all of which are housed within St. Catherine’s fortified walls. It is said that the aired conditions have helped to preserve these ancient and holy relics with many dating to the birth of the Christian faith.

The story goes that a cloth was found just at the inception of the monastery, buried within its walls, which was purported to have been part of the burial cloth of Jesus—not the Shroud but rather the face cloth that was customary of the time to be placed over the face of the deceased before being wrapped in the burial shroud. This cloth, or what the Eastern Church refers to as a napkin, Holy Napkin, is said to have, just as the shroud, held the image of a man—-of what the faithful claim to be that of Jesus. It was shortly after the discovery of this cloth that this particular image of Jesus, the Pantocrator of Sinai was created—making it the first known artistic image in existence based from something that is said to be the original image of Jesus—making this image to be the closest thing Christian followers would have to an exact image of Christ. Some stories even attribute the Icon’s creation to St Luke as he was considered an artist as well as a medical doctor.

But it is the facial features of this particular image that draws me from mere observer to that of one of awe and worshiper. The duality of God rests in this image–the Deity as well as the Human–two separate entities, yet united in one face. If an image of the face from the Shroud of Turin is laid over this image, the two faces are proportionate, lining up equally. If you split in half the face of this Icon’s image you will note that both halves of the face are vastly different, making this image asymmetrical rather than symmetrical– as we consider the human face to be–more equal than different.

One side of the face is that of a tender and loving man–that of pure-hearted love, that of Savior. The other side is a man harsh and stern–that of Judge of Mankind. I am reminded of the verse in Matthew where Jesus tells the disciples that at the time of Judgement He will separate the sheep form the goats. The sheep on the right having done the acts of kindness during their lives of clothing the naked, feeding the poor, visiting the sick and imprisoned will all see Glory. On the other hand are the goats, those to His left, who did not do the act of kindness to the strangers throughout their lives—they will be cast away to eternal damnation –the Savior vs Judge–the two compelling actions all within one individual.

I first saw this image, oddly enough, in a store specializing in Icons on a street corner in Rome. In the shadow of the great Latin Roman branch of Christianity, that of St Peter’s, exists an Eastern Orthodox store of Iconography. The irony was not lost on this little pilgrim. The store clerks spoke only Greek and no doubt Italian. There were reproductions of many Icons, but it was the Pantocrator of Sinai which truly spoke to me. It is said that one does not choose an Icon, but that the Icon chooses you. I brought home a copy that I eventually framed–later purchasing a mounted image from St Isaac’s Skete–a wonderful small orthodox Skete located in rural Wisconsin which offers a beautiful selection of mounted Icons as well as commissioned Icons by the trained monks. (http://www.skete.com )

And so it is, as I stand in my kitchen, just on the counter above the sink, sits a small collection of Icons. As I spend countless hours in the kitchen, I am afforded time to ponder these images—pondering the significance they play and have played in my life as well as the cascading significance they have played throughout the existence of humankind. I marvel and stand in awe of the duality of God. I am drawn to the face of both Grace and Judgement. At times I am compelled to look away, as I feel so unworthy, so less than, so dirty by the weight of my sins—and just when I feel defeated and worthless, less than— the face of Love draws me back–

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it would be utterly scorned

Song of Solomon 8:6-7

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