What a challenge and a blessing to create this icon for St. Anthony’s Church in Pocatello, Idaho!
We enter into the icon’s passion narrative with an image of Palm Sunday. As Jesus rides into Jerusalem for Passover, crowds greet Him as the Messiah and King of Glory. He holds a scroll, signifying scripture and the fulfillment of prophesies within it.
Institution of the Eucharist
At the Passover meal with His apostles, Jesus institutes the New Covenant when He blesses the bread and wine, changing them into His body and blood. The gesture of Jesus’ blessing hand shapes the letters ICXC—an abbreviation using the first and last letters of the Greek words, Jesus (IHCOYC) and Christ (XPICTOC)—and so He blesses with His Holy Name. Notice the reactions and emotions of the apostles (back row: Andrew, Peter, (Jesus), John, Jude, James the Greater; front: Matthew, James the Less, Simon, Judas, and Philip). Part of two halos at the sides are for Thomas and Bartholomew, but also suggest that the scene continues out beyond what is shown. In fact, it continues out to us as we are included in this timeless act of sacrifice with our offering of the Eucharist at each Mass. The tabernacle becomes a three-dimensional element emerging from the two-dimensional scene, and Jesus becomes truly present for us in the Eucharist.
Notice how the people in the icons are illuminated from within. As we each have an immortal soul, made in the image and likeness of God, and are temples of the Holy Spirit, the degree to which a person embraces those truths is reflected in how much we can see the light which is within them. The light is streaming out of the eyes of Jesus and shining through His skin; He also has a halo, signifying light emanating from His head. In contrast, Judas the betrayer has shrouded his light with self-interest and greed, and so he is less illuminated and has no halo. He grasps his sack of 30 silver coins, and turns away from the covenant meal.
Agony in the Garden
After supper Jesus takes His apostles out to the Garden of Gethsemane. James the Greater, John and Peter are kept a little closer, and so they appear at the top of the pile of apostles who cannot seem to stay awake to support Jesus. He is alone praying to His Father with anguish about the suffering He will endure to fulfill His mission. The icon shows that the upcoming scourging, carrying of the cross, and crucifixion are all within the gaze of Jesus in the garden. Despite His natural human fear and His divine power to prevent such suffering, He chooses to continue on with His Father’s plan out of love for all humanity.
Scourging at the Pillar
Jesus is arrested in the garden through Judas’ betrayal and taken to the court of the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate. A Roman soldier dressed in red/yellow whips Jesus. The two buildings represent Pilate (red/yellow) who gave the order, and his wife Claudia (blue/purple) turned away, being against Jesus’ punishment.
Carrying of the Cross
Follow the path over to the left, and we see Jesus carrying His cross. He wears the crown of thorns and a new royal purple robe that the soldiers dressed Him in to mock Him. Two women are watching, weeping and praying from the mountains. Mountains in icons frequently resemble staircases to suggest an ascent to holiness or to God. The mountains in this scene appear especially treacherous to signify the difficulty of Christ’s passion. Jesus gazes down to the Last Supper scene, determined to complete the Passover sacrifice begun on that evening and to reconcile all of mankind to God.
The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and John stand by Jesus at His death. John beats his breast to express sorrowful repentance on behalf of not only himself and the absent apostles, but for all of us. With the solar eclipse behind the cross, darkness shrouds the sky. The mountains take a break from their ascent to bow. The skull at the base of the cross represents Christ's triumph over death; it is the skull of Adam to signify that Christ’s sacrificial blood has washed over all of mankind, even back to Adam and Eve.
The crucifix which has been present at St. Anthony’s Church for many, many years, hangs on top of the scene, and so another three-dimensional element emerges from the two-dimensional icon. May the crucified Christ, who gives the ultimate proof of God’s love, reach a new dimension of reality for all who pray with this icon.
Continue following the mountains upward to the open tomb. Mary Magdalene, grasping her bottle of ointment, examines the burial cloths left behind. An angel in white announces Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus appears in an almond-shaped aureole, a manifestation of supreme power, which has darkness at the center that breaks into clouds around the edges; this is the portal from the place of the dead (Hades) where Jesus has liberated all of the souls waiting for salvation. Christ radiates other-worldly light with gold highlights on His white robe. He carries a cross of victory and imparts a blessing on us all.
Forty days later, the risen Jesus ascends to Heaven. Angels sound their horns/trumpets as they escort Jesus, who is portrayed in a blue and gold-ringed circle (another portal) that has the universe, or the heavens at its center. Constellations shown in the heavenly portals include Leo and Pisces (the lion of Judah and fish being symbols for Christ), Libra (a symbol of justice) and Aquarius (the water/life bearer). The 11 apostles and Blessed Virgin Mary are down in the valley witnessing His ascent.
Sending of the Holy Spirit
Ten days later from the realm of heaven, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to His disciples waiting in a house in Jerusalem. Seven rays (four red and three white) emanating from the dove represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The house is flooded with light (notice the warm-colored windows here vs. the black windows in all other buildings.) A river of life flows from the nascent Church. Trees rooted near the river grow healthy and strong. The mountains represent both the difficulties that will always surround the Church and the strong foundation upon which the Church is established.
At the base of the icon it reads, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever!” from Revelation 5:12. These are the words of praise of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them”, including us. We join with the angels, the Church (past, present and future) and all creation in this vision of universal praise of the God who loves us, who became man to show us the way to the Father and who sacrificed Himself for us. In the icon, even mountains, trees, and the donkey bow in praise. And God continually loves and blesses His creation (how many times in the icon do we see Jesus raising His hand in blessing?)
This ancient story, told in an ancient iconic form, is still vibrant, alive and real today. Our Father (the One seated on the throne) and Jesus, the Lamb, co-reign in heaven and on earth with the Holy Spirit, always and forever. Amen!