There is a small class of events within the gospels that are treated in a special manner by iconographers. This special treatment reflects the language of Scripture as well. In the icons of the Transfiguration, Pascha and the Ascension, there is a particular artistic device used called a Mandorla. Sometimes circular, sometimes almost star-shaped, it serves as something of a “parenthesis” within an icon. What is being set in the parenthesis is an event which somehow transcends what most of us think of as normal. Revealed in the context of a mandorla is that which we know by the revelation of Scripture but which might not have been witnessed by the human eye – or – if witnessed – somehow transcended the normal bounds of vision.
In the icon of the Transfiguration, the transfigured Christ stands within the mandorla. The Church’s hymns remark on this in their own manner:
In this text for the Troparion (Hymn) for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Christ’s glory is described as having been revealed to his disciples “as far as they could bear it.”
The Kontakion of the Feast carries the same message:
On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!
The disciples are described in the Scriptures as having been “afraid.” St. Peter speaks of building three tabernacles, “because he did not know what to say.” The experience is more than even the words of Scripture can express.
The depiction of the Ascension in iconography has this same artistic device. Some would perhaps wonder why an event that is described in a prosaic manner “a cloud received him from their sight” should need to be framed within the parentheses of a mandorla. Of course, this description is given only in the book of Acts. Mark and Luke simply say that he was “carried up into heaven.” We are at a place where language has a limit. Indeed, Mark says that he was “carried up into heaven and seated at the right hand of God.” This last formula is a creedal confession – but not an eyewitness description. That Christ was taken up and that He is seated at the right hand of the Father is the faith and dogma of the Church. But the Church knows this in a mystical manner and not in the manner of a newspaper reporter.
To acknowledge this is not to weaken the witness of Scripture or to make a concession to the historical uncertainty of liberalism. It is simply to recognize the nature of the Biblical witness. The iconographic witness of the Church affirms this – placing the Ascension of Christ within a mandorla – recognizing that this will only be known and understood by the mystical knowledge of faith (and by faith I do not mean an intellectual leap of judgment). I will return to this matter of faith shortly.
Very similar to this event is Christ’s Descent into Hades, the traditional icon of Christ’s Pascha. In this icon we see what is referenced in several places within the Scriptures and upheld in the Church’s dogma – that Christ descended into Hades and “trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” But when we confess this cornerstone of our faith we are not reciting what is known by eyewitness account. Eyewitnesses see Christ’s crucifixion and eyewitnesses place Him in the tomb. Eyewitnesses return to the tomb on early Sunday morning and find the tomb open and empty.
The resurrected Christ appears to his disciples. In St. Paul’s recitation of the “tradition” (for that is the word he uses to describe his recitation, we hear:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).
There are interesting descriptions that accompany the Scriptural witness of Christ’s resurrection appearances. St. Mark says:
After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them (Mark 16:12-13).
This, of course, is St. Mark’s brief account of the encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus, described in detail in St. Luke’s gospel. We could add to that St. Mary Magdalen’s mistaking the resurrected Christ for “the gardener” until he speaks her name.
Such statements are not accidental “slips of the tongue” in which the gospel writers leave clues that indicate doubts about the reality of the resurrection. This is a silly conclusion drawn by some modern, liberal scholars. The gospels are carefully written. It is absurd to assume anything accidental within their pages.
What we have instead is a “verbal mandorla,” a description that points to a reality that impinges upon our reality but which has a depth that transcends anything we could imagine. This is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst.
This brings me back to the question of faith. There is a form of Christian literalism which belongs to a secular culture. The world is rendered only in a secularized, objective manner. Nothing is ever set within a mandorla. There is no perception of the mystery which has come among us in our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. In such a form of Christianity, faith is simply a description of what someone accepts as a set of “facts” in the same manner that we accept or reject what we read in a newspaper, etc. The facts are as static and empty as our perception. No change need happen in the witness of such facts. Either it happened and you saw it, or it did not happen. But the Scriptures themselves indicate that the nature of the witness has a radically different character:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).
If Christ appears to them, how is it that some doubted? The Biblical witness would never have allowed such a statement if it was trying to defend the modern literalism of secularized Christianity. Instead, the witness of Christ points us towards the depth of the mystery that is the truth of our relationship with risen Christ. We know Him and perceive Him not simply through a set of intellectual arguments, or even simply through our trust in reliability of historical witness. A “faith” which is founded on argument, no matter how sound the argument, still fails to change the one who accepts it. The result of such “faith” is opinion, not true faith.
True faith ultimately requires a union, a participation, in the very life of the risen Christ. Thus, we are not Baptized into opinions, but into the very death and resurrection of Christ. To use the language of icons, our life is plunged into a mandorla which is nothing other than the Kingdom of God. We are called to live within that parenthetical state – where our lives constant refer and point to the reality which has now filled us. Such a life transcends the literalism of doubt and opinion and enters into a union with God that is itself a witness to the coming of the Kingdom. It is the banishment of secularism and affirmation of the living truth of Christ.
I would not dare to shake the faith of any nor suggest an element of doubt with regard to the events of Christ’s Transfiguration, Ascension or His Descent into Hades. Instead I want to push us towards a deeper perception and participation in those realities – for this is the very root of the Christian life.
The Fathers taught us: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” The iconic grammar of the mandorla, points us to the great mysteries made known to us in Scripture and make it clear that such mysteries may be known and entered into. Glory to God!