Easter and Eastertide

The Mystery of Pentecost

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Giotto, Pentecost (Scrovegni (or Arena) Chapel, Padua)


Once again we turn to Giotto, who helps put a ‘human face’ on a supernaturally-charged event. As we observed with his fresco depicting the Ascension of Jesus, Giotto’s Pentecost painting evidences the influence of medieval and Eastern Orthodox iconography (e.g., the gold-leaf halos). Yet, his work distinctively moved away from a primary absorption with portraying aspects of the eternal so as to display an appreciation for daily human life and activity. One mark of this is his employment of architectural perspective in his composition of the scene. In addition, each of the faces in this Scrovegni Chapel fresco are recognizably distinct from one another, with some of them reflecting a genuine regard for individual personality and temperament.

Here we can also notice Giotto’s attention to the biblical text. This scene portraying the gift of the Holy Spirit follow’s Luke rather than John. In John’s Gospel, on the evening of the day of the discovery of his Resurrection – the Risen Jesus enters the private room where the disciples are hiding fearfully behind a locked door. He breathes on them his Holy Spirit and implies that his Ascension has already occurred.

Luke, as Giotto faithfully portrays, describes the disciples being gathered together 50 days after the Resurrection on the Jewish feast of Pentecost. As Luke reports in the last two verses of his Gospel, after witnessing Jesus’ Ascension the disciples “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” Luke then commences his second book, Acts, with a parallel account of Jesus’ Ascension, and the selection process of Matthias as a replacement for the traitor, Judas. Having returned joyfully to Jerusalem, the disciples have been visiting the Temple daily, where they blessed and worshipped God in a public setting.

Luke’s Pentecost assembly differs markedly from John’s account of the fearful disciples on the afternoon of the first day of the new week, forty nine days before. For on Pentecost, into their midst and visibly upon their heads, came the Holy Spirit filling each of them with its power and presence.

Many visitors to Jerusalem for the great feast became aware of what had occurred, and were perplexed, marveling at the unexpected spectacle of how each of them heard the men from the north country speak in their own separate and distinct languages. The legacy of the tower of Babel had been overcome.

Peter quickly helped account for what was happening in light of Scriptures familiar to those gathered, which were fulfilled in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection. God was now doing a new thing, yet something promised long before.

How contrary to the spirit of Jesus’ ‘high priestly prayer, in John 17, and to the witness to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is our frequent experience of the Church throughout the world in our present day. Despite moving words centered on unity and a commonality of mission that we hear and recite in the baptismal rite, we are more often confronted with evidence of difference and division among Christians of varying denominations and cultural backgrounds. Perhaps it is because we let our own concepts of our mission and ministries take precedence over our awareness of and belief in the primacy of Christ’s continuing mission and ministry.

And so, we forget to marvel at what came about through the embodied presence of God. A divinely appointed and inspired country rabbi, who had recruited 12 unlikely followers, met persecution and a tragic death at the hands of a corrupt earthly empire. Yet, in the power of the Holy Spirit, over the course of a few centuries he transformed a sizable portion of the known world into the New Israel, his beloved community and family.


The Beauty of the Ascension

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Giotto, The Ascension of Jesus


The way that we envision the Ascension of Jesus is largely shaped by Luke’s Gospel, as well as by his book of Acts. As the Church’s liturgy observes and celebrates Luke’s presentation of this event, it occurs on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, which always falls on a Thursday. With diminished weekday worship attendance in most churches, the feast of the Ascension is often observed on the following Sunday, on the Seventh Sunday of Easter. As Luke’s Gospel records the event,

[Jesus] led [the disciples] out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.

In Acts, Luke presents a fuller account of

… the day when he was taken up…, [when] he presented himself alive to them… [H]e said to them, “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Giotto beautifully portrays Jesus’ Ascension in a fresco found within the Scrovegni Chapel (also known as the Arena Chapel) in Padua, Italy. Giotto’s approach to painting proved pivotal in the transition within Western art from dependence upon Eastern Christian iconographic imagery toward a greater realism and sensitivity to ‘ordinary’ human life in this world. Unlike medieval and eastern Christian icons, which tend to be absorbed with expressing dimensions of the eternal, Giotto portrays a real event in the temporal lives of real people. Nevertheless, Giotto’s Ascension is clearly also attentive and faithful to the supernatural elements of the Luke-Acts descriptions of Jesus’ Ascension.

It has been observed that in these modern times, among the most neglected aspects of traditional Christian doctrine is a proper understanding of Jesus’ Ascension. This may be due to a contemporary proclivity to read the New Testament as if its significance is primarily ethical, while shying away from engagement with the metaphysical and the miraculous elements of the Gospel narratives.

A collect from The Book of Common Prayer helps us appreciate why the Ascension of Jesus continues to be a major feast of Our Lord on the Church’s calendar:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. (BCP:226)

Jesus ascended not so that he might withdraw from the world, making room as it were for the mission of the Holy Spirit. Instead, his Ascension marked his transition from being present at one time and in one place, to becoming present in all places all the time. Before his death, there were countless places where he was not. After his Ascension, there is no place where he is not. From being with only some of those who lived during his earthly years, he is with all of us now. And from having a particular presence and context for his ministry, Jesus in his Ascension transitioned to a universal presence for his continuing mission, so “that he might fill all things.”

Alleluia. Christ is Risen and Ascended! And in the Holy Spirit he is present everywhere and to all who might welcome him into our lives.


Resurrection Finds Us

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Stanley Spencer, Resurrection, Tidying (1945)


Stanley Spencer’s church cemetery visitors find themselves surprised by being found! They experience being found through a resurrection encounter with those who have gone before.

The resurrection of Jesus is not usually something we go looking for. The risen Jesus comes and finds us. This is the pattern we see in so many of the stories of Jesus’s first resurrection appearances to his friends and followers. The disciples and others don’t go looking for him except at first, when they go to the tomb. And even then, they are seeking Jesus’ mortal remains rather than his risen presence. He comes and finds them, just as he finds us, often in the context of fellowship. And like them, we are always surprised.

We don’t find the resurrection just as we don’t find God. Neither God nor the risen Jesus are lost, even if we may be. And so, we are found by both, and then we find ourselves as persons who have been found. This is instructive, for it corresponds with our apprehension of and encounter with beauty, which we also misleadingly credit ourselves with ‘finding.’ Really, beauty finds us. For our perception and recognition of beauty depends not on a ‘power’ that we possess to pursue and attain it, but rather on our ability to receive and recognize what is, and what is given. The same is true in our apprehension of and encounter with the grace of the resurrection.

Motivated by our sense of need, we seek to find something or someone to fill the hole at the center of our lives. Though it is a challenge for many of us, being open to being found by the Risen Lord not only meets our need, but can fill us with great joy.

Alleluia. Christ is Risen!


Stanley Spencer’s, Resurrection, Tidying, is one of a large series of paintings based on the theme of Resurrection, which span the years of his mature work.

Through Death Into New Life

Peter Koenig, Christ as Second Moses


A perennial theme in the New Testament and in Christian reflection concerns how we are called to live through death into new life. When we die to our worldly attachments, and their hold upon us, we open ourselves to a greater life beyond. As the Christ our Passover canticle from The Book of Common Prayer puts it,

Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; *
death no longer has dominion over him.
The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all; *
but the life he lives, he lives to God.
So also consider yourselves dead to sin, *
and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Peter Koenig’s painting, centered on themes within this Easter season, expresses this motif in a particularly evocative way. Just as Moses led the people of Israel through the waters of death into a new covenant life with God, so Christ leads us through and to the same. This happens for us liturgically in the rite of Baptism. As Koenig explores this idea, he not only depicts Christ parting the waters but also shows the water emerging from the Lord’s side. This reflects John’s account of how blood and water came forth from Jesus’ side on the cross, but also suggests how water from the rock in the wilderness brought life to God’s people during Israel’s wandering toward the Promised Land. The “Thanksgiving over the Water,” in The Prayer Book Baptismal Rite articulates these ideas in a compact way:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

Notice how, in the painting at the top, Peter Koenig portrays the crucified and risen Christ before what appears to be a darkened tomb filled with people. As we hear Isaiah quoted in Advent, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Christ leads the way, and makes possible our journey from the darkness of death into our new covenant life with God.

The two side paintings that accompany Koenig’s Christ as Second Moses artfully yet powerfully suggest the drama within the Exodus account of Israel’s Red Sea Crossing. The chariots of Pharaoh succumb to the waters of death while Israel is safely delivered on dry ground to their Covenant encounter with God at Sinai. Another canticle from The Prayer Book puts it well:

I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted; *
the horse and its rider has he hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my refuge; *
the Lord has become my Savior.
This is my God and I will praise him, *
the God of my people and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a mighty warrior; *
Yahweh is his Name.
The chariots of Pharaoh and his army has he hurled into the sea; *
the finest of those who bear armor have been drowned in the Red Sea.
The fathomless deep has overwhelmed them; *
they sank into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in might; *
your right hand, O Lord, has overthrown the enemy.

Most of us have the blessing of not facing the equivalent of Pharaoh’s army. But we do have an enemy. And our enemy is the darkness and death of loving self and this world, even to the contempt of God, when God bids us to love him, even to the contempt of self and this world. When we live as we pray, to the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit, we experience new life.


The above painting is Peter Koenig’s, Christ as the Second Moses, also known as The Rainbow Resurrection (used by permission of the artist). The final paragraph contains a paraphrase of St. Augustine concerning how we love God, from The City of God (Book 14, chapter 28).