Last week, I brought to your attention the news out of Istanbul that a mosaic of an angel’s face was uncovered in Agia Sophia Cathedral (Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας). The latest news is that this mosaic was above what was the Holy Altar. It appears the face was part of the Platytera Mosaic in the main apse. So from the six century until the end of the fifteen century, this angelic face gazed at the Theotokos and the Christ Child. The faithful looked up for 916 years, that is from 537 AD when Justinian the Emperor finished the Cathedral to 1453 AD when the mosaics were plastered over. All those years the clergy, the laity and the imperial household chanted this hymn:
“All creation rejoices in thee, O Thou that art full of grace, both in the hierarchy of the Angels and the generations of men. Thou art a hallowed temple, and a spiritual paradise, the glory of virgins, whence God was made flesh and became a little Child, He Who is from Eternity our God. For He made thy womb His throne, and formed Thy body to be broader than the Heavens. All creation rejoices in Thee, O thou that art full of grace, glory to Thee. “
Now once again, the angelic face is visible. Waiting there to join with the heavenly host to sing praises to the Incarnate One and the Theotokos, who is “more honourable than the Cherubim; and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim.” This is a manifestation of the true purpose not only of the angel, but also of the temple. The way the angel was covered suggests that it may be the first to be uncovered and that more may be awaiting under the surface to be revealed. From iconographic schemes, angels are usually not placed singularly, except for the Archangels. Our prayer is that this is the first, of many, we will see. Just as we know that each of us is accompanied by our guardian angel, this uncovered angel has been as a silent guardian to the image of the Platytera and the Incarnate Christ. Axios!
There is a word that appears in the hymnography of the Church which is prominent in Great Lent and in Holy Week on which I would like to spend a few minutes. That word is stavrotheotokion. If we look at this compound word and break it down to its component parts we can recognize a couple of fairly familiar Greek words, Stavro – Greek for cross and Theoto(kos), the Mother of God. Now, we can connect the concepts The Theotokos and the Cross. The Stavrotheotokion is a troparion (short hymn with a theme usually sung after a verse of psalm), which is a manifestation of true human emotion. It is a poetic expression of the pain, sorrow and astonishment of a mother beholding her Son and her God on the Cross. These verses of theology and tenderness are heard in many of the services of the Great Lent, but reach their zenith in the services of the Holy Passion. The Theotokos expresses the wonder of us all. The awe, which could only be articulated by a mother who has kept a secret for many years (“and his mother kept all these things in her heart” Luke 2, 51). The identity of her Son as the incarnate God was known the Theotokos since the Annunciation. Now she suffers a new mystery, the inscrutability of her Son and Creator taking on death by His own free choice. Each of these verses proclaims the truth of Christ’s condescension.
…”Woe is me beloved Child, light of my eyes! Thou has hung the earth above the waters, how can you endure to be nailed upon the Tree between two evildoers.” – Vespers of Tuesday in the Third Week.
None the less, the Virgin stands by the cross, hour by hour true to her mission to intercede for the entire world. Her pain is palpable. Her lament is moving and yet there is true nobility in her devotion. When all the disciples, except John the Beloved, had fled because of their fear, she and the other women stood there unafraid. St. Romanos the Melodist has captured her grief and her consolation in a kontakion (a combination of troparia of the same structure, connect alphabetically or acrostically) used on Great and Holy Friday. This dialogue between the Theotokos and her Son becomes the revelation of God’s plan of salvation in poetry. This kontakion is lyrical theology, stavrotheotokion with the voice of response by our Crucified Lord. Christ assures the Theotokos just as she witnesses his hanging on the Cross, she would receive this grace.
“Courage, Mother because you will see me first on my coming first from the tombs. I am coming to show you by how many toils I ransomed Adam and how much I sweated for his sake. I shall show it to my friends by showing the marks in my hands and then you will see Eve, Mother, living as before, and you will cry out with joy: ‘He has saved my forebears, my Son and my God.’*
*(St. Romanos the Melodist. On the Life of Christ: Kontakia. Translated by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash. Edited by Kerry Brown, The Sacred Literature Series. New York et al.: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995, p. 148).