We believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit being one.
1. Our Beliefs (The Church and Symbols)
1.1 Definition of Church
1.1.1 The sacred place and indwelling house of God. (Genesis 28:16-17; 1 Kings 9:1-3; 2 Chronicles 7:11-16)
1.1.2 The body of each and every Christian. (John 14:23; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 1 Peter 2:5; Revelation 3:20)
1.1.3 The communion of Christians. (Matthew 18:20; Acts 8:1-3; 11:25-26; 1 Peter 5:13)
1.2 Biblical Foundation of the Church
1.2.1 Imagery of the Church in the Old Testament
The Ark of Noah (Genesis 8:1-22; 1 Peter 3:20-21)
Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22)
The Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:7-11)
Synagogue (Ezekiel 11:16; Matthew 4:23; Luke 4:16-23; Acts 13:5; 14:1)
The Temple of Solomon (1 Kings 9:1-3)
1.2.2 The Foundation of the Church in the New Testament
Christ is the founder of the Church. (Matthew 16:17-18; Acts 20:28)
Acts 2:-24 * St. John Chrysostom referred to this day (i.e., Pentecost) as: *The birthday of the Church.*
1.3 The Four Main Dogmatic Characteristics of the Church
1.3.1 ONE: This is precisely because its founder and Head Christ is One. (Ephesus 4:4-5)
1.3.2 HOLY: This is mainly because its Head Christ is Holy. (Ephesus 5:25-27; 1 Peter 1:15-16)
1.3.3 UNIVERSAL: Christ is Omnipresent (present everywhere). (Matthew. 28:19-20; Mark. 16:15-16)
1.3.4 APOSTOLIC: The Church is faithful to the Apostolic teaching that has been handed down throughout the ages. (Acts 14:21-23; Ephesus 2:20)
The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed [Verse 9]: “And we believe in one, holy, universal, apostolic church.”
The Council of Nicaea: -the First Ecumenical Council of the Church held in A.D 325.
The Council of Constantinople: - is the Second Ecumenical Council held in A.D 381.
Creed: - derived from the Latin word Credo meaning, “I believe.” Therefore, Creed is a brief confession of faith.
2. Orthodox Church Building and Its Symbolic Meaning
Church: a special building set apart for divine worship of God.
Architecturally, Ethiopic church buildings are classified under three major kinds, namely: Cave Churches, Round (Octagonal/Eight-sided) Churches, and Cross-like (Rectangular) Churches.
An Ethiopian Church building has three internal sections.
- Quine-Mahelet, which is the first section, is the place where Church canters and clergy perform liturgical hymnody. Secondly,
- Queddest is the section where the Holy Communion [Holy Qurban] is communicated to the faithful.
- Maqdes/Sanctuary is the innermost part where the Ark [Tabot] rests. It is accessible only to bishops, priests and deacons.
Symbolically, the three sections of the Church represent the three heavenly cities of the Angels:
The Dome: the symbol of heaven. Accordingly, the Church’s Divine Liturgy is an expression the heavenly worship of the angels on earth.
The Altar/Menber: is the very central place of Orthodox worship where the Tabot rests and the Holy Communion is offered. It is mostly made up from precious wood and adorned with holy icons.
Regarding the order of entrance, the entrance of men looks towards the north, and that of women towards the south. The entrance for the clergy faces towards east.
The three main gates of the Church have manifold meaning: symbols of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and the three-tiered levels of Ordination, namely: Bishop, Priest and Deacon.
Bethlehem: literally means the “house of bread.” It is a consecrated chamber, where the clergy prepared the Eucharistic Bread and Wine for the Divine Liturgy [Qiddassie]. (Matthew 2:5-7)
The Bethlehem is always built at the Eastern side of the Church, after the symbolism of Bethlehem, which is East of Jerusalem.
The spiritual meaning shows the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in Bethlehem and sacrificial death at Calvary. (Matthew 2:1-12; John 19:17-42)
Baptistery: - a special place reserved for the administration of the sacrament of Baptism. Mostly, it takes an Octagonal shape. This symbolizes the eight souls that were saved from the drastic wrath of the flood. (Genesis 7:7; 1 Peter 3:20-21)
Upon entrance to the church, Christians are required to remove their shoes as a sign of reverence to the holy indwelling house of God. (Exodus 3:5-6; Joshua. 5:15)
As a special meeting place where heaven touches the earth, silence is highly recommended within the church. (Psalms. 64:4-5; 137:1; Ecclesiastes. 5:1-2)
3. Facing the East at Prayer and Its Symbolic Meaning
Orthodox Churches are built facing towards East. Accordingly, Orthodox Christians also pray facing towards the East due to its rich symbolic meaning.
The East is the source of light, which symbolizes Christ who is “the Sun of Righteousness.” (Malachi 4:2; Ezekiel 44:1-2; Matthew 17:2)
God planted the tree of life and the Garden of Eden in the East for humankind
(Geneses 2:8), and subsequently the act of praying facing east symbolizes our aspiration to Paradise.
Christ was born in Bethlehem, East of Jerusalem and the star, which led the Magi to the Lord Jesus, appeared in the East (Matthew 2:1-2)
The glory of God comes from the East. “And behold, the glory of God of Israel came from the way of the east.” (Ezekiel 43:2; Isaiah 24:15)
The Bible mentions that the glorious Second Coming of Christ will appear in the East. “And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east.” (Zechariah 14:4; Acts 1:11)
Facing the East in prayer evokes the inner senses of the soul, which gives depth to our spiritual feelings in order to assure the quality of our prayer.
During Orthodox baptismal rite, the baptized faces westward to renounce Satan and all his evil thoughts and deeds. Again, the baptized returns eastward and recite the Creed to confess the belief in Christ. The rite of turning from West to East symbolizes the baptized transformation from darkness to righteousness. (1Pet. 2:9-10)
4. The Cross and Its Symbolic Meaning
The Cross: the emblem of our salvation and Christian faith. It reminds us of the sufferings and death of our gracious and ever-loving Lord Jesus Christ. It is thus the sign of peace, deliverance, victory and eternal hope of resurrection.
The symbol of the cross is omnipresent in Ethiopia, the island of Christianity, with a variety of shapes and rich symbolism. Some of the blessings it conveys for us are: bodily health, spiritual grace and divine protection from evil spirits.
Types of Crosses
In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, there are five main types of crosses, namely: Hand Crosses, Liturgical Hand Crosses, Processional Crosses, Neck Crosses and Roof-top/Dome Crosses.
4.1 Hand Crosses:
Carried by bishops and priests for blessing. The faithful often receive blessings by bowing their head and kissing the main body of the cross and then the tablet at the bottom.
Ethiopic Hand Cross consists of the main body, the handle and the tablet at the base.
Remarkable to note is that there are also special kinds of hand crosses known as Pictorial or Icon Hand Crosses, which consist of devotional icons of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, St. Mary, the Angels, the Apostles and Saints.
4.2 Liturgical Hand Crosses:
Larger hand crosses are liturgical in use and are usually kept and used within the Church.
4.3 Processional Crosses:
These are used throughout the various Church services to bless the faithful, the sacraments and the four corners of the world. They are also carried with special procession during Church ceremonies.
Processional Crosses have a shallow shaft into which a wooden handle called matsor (bearer) is inserted so as to consist the main body of the cross, the shaft, and the lower arms. The arms have symbolic meaning and a practical function as well. They serve as the loops through which a hanging cloth is hung. This symbolizes the linen cloth with which Jesus’ body was wrapped.
4.4 Neck Crosses:
Neck Crosses, worn on a cord around the neck, are the most numerous and best known of Ethiopic crosses. A cord tied around the neck of baptized Christians, called Matab, has been the outward symbol of faith since early Christian times. The neck cross has a small hole or ring and is suspended from this cord, thus separating Christians from pagans. Most Ethiopic Christians even have crosses tattooed on their body.
It is remarkable to note that Orthodox Christians sometimes carry a special kind of small neck icons for private devotion and protection.
4.5 Church’s Roof-Top/Dome Crosses:
Joyful and rich in symbolism, drawing their numerous forms from nature. The Ethiopic Church domes usually exhibit - three, five, six or seven eggs of ostrich. This specific numerology refers to the Holy Trinity, the Five Pillars of Mystery/ the Five Wounds of our Savior, the Six Commandments of the Gospel and the Seven Sacraments of the Church respectively.
Indeed, the ostrich eggs that are placed upon the Church’s dome symbolically refer to the divine providence of God as well as our constant contemplation towards Him.
In general, Ethiopic crosses are magnificently produced in a wide range of materials, namely: wooden (to remind us of Christ’s crucifixion on the wooden cross), stone/marble (referring to Christ, the Living Rock and the foundation of the Church), metal (symbolizing the nails and lance at Christ’s crucifixion), silver (representation of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver), bronze (Christ’s fulfillment of the symbolism of the serpent that Moses crucified in the wilderness), copper (shows the redden precious blood of Christ that shed on the cross) and lastly golden (reveals Christ’s eternal purity and divine kingship).
Interestingly enough, Ethiopic tradition maintains that the fragment of the Holy Cross was brought to Ethiopia and is preserved at Egziabher-Ab Church (i.e., named after God the Father) in the awe-inspiring mountainous Monastery of Gishen.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church annually celebrates the Feast of the Holy Cross called Masqal on 27th of September. Ethiopian Christians venerate the Cross of Christ our Lord and Savior with a magnificence religious solemnity.
5. Incense and Its Symbolic Meaning
In the Old Testament the incense constitutes an important part of its worship. It symbolizes a prayer with fragrant aroma ascending before the Almighty God. “Accept my prayers as incense before you” (Psalms 142:2). In addition, was considered as a daily sacrifice before God. The Lord God told Moses: “You shall make an altar to burn incense on.” “Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning.” Perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” “It shall be to you holy for the Lord.” (Exodus 30:1, 3-7; 25:6; 37:29; Leveticus 16:12)
The incense had also an intercessory role among the people of Israel. (Numbers 16:46-48)
Unlike prayer, the rite of incensing was permitted only to the priests. (Luke 1:9; Hebrew. 9:4; Revelation 5:8) Failure to observe this divine commandment resulted in a serious catastrophe. (Numbers 16:31-32)
The rite of offering of incense in the Old Testament has also continued in the New Testament. Thus, the prophecy of Malachi reads, “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations.” (Matthew 1:11) It is evident that the worship of God among the Gentiles has not been fulfilled until the time of Christianity. Subsequently, the rite of incense has become the constitutive part of Christian worship.
In addition, the New Testament also renders ample references to the Divine will and pleasure in the offering of incense. In the Lukan account of the appearance of the Lord’s angel at the priestly ministry of Zechariah’s (Luke 1:8-11); the Magi’s offering of frankincense to the Christ Child as a symbolism of His eternal priesthood (Matthew 2:7-10).
The apocalypse also mentions the heavenly liturgy of the twenty-four priests: “each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4). This verse in particular sums up the whole life of the Church as a praying body, which is marked with the offering of the sweet fragrance of incense.
Moreover, the manifold spiritual meaning of incense helps those who are spiritually immature to quicken their spiritual senses to be uplifted towards divine mysteries and heavenly realm.
The Church’s offering of frankincense implies the greatest spiritual sacrifice of the faithful themselves with the love of God. (Deuteronomy 4:24; also the martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch)
The burnt incense always ascends vertically so as to help us lift our eyes and hearts up to the Lord’s Kingdom and it also spreads horizontally to symbolize the unity of the faithful and the sacrificial dimension of the fragrant aroma of Christ’s body. (2 Corinthians 2:14-15)
The “cloud of incense” (Leviticus 16:13) refers to the divine presence and glory of the gracious Lord that is overshadowing His people. (Number 9:17; 10:34) Also“And a cloud covered the mountain. Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days.” He called Moses out of the midst of the cloud. (Exodus 24:15-16); “the cloud filled the house of the Lord; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.” (1 kings 8:10-12)
In the New Testament, the cloud that is formed by the offering of the incense shows Christ’s flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15) carried over a cloud (symbolism of Saint Mary); at the scenes of Epiphany and Transfiguration a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were fearful as they entered the cloud. Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying; “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Matthew 3:16-17; 17:3-6; Luke 9:34-35) ands His glorious Second Coming is on the clouds (Matthew 24:30).
6. Lights and Candles and Their Spiritual Meaning
The rite of lights and candles is one of the peculiar features of Orthodox worship. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church widely uses lights and candles during its daily prayer, Eucharistic Liturgy, Bible reading, on the altar and before the icons.
The Orthodox Church makes use of lights and candles due to their deep symbolic meaning and spiritual importance. This is a divine command given by the gracious God, Who said, “Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.” (Genesis 1:3-4); In addition, the importance of using lights is practice since the time of the Early Church. “There were many lamps where they were gathered.” (Acts 20:8)
First and foremost, the Church needs to be filled with lights mainly because it is the sacred indwelling place of God, Who is Light. “I am the Light of the world.” (John. 8:12; 1:5); “God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” (1 John. 1:5)
The Church is called “the golden lamp stand,” as St. John the Evangelist saw Christ in a vision amidst of seven golden lamp stands - the Church. “The seven lamp stands which you saw are the seven churches.” (Revelation 1:20)
Prefigured in the Old Testament in Bethel, the sacred dwelling place of God, the Church is understood as heaven on earth. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17) Therefore, as the stars illuminate the heaven, so do the lights and candles in the Church.
The Church remains full of light since the Tabernacle and Sanctuary were filled with lights and the lamps were lighted by pure olive oil under supervision of the Levite priests and were never put out. (Exodus 27:20-21)
The lamps, which are lighted by oil, have deeper spiritual meaning. The oil, which was used to anoint priests and kings in the Old Testament, symbolizes the Holy Spirit. For instance, we read: “When Samuel anointed David, the Spirit of the Lord came up on him in power.” (1 Samuel 16:13).
In addition, the candles that we lit in the Church are made of oil, which shows our anointment with the Holy Spirit and symbolizes His gracious works within our hearts (1 John 2:20, 27). In particular, the constant burning shows the uninterrupted watchfulness in keeping the heart abiding to the marvelous deeds of the Holy Spirit within our life.
The lights in the Orthodox Church also represent the angels in heaven, as St. Jacob saw them in a vision ascending and descending the ladder in Bethel. (Genesis 28:12) Orthodox Christians experience the presence of the heavenly angels through the Church lights, as they are called “angels of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14; Ps. 104:4; Revelations 18:1)
The Church’s lights and candles also symbolize the saints and martyrs to whom the gracious Lord says, “You are the light of the world.” “Let your light so shine before men.” (Matthew 5:15; Daniel 12:3;) Moreover, they were also referred to as lighted lamps put on lamp stands. (Matthew 5:15)
Thus, the rite lighting candles before the icons of saints and martyrs remind us that they were lights in their words and lives as well. They were consumed as candles do with the fire of God’s love so that they might shine forth to the world.
“The righteous will shine forth as the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13:43); “He [St. John the Baptist] was the burning and shining lamp, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light” (John 5:35). As we have seen, the Orthodox Church remains full of light, as it is full of angels and saints.
The other profound spiritual meaning conveyed through lighting of lamps is that it symbolizes constant readiness and perpetual watchfulness. Referring to this, the Lord Jesus Christ gives us the parable of the five wise virgins whose lamps were burning while the lamps of the five foolish virgins went out. (Matthew 25:1-12).
Furthermore, the Lord also says, “Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching.” (Luke. 12:35) Therefore, when we see lights in the Church, we are reminded of their responsibility to keep their lamps lighted.
Finally, the Church’s lighting of candles during the Gospel reading implies to the guiding role of the Word of God along with our spiritual journey. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalms 119:105); “The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” (Psalms 19:8)
In brief, the gracious God commands that lights be constantly lit in the Church. Besides, He also cares for the proper administration of lights in His house. Failure to light, and carelessness to do so, results in divine punishment. (2 Chronicles 29:6-8)
7. Icons and Their Spiritual Meaning
Icons have always been part of the Orthodox worship. Orthodoxy uses icons as “theology (Scriptures) in colour.” Reference has been made that the Church is an earthly heaven in which the gracious and ever-loving God dwells and walks about. Here it would be appropriate to pose some legitimate questions: What is an icon and what is its spiritual importance? Is the tradition of icons against the divine commandment in the Decalogue, “You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Exodus. 20:4-5; Deuteronomy 5:8-9) Does the veneration of icons, kissing them, kneeling before them, lighting candles and pray before would be contradictory to this Biblical prohibition of graven images?
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the 8th century (A.D. 726) is marked with a conflict between the Iconophiles/Iconodules (defenders and lovers of icons) and Iconophobes/Iconoclasts (opponents and destroyers of icons) on the icons called Iconoclast Controversy (A.D. 726-843), which was extensively debated over the usage of icons. It was an attempt to strip the Church’s ornament and to deprive of its beauty. This problem has become again an issue since the era of Protestantism in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The Bible makes evident that no created thing can be adored in place of the Creator, nor can adoration be given to any save Him alone. Therefore, to worship Him always means to offer Him adoration. So, God forbids the making of images because of the people’s proneness to idolatry. St. Paul the Apostle says: “We ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man.” (Acts 17:29) But God also allows the image of Cherubim, created angels, to be made so as to overshadow the mercy seat. The Almighty God says to Moses “Make for me two cherubim of gold.” (Exodus 25:18-22; 1 Kings. 6:23-29; 32-35) So, the holy icons have nothing in common with the idols of pagan gods (i.e., polytheism).
Explaining why we honor Icons, St. John of Damascus says: “I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake.” “Never will I cease honouring the matter, which wrought my salvation! I honour it, but not as God.” “Because God has filled it with His grace and power. Through it my salvation has come to me.” (John of Damascus). Thus, one should understand the difference between an icon and an idol as one does differentiate darkness from light, deceptive from infallible and polytheism from the clearest evidence of divine reality.
As Francois Schmuck appropriately states, Orthodox Iconography is: “the translation into picture-form of the whole Christian mystery.” Whatever is marked there in the Bible with paper and ink, the same is marked on the icon with varied pigments. For St. Basil the Great says: “Whatever the words of the narrative offer, the picture silently shows the same by imitation.” A small thing is not small when it leads to something great. The Orthodox Church boldly draws an image of the invisible God, not as invisible, but as having become visible for our sakes by partaking of flesh and blood.
Thus, it is appropriate for the Church to paint the image of God, who became visible in the human flesh. That is why we use every kind of drawing, word, or colour to depict His birth from the Blessed Virgin Mary, His Baptism at the River of Jordan, His Transfiguration at Mount Tabor, His miracles, His sufferings and crucifixion on the cross, His Resurrection, His Ascension into heaven and His glorious Second Coming. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”(John 3:14-15)
For just as words edify the ear, so also the image stimulates the eye. What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate. Just as words speak to the ear, so the images speak to the sight; it brings understanding. Modern science confirms that half of what we hear results from what we see. How could we resist the message of the Gospel proclaiming the Nativity, as we contemplate simultaneously the icon of this great feast day? St. Gregory of Nyssa says, “The silent painting speaks on the walls and does much good.” Therefore, it is not right to transfer the Scriptural prohibitions of idols and misapply them to the holy icons, so as to miscall the Church of Christ a temple of idols.
7.1 The manifold purposes of Icons
Holy icons serve a number of purposes. A special prayer is recited prior to painting an icon. Thus it became the servant of the Holy Tradition of the Church, a servant of the Gospel, not a mere artistic device. 1) They enhance the beauty of the Church 2) They instruct us in matters pertaining to the Christian faith 3) They remind us of this faith 4) They lift us up to the prototypes which they symbolize, to a higher level of thought and feeling 5) They arouse us to imitate the virtues of the holy personages depicted on them 6) They help to transform us, to sanctify us 7) They serve as a means of worship and veneration.
Ethiopian Orthodox Church makes a clear-cut distinction between adoration (latreia), which we offer to God, Who alone by nature is worthy to be worshipped; and veneration duleia (proskynesis) through which we honour the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, His angels and saints. “I will glorify those who glorify me.” (1 Sam. 2:30) For adoration is one thing, and that which is offered in order to honour something of great excellence is another. The Orthodox Church uses the Greek letters Alpha (a) and Omega (W) to the icons of Christ emphasize His divinity, and thereby upholding the Nicene faith. (Exodus 3:10-14; Revelations. 1:17-18)
7.2 Colors and their Spiritual Meanings
Color has manifold effects, which transform us in many ways. It is clear that our body and soul recognize colors and react to their subsequent effects. For instance, the colors we wear send messages to everyone around us. Colour is also present in the rhythm of seasons, the color of leaves, the flowers, the fruits, etc. Blue, yellow and red are the three major colors, which produce other colors. Here is the meaning of the main colors, as used in Orthodox iconology.
White: -the color of illumination, which symbolizes light and eternity. Baptism is called “illumination,” and subsequently the newly baptized are vested in a robe of pure white as a sign of their rebirth to true life. Accordingly, white became the color of revelation, grace, and theophany. [Ex: - God’s manifestation on Mount Sinai and Mount Tabor; It is also the colour of those who are penetrated by Divine Light. [Ex: - the angels at the Lord’s tomb and ascension; the elders of the Apocalypse].
White is the color of purity: “Your sins will become as white as snow.” (Psalms 51:7); (Isaiah 1:18). It also implies Divine Wisdom and complete knowledge. Besides, it expresses joy and happiness. The nimbus or halo of saints is often white except when gold has been used instead. The white liturgical vestments contrasting with black crosses have double symbolism of the glory and passion of Christ.
Blue: -the deepest of all the colours, offers a transparency proven by the limpidity of water, air and crystal, so that our gaze disappears into its depths. Blue is the colour of the heavens par excellence. It becomes eminently active on the spiritual level and guides our spirit on the path of faith. It also suggests silent humility. Dark blue is a sign of the mystery of Divine Life and dominates in iconography. It is the colour of the mandorla centers in icons of the transfiguration and of Christ in glory.
Blue and white are attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, expressing detachment from this world and the soaring of the soul toward God.
Red and Purple: - Because of its forceful, irresistible radiance and its close link to the colour of blood, principle of life, red is often considered as the first among the colours. It symbolizes youth, beauty, wealth, health, love, but also war. Thus, divine love, the Holy Spirit, is expressed symbolically by pure red. To lose one’s blood (red) amounts to losing one’s life. Wine, for instance, is the image of blood, which rejoices the heart and accelerates its pulse. A symbol of sacrifice and of altruism, red is an important colour in Christianity. The tunic of Jesus in the praetorium is red, as are vestments for martyrs, the cloak of St. Michael the Archangel and the fire-red Seraphim, whose name in Hebrew means “burning.”
Purple: - the symbol of supreme power. The purple vestment is both royal and priestly. We read in the Bible that Daniel the Prophet received purple robes as a reward (Daniel 5:29), and also in the parable of Lazarus, the rich man is dressed in purple (Luke 16:19).
Red and blue, although strongly contrasted spiritually, create a good harmony. This fact is particularly noticeable as we look at the Virgin Theotokos (i.e., Mother of God) dressed in a red maphorian, symbol of her humanity, and a blue robe, symbol of the divine, for she is the human creature who bore in her womb the Son of God.
Green: - a colour that comes from the plant world and springtime, which symbolizes revival, growth and hope. “Green” and “life” are two words that are closely connected. A pure green is the perfect balance resulting from a mixture of blue and yellow, representing calm or absence of movement. As a symbol of spiritual regeneration, green is frequently the colour of the prophets and of Saint John the Evangelist, all of whom are the heralds of the Holy Spirit.
Yellow and gold: - Although a pure yellow represents truth, a dull or pale yellow symbolizes pride, adultery, and betrayal. As colour of illumination and brilliance, gold symbolizes the world beyond, a world where the sun never sets. (Revelations 21:23) Gold is unalterable, representing thus for Christians, eternal life, faith and above all Christ Himself: Sun of Justice, Light of the World, Splendour of the rising sun.
The golden background of Orthodox icons implies that the personages depicted there are librated from all that is terrestrial and became spiritualized, transfigured in the golden light of eternity. Gold symbolizes the divine light. In fact, the ancient Greeks said of someone who excelled as an orator that he had a golden mouth. And in history, the expression “the Golden Age,” stresses a particular era of perfection. Gold is far more interesting for our study.
Brown: - the colour of earth, of clay and of sod. Thus, it suggests dead leaves, autumn and the decomposition of plants, which turn into dark soil. The monastic habit, as a symbol of poverty, renunciation and humility, means earth or soil, which recalls a slow death to the world, so that the monk may become a “fertile soil” for the grace of God. Hence, the clothing of monks is painted on icons with shades of brown or black.
Black: - Unlike white the symbolism of light - black is its denial, as it absorbs light without reflecting it. Black suggests non-existence, chaos, anxiety and death. But the black of night promises the profusion of dawn. Thus the earth’s dark abode of the dead contains the seed of rebirth and becomes fertile. “If the grain of wheat does not die” (John 12:24-25) In brief, it is a colour of transition leading us to new life.
In Orthodox icons the black habit of the monks stresses their renunciation of the world’s vanities, a prerequisite for the vision of Divine Light. Since life passes away without light, the damned are painted black in the icon of the Last Judgment; devils are also black.
The above considerations help us to recognize the fundamental importance involved with colours and their use in Orthodox iconography. We cannot disregard the effects of icons as vivid lessons explaining the events of the Holy Bible and the lives of the heroes of faith and history. An icon may leave a more profound impression on the soul than reading or listening to a sermon. Even portable icons exist so we can carry them on a journey. We light candles in honour of the personages, whose icons are then kissed, just as a member of the family is embraced.
It is of prime importance that in Orthodoxy, the Word of God in the Sacred Scriptures and liturgical texts and icons are intimately linked together. In other words, the icon offers a vivid revelation of the mystery that the Word proclaims. A thorough understanding of colours and their symbolism contributes greatly to the beauty seen in icons, which fascinates even the great masters of modern painting.
What a sensation of both emptiness and coldness for any Orthodox faithful who enters a house of worship that is devoid of sacred images!
A Brief Theological Interpretation and Spiritual Meaning of the Orthodox Icon of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-38)
The mystery of the annunciation is the foundation of our salvation, as Saint Mary’s response to the announcing angel, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), fulfills the various pre-figurations of the incarnation given in the Old Testament. The Virgin’s “Yes” to God reverses the sin of Eve, and begins to reverse the consequences of the fall. This feast is the beginning of God’s work of re-creation and new life. The icon of the annunciation is painted on the walls of the royal doors of the iconstasis, so as to make us encounter that very moment in which God entered into human life to renew and transfigure his creation. It is vitally linked to the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Divine Liturgy.
The maphrion of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a covering cloak decorated with a golden border, is one of the unique features of the Marin iconography of Orthodoxy. This golden leaf symbolizes that she has become the true Ark of the New Covenant. Thus, the Blessed Virgin has become the New Ark adorned with purity and holiness. Thus, she resided within the temple where she received the eternal Word of God.
The inner robe of the Theotokos is adorned with shinning stars. In referring to this, the Marian hymn of the Church represents her as the Second Heaven on earth, who has truly become a glorious throne of God. St. Mary is also depicted as the New Heaven mainly because she has given the Living Manna to the New Israelites.
The three golden stars symbolize the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God, and also her three-fold purity: the purity of body, soul and heart. They also illustrate that the Blessed Virgin has truly become the special dwelling temple of the Holy Trinity.
The radiant golden halo of the Blessed Virgin symbolizes her perpetual purity, sanctity and constant divine contemplation. Furthermore, it also illustrates her as the true East from whom Christ, the never-setting Sun of Righteousness has risen.
The golden halo of the Theotokos implies her divine life perfected with the abundance of grace “Rejoice! O full of grace!” (Luke 1:28); and also her firm faith as well. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
The Lukan prologue clearly mentioned that the announcing angel proclaimed to St. Mary that she is chosen to be the Mother of the Most High. Upon hearing such marvelous words, the Blessed Virgin said; “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Consequently, the angel replied: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Thus, St. Gabriel assures the divine maternity of the Holy Virgin Mary. Two important Greek abbreviated inscriptions are seen, which are interpreted as the Mother of God (i. e., MR. QU. = Mhtήr Qeoύ). St. Gregory of Nazianzus remarks thus: “Whoever does not accept Holy Mary as the Mother of God has no relation with the Godhead”.
Along with this he also reveals that the realization of the incarnation of the Son of God is accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Lukan account culminates with St. Mary’s words, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Orthodox Tradition maintains that our Lady Mary received the words of annunciation while she was in the temple while spinning gold and silk. Interestingly Ethiopian iconography allegorized that the spinning of gold and silk in hands of our Lady Mary symbolizes the unity of humanity and divinity in her womb through the marvelous work of the Holy Spirit.
Ethiopian Mariology firmly upholds the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God before, during and after her conception and delivery of the Son of God. Iconographically, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church vividly illustrates this central Marian doctrine in its Marian iconography where the three bright golden stars adorning the maphorion of St. Mary’s forehead and two shoulders symbolize her perpetual virginity before, during and after the virginal conception and birth of the Savior.
The curtain beside the Blessed Virgin Mary clearly shows the fact that the annunciation episode is taken place within the temple where she resided.
The opening of the temple’s curtain anticipates the culmination of annunciation in a miraculous splitting of the existing temple’s curtain at the time of the crucifixion of the Savior, the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This in turn will assure the reconciliation and unification of humanity with its Creator and Sustainer through the splitting of the curtains of sin and enmity. In front of the opened curtains is St. Mary standing before an opened scripture that is kept on a lectern. Traditionally, it is believed that the Blessed Virgin used to read scriptures while she was living within the temple.
The white cloud represents the presence of the Father, Who usually does not reveal Himself in a concrete personification. This also happened later at the baptism (Matthew 3:16) and transfiguration (Matthew 17:5) of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The appearance of the angel with white clouds and bright tone robe signifies a realm of divine Theophany and also both his incorporeal nature and the joyous news that he brought to the the world.