Return of the sun
So here we are and the days are lengthening. Soon the clocks will go forward. Mothering Sunday approaches and daffodils are open or opening in our gardens. This is the time of year when the sky is a watery blue, and we crawl out of the wreckage of winter, cradling hope for something new, something better.
Perhaps more than many a previous year, we cling on, awaiting the easing of restrictions, a fall in infection and death rates, and an end to the caution, fear and anger that have riddled us. Soon it will be exactly a year since the first lockdown was imposed in the UK.
Hope is not an easy thing to keep hold of. It also comes unexpectedly upon us, returning like a ray of light penetrating a dark place. It reveals our vulnerabilities, the fact that we are in God’s hands. Yes, we make choices and are responsible for them – but much of life is beyond our control. Things happen to us and we are faced with the challenge of overcoming them, sometimes in ways that seem contrary to logic.
The martyrs, following the footsteps of Christ, have overcome evil with their own death. When one chants, hears, or recites the Litaniae Sanctorum, especially in the presence of icons or other images of the saints and the Saviour, one is struck by the amount of violent death in Christian history.
Saint Stephen was stoned. Under Nero, the Roman matryrs were burned as “torches” in the night and killed by beasts in the arena; Saint Peter was crucified upside down; and Saint Paul was beheaded. Saint Sebastian was pierced with arrows. Saint Ignatius was thrown to the beasts. Saint Polycarp was burned at the stake and pierced with a spear, and Saint Laurence is traditionally held to have been burned to death on a gridiron.
Martyrdom has persisted throughout the history of the Church. Today Christians suffer terrible persecution at the hands of Islamists and Communists and other totalitarians. Their witness haunts us and surrounds us – but in heaven they are seated with Christ in glory. Sometimes it is good to look at paintings and icons of them seated with Christ, inspired by the imagery of Revelation and other parts of Scripture, as a reminder to us that, though they suffered terrible things, they have obtained everlasting glory and will one day rule the earth with Christ when He returns.
The Exodus and Cherubim
I have been watching videos on the YouTube channel, “Ancient Egypt and the Bible“, which are put out at least once per week. The host is an academic and holds to a Ramesside date for the Exodus (Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age). The videos are interesting and reminded me to re-examine a depiction of the Ramesses II’s camp tent, as many scholars consider that to be useful as context for understanding the Tabernacle of Meeting raised by Moses.
It is interesting to note that the cartouche of the Pharaoh in the inner room of the tent (which analogically corresponds to the Holy of Holies) is flanked, or “overshadowed” by two falcons (representing Horus) with open wings. The terms “Cherubim” is essentially a functional one referring to the spirits that surround the throne of God and draw His chariot.
They are described in different ways in Scripture, which suggests that, although the basic concept of what they are remained static, the conceptualisation of their appearance was most likely conditioned by cultural context. Accordingly, having spent years in Egypt, the Israelites most likely conceived of their appearance in Egyptian iconographic terms following the Exodus and for many years after (i.e. as sphinxes, falcons, Isis and Nephthys, etc.). (Similarly, the “Seraphim” of Isaiah were most likely imagined in Egyptian terms because of the cultural influence of Egypt over Judah in the days of Isaiah. Seals from the period have images of cobras with many wings, derived from the Egyptian uraeus.) By contrast, during the Babylonian Exile, Ezekiel’s Cherubim clearly owe more to Mesopotamian iconography than they do to Egyptian. It is also possible that Abraham, having come from Mesopotamia, conceived of these throne-guardians in similarly Mesopotamian imagery.
Josephus believed the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant resembled birds. One might naturally assume this, given the biblical text explicitly refers to their wings. However, this may be a tradition that accurately recorded the fact that they were modelled on the Egyptian falcon iconography. We may never know as the Bible says the Ark will never be built again, and it may never be recovered, if indeed it still exists.