On Saturday, April 17th, Bishop Longin, along with a great number of clergy from our diocese, as well as from other jurisdictions, re-consecrated the newly restored Church of Saint Nikola in Cudahy, WI. The church was damaged in a fire in October of 2008 and restorations were just completed recently. Along with the structural restoration, the church now also has new frescoes, done by iconographer Filip Subotic, and a new, carved wood iconostas which was delivered from Serbia.
St Nikola parish is grateful to all who contributed toward the restoration of the church, and among the first to Fr James Dokos of the Greek Orthodox Church who was awarded a special Gramata of Recognition by His Grace Bishop Longin.
The Serbian Orthodox Church to her spiritual children at Pascha, 2010
I R I N E J
By the grace of God
Orthodox Archbishop of Pec, Metropolitan of Belgrade-Karlovci and Serbian Patriarch, with the all the Hierarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church – to all the clergy, monastics, and all the sons and daughters of our Holy Church: grace, mercy and peace from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, with the joyous Paschal greeting:
CHRIST IS RISEN!
INDEED HE IS RISEN!
“Christ is risen from dead,
trampling down death by death and
upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
In greeting you, dear brothers and sisters, with the words of this all-joyous and victorious hymn of Christ’s Resurrection, we would remind you that the Resurrection is the foundation of the Church and the source of faith and hope in our life on earth. Christ’s Resurrection is the seal and crown of God’s love toward this world and man: “…For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
The Resurrection is a Biblical mystery, for centuries hidden in the bosom of the Old Testament only to finally be proclaimed to the world in the New Testament – with the Resurrection from the dead of the God-Man Jesus Christ. (cf. Matthew 28:6)
The mystery of the Resurrection connected with the arrival of the Messiah is foreshadowed in the books of many prophets of the Old Testament. The great Prophet Isaiah confesses belief in the personal and general Resurrection with words: “The dead shall rise up, and those in the tombs shall arise,” (Isaiah 26:19) and calls all Israel to participate in that joy of the promised Resurrection: “Rise and sing all ye in the earth, for your dew is a healing for them, but the land of the ungodly shall come to an end.” (Isaiah 26:19) The Prophet David witnesses to the same in his psalms by connecting the mystery of the Resurrection with the arrival of the Messiah. With his psalms he affirms that faith in the Resurrection is the faith of all the righteous ones from the Old Testament, whose souls God would not leave in Hades, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow Your Holy One to see corruption,” (Psalm 15:10) directing us with this verse toward the First Resurrected One, the Messiah – Christ. And other prophets from the Old Testament affirm the mystery of the Resurrection. The Prophet Elijah resurrects the son of a widow in Zarephath of Sidon (3 Kings 17), foreshadowing with that miracle that the reality of the Resurrection will spread to all nations on earth (cf. Luke 4:26). The book of Ezekiel gives us a moving prefiguration of the general resurrection. The holy Prophet Ezekiel, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, sees the bringing back to life of human bones from the dust of the earth, bones which will be gathered at the end of history and right before the General Judgment of God: “Then He said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord to these bones: Behold, I will bring the Spirit of life upon you.’” (Ezekiel 37:4-5)
In the New Testament we can truly say that the Resurrection is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega (cf. Revelation 1:8), for it is identified with faith in Christ: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, yet he shall live” (John 11:25). To believe in Christ means to believe in the Resurrection.
All the miracles and signs described in the books of the New Testament happen on Christ’s way to Golgotha and the Resurrection. The Gospel description of Jairus’ daughter’s resurrection (cf. Matthew 9:18-26) and that of the widow’s son (cf. Luke 7:12-15), and especially of the resurrection of the four-day-dead Lazarus in Bethany (cf. John 11:5-46), affirm the truth that Christ is the Resurrection and the Life. He came into this world to give us Resurrection, as we sing during these holy days in the resurrection services. Neither something else – nor anything less! Our Lord did not bring a new philosophy, nor new ethics; rather He brought us new life, which He granted to us as a pledge of the future Resurrection in the holy mystery of Baptism. (cf. Galatians 3:27) The Lord Jesus Christ offered Himself on Golgotha as an unblemished Sacrifice on behalf of all and for all, as we confess and experience in the central part of Liturgy of the Church, as we commune of the Body and Blood of “Christ Crucified and Resurrected for us.” Christ is the paschal Lamb of the New Testament. By His Cross and His Resurrection on the third day He finally and perfectly showed that He is the Messiah and Savior of the world and “that there is no other name on earth by which we could be saved.” (cf. Acts 4:12)
The Holy Apostle Paul when speaking of Christ’s Resurrection said: “If Christ is not risen our faith is in vain…, but Christ is risen and has become the First-born of the dead.” (I Corinthians 15:17-20) The Holy Apostle Paul preached to Greek philosophers and wise men about “the unknown God” (cf. Acts 17:23), telling them particularly about Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. Christ’s victory over death is the affirmation of the truthfulness of Christ’s Divinity. That is why in the Gospel the holy apostles are called “witnesses of Christ’s Resurrection.” (cf. Acts 1:22) By the truth about Christ and His Resurrection, the apostles conquered “ancient arrogant Rome” and “as Galileans rather then Aristotelians” they proclaimed the news about Christ the Savior from end to end of the universe. (Romans 10:18) The two thousand years of the Church’s history, born on the day of Pentecost by the Holy Spirit, and affirmed by the preaching of the Apostles and Holy Fathers, is the greatest and the best proof that the Resurrected Lord is with us and that He will be with us “always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
Remembering these Gospel testimonies and the truth about our Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, “in whom we live, move and exist” (Acts 17:28), guided by pastoral concern, we call upon you, our dear spiritual children, to confess and safeguard your faith in the Resurrection, not only with words, but with your life and works. In this regard, the Holy Gospel admonishes us to avoid “parasynagogues”, that is to avoid sectarian-type separatism and gatherings as well as false prophets and teachers, for they “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Let us safeguard our Orthodox Tradition inherited from the Apostles and the Holy Fathers, from Saint Sava and Saint Simeon the Myrrhflowing. St. Sava, before the myrrhflowing relics of his father, brought peace between his two feuding brothers, and with that he called us to always and everywhere live in brotherly love and unity.
We greet our brothers and sisters, our spiritual children, in Kosovo and Metohija. We greet them with a greeting of the Cross and Resurrection, seeing how the clergy and faithful people of God attend their church and holy shrines in peace and love, tranquility and obedience, participate in the services and partake of the Divine Mysteries of Christ in these holy and saving days of Christ’s ascent to Jerusalem to conquer death and open the door of Resurrection and life eternal to all of us. Bishop Atanasije, who per the decision of our Patriarch and the Holy Synod is temporarily substituting for Bishop Artemije, is visiting our faithful and the holy shrines throughout Kosovo and Metohija, and in unity and oneness of mind with the clergy and faithful serves from royal Prizren in the south, throughout Metohija to Velika Hoca and Pech, and from the foothills of Shara through Kosovo Pomoravlje to Novo Brdo and Mitrovica, to the foothills of Kopaonik in the north. Thank God, our people are resolved to stay and exist on this holy altar, believing in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ and our own resurrection, always safeguarding themselves from disunity and ill-conceived confusing stories that do not lead to the safeguarding of the faith and of the spiritual and national identity.
Our faithful know what it means to hold fast to the healthy words of our Lord and to sound pious teachings, and, on the other hand, they also know what futile arguing means, “from which comes envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wrangling of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.” (I Timothy 6:3-5) In rebuilt holy shrines prayers are offered in one mind and heart by our clergy and people: “Commending ourselves and each another and our whole life to Christ our God!” With one mouth and one heart a prayer of unity in the Faith and in the communion of the Holy Spirit is being sung to the glory of the Union of the Holy Trinity and to the safeguarding of the Orthodox conciliarity of church and people.
We pray to God that, through the prayers of Saint Sava and Saint Tsar Lazar, peace and freedom are returned to our suffering Kosovo, our spiritual cradle and our Jerusalem, the place of our greatest holy shrines, which are pearls of Orthodox culture and the common treasure of all Christendom.
We also exhort all our pious people living in our homeland and elsewhere to live and rejoice in Christ’s Resurrection. The Resurrection calls us to safeguard the unity of our Holy Church and that we never subjugate our Community and our common interests to earthly interests. The Holy Apostle Paul calls and admonishes us not to be “lawless and insubordinate” (cf. I Timothy 1:9), bringing to life “old wounds” of already healed divisions of the body of St. Sava’s Church. Let us then live in the unity of our Mother Church and in love and unity with one another, preserving according to the words of the already-mentioned apostle to many nations, “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)
At this time of the Resurrection, the Church always stresses the value and holiness of human life, from the beginning of conception to the full maturity of every unique and God-like human person, objecting to every form of violence against them. To this end, we are not only reminded by God’s command: Do not kill! (Exodus 20:13), but even more so by the Resurrection of Christ, because it reveals to us the deepest meaning of creation and of the existence of the world and man, which is the salvation “of all and everything” in the Crucified and Resurrected Christ. (cf. I Corinthians 1:23)
Today’s man, plagued with worries of this world and blinded by a selfish consumer mentality, avoids the encounter with the mystery of life and death. “Cursed questions” which great human minds like Dostoyevsky and many others have dealt with in our time, do not have many inquirers. We are witnesses, unfortunately, that the “civilization of death” is becoming more and more apparent. Many worldly religions and even the philosophy and art of our time are embracing, according to the words of Father Alexander Schmemann, “peacemaking with death”. Death is, according to them, the one reality, the beginning and end of the world. The Church of Christ affirms and witnesses exactly the opposite. The Church confesses and preaches the deepest dignity and sanctity of human life, believing in Christ’s Resurrection which triumphs over our greatest and last enemy, which is death. (cf. Corinthians 15:26)
A great Russian elder Saint Seraphim of Sarov would greet all his visitors with these words: “My joy, Christ is Risen!”, with this greeting showing that the Church of Christ and her saints live in the present reality of the Resurrection. May God grant that we too may become witnesses of that truth and that the joy of the Resurrection may shine forth in our souls and our faces – that joy which was seen on the face of the recently departed Athonite elder Joseph of Vatopedi, who contrary to the laws of biology, departed with a smile on his face.
Greeting you all, our brothers and sisters, we call you to live in love toward God and your neighbors, walking the path that leads to life eternal. Living in such a way, we will become and we will be sons and daughters of the Resurrection.
Christ Is Risen!
Indeed He Is Risen!
Given at the Serbian Patriarchate in Belgrade at Pascha 2010.
Your prayerful intercessors before the Risen Lord:
Archbishop of Pec,
Metropolitan of Belgrade-Karlovci and
Serbian Patriarch IRINEJ
Metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana JOVAN
Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Coastlands AMPHILOHIJE
Metropolitan of Libertyville-Chicago CHRISTOPHER
Metropolitan of Dabro-Bosna NIKOLAJ
Bishop of Sabac LAVRENTIJE
Bishop of Zvornik-Tuzla VASILIJE
Bishop of Srem VASILIJE
Bishop of Banja Luka JEFREM
Bishop of Budim LUKIJAN
Bishop of Canada GEORGIJE
Bishop of Banat NIKANOR
Bishop of New Gracanica – Midwestern America LONGIN
Bishop of Eastern America MITROPHAN
Bishop of Zica CHRYSOSTOM
Bishop of Backa IRINEJ
Bishop of Great Britain and Scandinavia DOSITEJ
Bishop of Ras and Prizren ARTEMIJE
Bishop of Bihac and Petrovac CHRYSOSTOM
Bishop of Osijek and Baranja LUKIJAN
Bishop of Central Europe CONSTANTINE
Bishop of Western Europe LUKA
Bishop of Timok JUSTIN
Bishop of Vranje PAHOMIJE
Bishop of Sumadija JOVAN
Bishop of Slavonia SAVA
Bishop of Branicevo IGNATIJE
Bishop of Milesevo FILARET
Bishop of Dalmatia FOTIJE
Bishop of Budimlje and Niksic JOANIKIJE
Bishop of Zahumlje and Hercegovina GRIGORIJE
Bishop of Valjevo MILUTIN
Bishop of Western America MAXIM
Bishop of Gornji Karlovac GERASIM
Bishop of Australia and New Zealand IRINEJ
Retired Bishop of Zahumlje and Hercegovina ATANASIJE,
Administrator of Raska and Prizren Diocese
Vicar Bishop of Hvostno ATANASIJE
Vicar Bishop of Jegar PORFIRIJE
Vicar Bishop of Lipljan TEODOSIJE
Vicar Bishop of Dioclea JOVAN
Vicar Bishop of Moravica ANTONIJE
THE ARCHDIOCESE OF OCHRID
Archbishop of Ochrid and Metropolitan of Skoplje JOVAN
Bishop of Polos and Kumanovo JOAKIM
Bishop of Bregal and locum tenens of the Diocese of Bitolj MARKO
Vicar Bishop of Stobija DAVID
On Lazarus Saturday, Divine Liturgy was followed by the procession from the church to the lake where willow branches were blessed and distributed. On Palm Sunday, the blessing and distributing of the willow branches were done in the church.
This year, as well as the last, we had the egg dying – pysanka workshop at the monastery hall. Over 70 children participated. We thank everyone who helped and contributed over these two days – the Fitza and Hausser families for donating the pussy willow branches and also the Fitza family for setting up the pysanka workshop and all the New Gracanica teenagers who helped with the egg coloring.
Under the aegis of the Orthodox Christian Clergy Association of Greater Chicago, the Lenten Akathist service was conducted tonight at the New Gracanica Monastery. Eight priests and two deacons from various Church jurisdictions served together. Singing was performed by the Pan-Orthodox choir of Chicago area. Fr Milorad Loncar gave the sermon on the topic of the Most Holy Mother of God and the importance of following her example in the life of each Christian. After the service, everyone gathered in the monastery hall for a lenten snack and fellowship.
On Friday and Saturday, March 19th and 20th, regular annual Lenten assembly took place in the New Gracanica Monastery. The assembly was attended by more than fifty priests and deacons of the New Gracanica – Midwestern American Diocese. The gathering was characterized by the beautiful church services which reflected the spirit of our strength and unity. As Great Lent approaches its end, it was a great blessing that everyone present had the chance to have confession and reflect upon their spiritual life.
On Friday, Father Paisius Altschul gave a very inspiring presentation about alms giving, accompanied with a presentation of the work that his community in Kansas City does with the homeless.
Please check back for any updates on releases and resolutions of the meetings.
On Tuesday, March 9, 2010, the Feast of the First and Second Findings of the Honorable Head of St. John the Baptist, His Grace Bishop Longin served the Hierarchical Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with His Grace Peter, Bishop of Cleveland of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in their Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God in Des Plaines, Illinois. Fifteen priests and four deacons served with the Bishops. At the Small Entrance, Bishop Peter awarded several priests. Following Liturgy, there was a Lenten luncheon in the church hall.
It is obviously impossible for us to go to Church every day. And since we cannot keep the Lent liturgically, the question arises: what is our participation in Lent, how can we spiritually profit by it? The Church calls us to deepen our religious conscience, to increase and strengthen the spiritual contents of our life, to follow her in her pilgrimage towards renewal and rededication to God.
The first universal precept is that of fasting. The Orthodox teaching concerning fasting is different from the Roman Catholic doctrine and it is essential to understand it. Roman Catholics identify fasting with a “good deed”, see in it a sacrifice which earns us a “merit”. “What shall I give up for Lent?” -• this question is very typical of such an attitude toward fasting. Fasting thus is a formal obligation, an act of obedience to the Church, and its value comes precisely from obedience. The Orthodox idea of fasting is first of all that of an ascetical effort. It is the effort to subdue the physical, the fleshly man to the spiritual one, the “natural” to the “supernatural”. Limitations in food are instrumental, they are not ends in themselves. Fasting thus is but a means of reaching a spiritual goal and, therefore, an integral part of a wider spiritual effort. Fasting, in the Orthodox understanding, includes more than abstinence from certain types of food. It implies prayer, silence, an internal disposition of mind, an attempt to be charitable, kind, and – in one word – spiritual. “Brethren, while tasting bodily, let us also fast spiritually…”
And because of this the Orthodox doctrine of fasting excludes the evaluation of fasting in terms of a “maximum” or “minimum.” Every one must find his maximum, weigh his conscience and find in it his “pattern of fasting.” But the pattern must necessarily include the spiritual as well as the “bodily” elements. The Typicon and the canons of the Church give the description of an ideal fast: no dairy products, total abstinence on certain days. “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Matt. 19:12). But, whatever is our measure — our fasting must be a total effort of our total being…
According to the rules of the Church the fast cannot be broken for the entire Lenten period of forty days: Saturdays and Sundays are no exception.
We must always pray. But Lent is the time of an increase of prayer and also of its deepening. The simplest way is, first, to add the Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian to our private morning and evening prayers. Then, it is good and profitable to set certain hours of the day for a short prayer: this can be done “internally” – at the office, in the car, everywhere. The important thing here is to remember constantly that we are in Lent, to be spiritually “referred” to its final goal: renewal, penitence, closer contact with God.
3. Spirtual Reading
We cannot be in church daily, but it is still possible for us to follow the Church’s progress in Lent by reading those lessons and books which the Church reads in her worship. A chapter of the Book of Genesis, some passages from Proverbs and Isaiah do not take much time, and yet they help us in understanding the spirit of Lent and its various dimensions. It is also good to read a few Psalms – in connection with prayer or separately. Nowhere else can we find such concentration of true repentance, of thirst for communion with God, of desire to permeate the whole of life with religion… Finally, a religious book: Lives of the Saints, History of the Church, Orthodox Spirituality etc. is a “must” while we are in Lent. It takes us from our daily life to a higher level of interests, it ideas and facts which are usually absent from our “practical” and “efficient” world.
4. Change of Life
And, last but not least: there must be an effort and a decision to slow down our life, to put in as much quiet, silence, contemplation, meditation. Radio, TV, newspapers, social gatherings – all these things, however excellent and profitable in themselves, must be cut down to a real minimum. Not because they are bad, but because we have something more important to do, and it is impossible to do without a change of life, without some degree of concentration and discipline. Lent is the time when we re-evaluate our life in the light of our faith, and this requires a very real effort and discipline. Christ says that a narrow path leads to the Kingdom of God and we must make our life as narrow as possible. At first the natural and selfish man in us revolts against these limitations. He wants his usual “easy life” with all its pleasures and relaxations. But once we have tasted of such spiritual effort, once we have made by it one step, that cannot be compared to any other joy. We discover the reality of the spiritual world in us. We begin to understand what St. Paul meant by “the joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” God Himself enters our soul: and it is this wonderful coming that constitutes the ultimate end of Len: “If a man love me, he will keep mu words: and my father will love him and we will come unto him and make our abode with him.” (Jn. 14, 23).
For the attainment of the Kingdom, that is, man’s salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ rather clearly taught as essential two things: faith and works. Passages of the New Testament that emphasize one or the other have often been quoted to show that it is exclusively by faith or by works that one is saved. Yet the Lord Himself never excluded either in His teaching.
The essence of the “law of faith” Jesus expressed in these words: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16) The disciples also taught after Him that faith is necessary in order to have eternal life: “These things are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.” (Jn. 20:31)
To the question directed to Paul and Silas by the keeper of the prison, “What must I do to be saved?” they answered: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved, and thy house.” (Acts 16:30,31)
St. Paul points out that it is by God’s grace that we are saved: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8,9) He refers to the “works of the Law,” by which it was believed among the Jews that men were justified and by which they were identified with the chosen people of God in the Old Testament. These included circumcision and ritual sacrifices. He makes this reference clear in several places, for example in the third chapter of Romans.
There is no contradiction to this in what James the Apostle says in his epistle: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” He then goes on to show what kind of works are the natural consequence of belief in Christ’s teachings: “If a brother or a sister be naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body…Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only?” (Jas. 2:14-24)
The kind of works necessary for salvation, the “law of works,” is expressed by the Lord in two principal commandments, that of self-denial and that of loving God and one’s neighbor.
Just before He underwent the saving passion and death on the cross, Jesus said, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mk. 8:34) This commandment has as its purpose the rooting out of us the very foundation of all sin: pride and self-love (Sir. 10:15), and consequently our purification from “all filthiness of the flesh and spirit,” (II Cor. 7:1). It is to put off from us the old man according to our former life, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts. (Eph. 4:22) It is this “old man” which can never enter into the Kingdom of heaven. (Jn. 3:5)
Self-denial, according to the teaching of our Lord, must manifest itself 1) by leaving our former life of sin and by a profound turning away or repentance of all sins, (Mt. 3:2); 2) by a voluntary renunciation of all the things of this world, however dear they may be to us, as for example, our eye or our arm, if we come to see that they seduce us and lead us to sin (Mt. 5:29,30), 3) by abandoning even a father or mother, or a family, if we perceive that otherwise it is impossible for us to withdraw from iniquity and attain salvation (Mk. 10: 22; Lk. 14:26); and 4) by constant efforts not to sin, not only in deed, but even in word and in thought (Mt. 5:28; 12:36).
The commandment to love God and our neighbor (Mt. 22:37-39) has as its purpose the implanting in us of the beginning of a new life, holy and pleasing to God, instead of the former life of sin (Jn. 13:34), of putting in us the bond of moral perfection (Col. 3:14), and of leading us, truly pure and renewed, to be one with God (Jn. 17:21).
Describing the characteristics of love for God, Jesus taught that it must 1) be sincere, whole, and perfect (Lk. 10:27-28); 2) manifest itself by submission to divine will in the observance of His commandments (Jn. 14:15,21); 3) constantly glorify God (Mt. 5:16); and 4) be so strong in us that we might be ready, in the name of God, to lose ourselves (Mk. 8:35).
Love of our neighbor is similar, for He taught that we 1) love all men, not just our friends, but even our enemies (Mt. 5:44-48); 2) not offend our neighbor in deed, or in word or in thought (Mt. 5:22; 7:1,2,12); 3) endure magnanimously all offences and forgive trespasses, not only seven times, but even seventy times seven times (Mt. 5:38,39; 6:14; 18:22); 4) always show mercy toward our neighbor, to help him in his needs (Mt. 5:7,42; Lk. 6:35); and 5) be ready, if it is necessary, to give our life for our friends (Jn. 15:13).
On the third Sunday of the preparation for the Great Fast, Meat-fare Sunday, we read from the Gospel of St. Matthew (25:31-46) of the Last Judgment. There we see how men shall be judged on that day, that it will be on the basis of how men have received and fulfilled both the law of faith and that of works. The Lord shows how intimately related are the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (v. 40) The consequences of not doing those works of charity that He enumerated, feeding the hungry, taking care of the sick, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison are just as serious. In the Incarnation of the Word of God, His taking upon Himself human nature, He identified Himself with the whole human race, and literally when we do good or when we do evil to one human being, all men and even the God who became one with us, are affected.
We see how the Lord’s work of salvation has spared us the inevitable consequences of sin. His grace, His gift to us is this salvation. Yet it is also clear from what He teaches that man has the freedom of will to reject His gift to us, and, will deserve the results of sin and corruption. That is, Christ teaches the will suffer eternal torments should we choose to reject His grace.
Around the sixth century, a certain great ascetic who was living cloistered on the Mt. of Olives was undergoing fierce carnal warfare. One day, discouraged by the persistence of the enemy, the ascetic said to the demon of fornication, “Once and for all, leave me be! You’ve been warring against me for so many years now;” At that moment, the demon appeared before the ascetic’s eyes and responded, “Swear to me that you will not tell anyone what I’m going to tell you, and I will stop warring against you.” When the Abba swore the oath, the demon went on to say, “Do not worship this icon, and I will no longer war against you.” And the demon pointed to an icon of the Theotokos holding the Divine Infant which was in the ascetic’s cell. “Let me think about it,” the hermit said, and the next day he narrated everything that took place to a certain Elder who was blessed with the gift of spiritual discernment and who was waging the spiritual struggle in the Lavra of Faran. “You were tricked by the demon, Abba,” answered the Elder, “because he got you to swear an oath. But you did well to confess everything. It were better for your soul for you to enter every house of prostitution in this whole land than ever to give up worshipping our Lord and the Theotokos.” (PG 87, 2900.)
This example of the ascetic yet again brings to mind the wise assurance that morals have no value if they are not the fruit of the Faith. It was better for Abba to be sinful but faithful, than to be moral but a denier of Christ. Today, there are many moral “Christians” (so-called) against whom the devil does not wage war because they reject the veneration of icons. They go so far as to accuse the Orthodox Christians of worshipping idols, boards of wood, and walls.
We Orthodox Christians are not defensive about our sins. We are aware of our sins, and we beseech God to enlighten us to see even those of which we are unaware. We do defend the Faith, however, because our salvation depends on it, and we reply to the iconoclasts (icon breakers) of today (the Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others) with the same words that the Most Holy Patriarch of Constantinople Gennanos II (thirteenth century) directed toward the heretics of his day: “One of these demon-faced Bogomils (followers of a heresy led by a Bulgarian priest named Bogomil in the tenth century) asked me, ‘why do you worship walls, and boards of wood and plaster and different colors?’
By saying this he meant the holy icons. And I said to him, ‘when did you ever see one of those nourished by our Church, traveling on the highways and byways—where there can be found plaster, and ruins, and piles of stones and paint supplies-worshipping these things and doing homage to them? For if we were paying homage to stones and colors, then we would have to worship them wherever and whenever we saw a stone or a plank. Now this is not the case, and even you who are the enemy of the truth will not dare to say this, for we simply do not render worship to the materials but to the figure depicted on the materials; and, indeed, not to every figure but only to the image of Christ, the Theotokos, and the other holy ones. For the honor rendered to the icon passes on to the person depicted (prototype).” (PG 140,664.)
The wrath of the iconoclasts of olden times and today is not directed against pictorial depictions, however. They, themselves—in their own homes—have pictures of loved ones or of memorable occasions, and do not consider them idols. Such was the case with the iconoclasts of the eighth century also. They burned and destroyed the icons of the saints whenever they found them, while as regards depictions “of trees, or birds, or dumb animals—indeed even of fictitious satanic charist races, hunts, theatrical performances and horse races—these they permitted to remain in honored places and to be displayed.” (From the life and martyrdom of St. Stephen the New, PG 100, 1113A.)
Their wrath is against the saints who are depicted on icons and against the grace and power the faithful reap from their worship of the icons. For even as the handkerchiefs and aprons of the Holy Apostles (Acts 19:12) were means of grace and well-springs of miracles; even as the relics of the holy ones “shine forth every day in signs and miracles” (St. Gregory the Dialogos, Evergetinos I, vii, 8); as even the soil on which the martyrs were sacrificed “is an agent of grace” (St. Theodore the Studite, PG 99, 768 D); as when we worship and kiss the cross, we draw there-from abundant blessing” (St. Gregory Palamas, Homily XI, 62), so, too, the icons. Without being deified, they are used by God as a means of adoration, for the salvation and sanctification of those who draw near with faith. “For the saints were filled with the Holy Spirit even while they were living, and after their repose the grace of the Holy Spirit continues to dwell in their souls, and in their bodies in the graves, and in their depictions, and in their holy icons, not in essence but by grace and power.” (St. John of Damascus, PG 94, 1249 CD.)
Icons are a piece of our life. In the arches of the churches, the domes and the narthex, the compunctionate souls of the humble iconographers who worked there in prayer and fasting managed to vividly imprint the whole way of life of the people of God. The Saints dwell and move among us. The Church Militant communes even from now with the Church Triumphant.
Here, we behold St. Pachomios receiving the monastic schema from an angel. There, we see the repose of St. Ephraim, and a bit further on stand the anchorites of the desert. Still further down, Abba Sisoes is bending over the skeletal remains of the once glorious king of the Greeks, Alexander, and we read in the inscription. “Oh, death; Who can escape thee?” And then there are the lamentations at the Burial of Christ; the resurrection of St. Lazarus; the holy Prophet Elias and the manna from Heaven; the military saints; the hierarchs; the blessed ascetics; the martyrs; the Theotokos; the Passion of the Lord; and on and on—open books for both the educated and the illiterate.
In essence, we have before us the future blessedness depicted by the perishable hands of our iconographers, who had nothing in common with the secular spirit, who were strangers and aliens to
this world, and who, “being contrite and humble, fasted, wept on account of their sins and ‘all the day long…went with downcast face,’ (PS 37:6) possessing the gladdening power of faith.” (Photios Kontoglou)
Art is assimilated and sanctified by and within the Church. The icon, the hymnography, the wood engravings, the vestments, the chanting, the decoration, the sacred vessels, the whole architectural arrangement of the temple, the manuscripts, the collections of lives of the saints, the liturgical texts are all one and the same with our Faith and the holy dogmas. They are the types or figures of Heavenly things. They comprise the spiritual ark wherein our salvation is accomplished. They are a whole daily way of life, “from the morning watch until night”. They are sanctification and living tradition. They are not heady intellectual abstractions and scholastic knowledge, but a tangible salvation and doxology (glorification), of the very materials of this earth, of the very dust of our bodies, which themselves will be either glorified or dammed unto eternity.
Let the lips of those who do not worship the holy icons be rendered speechless; оr rather, let the eyes of their souls be opened so that they may behold the wonders which God works by means of the icons and the power which the faithful obtain from them not only by worshipping them, but also by merely gazing upon the faces of the saints and thereby “being filled with all blessing by the mere sight of them,” as St. John Chrysostom wrote some 1600 years ago. (PG 50,518.) Then the iconoclasts will see their error in confusing the idol with the icon. Then they will comprehend the true value of the sacrifice of myriads of confessors and martyrs for these “pieces of wood.”
Icons are the gates of Heaven. Whoever keeps the gates closed remains in darkness, “for the icon is called a door which opens up the mind fashioned according to God to the inward-dwelling image and likeness of the prototype (i.e.. God).” (PG 100, 1113A.)
May the Lord, the Theotokos, and all the Saints open the gates of the Kingdom of the Heavens unto us who worship the precious icons.