(I didn’t press record fast enough….)
… And yet there was an attempt at a reformation, an attempt to reconstruct Orthodoxy, to make it in fact heterodoxy, and it happened a long time ago. It was a movement powerfully supported by those in authority, and wreaked great great destruction upon the church and yet the church survived.
In the 6th century _____ stormed the hordes of Islamic warriors. In the empty space provided because of the warfare between the Persian and the Roman Christian – that is the Byzantine empire – and because both of these empires were in a bit of confusion, these raiders, these brigands, robbers, were able to enter in and to conquer. Their method was simple: You come to the first city and you say, “Surrender or die,” and the people refuse to surrender and so you kill them all. Then you come to the next city and you say, “Surrender or die,” and the city opens up its gates. Not only that, but there was a great hostility in the Syrian Arabic Christian world and also in Egypt against the Byzantine Empire which had attempted to extend the authority of its patriarch over the independent patriarchates of Alexandria and of Antioch. And so many people saw the coming of the Arab bandits, of the Muslims, as a way to free them politically, from tyranny. Whatever the thoughts that people had, it’s always a temptation to try to accomplish a good thing by doing an evil thing.
Now the emperors in Constantinople looked at their shrinking empire and fell into despair, for all these lands to the East had belonged to the Byzantine Empire. Syria, and Palestine, and Assyria, and now they were falling into the hands of an enemy – an enemy dedicated to the conquest of the entire Christian west. Tax money was dried up, and more important, Anatolia, which was an important place for drafting soldiers or for recruiting them, was deprived to the empire. And the Byzantine Orthodox went into a great era of despondency, despair.
Now I want to point out that this did not happen to the Orthodox in the conquered lands. Many took faith to heart. They became stronger in their faith, more devoted to their traditions. But in the Byzantine Empire the thought began to spread that God was punishing them, that he was letting their enemies conquer them because they had done something wrong. And what could that have been? There was an emperor on the throne who was an Assyrian, that is to say he was an Iraqi. He was an Iraqi military officer who had come to the throne when one dynasty had ended. And he said, “I know the answer. It’s because we worship these graven images, these icons, these pictures. Because we bow down to them and we kiss them, that’s why God is punishing us: because we are practicing paganism, we are practicing idolatry.” And so, he set out to destroy all of the icons. He began with the icons of the holy churches and then from house to house, soldiers went and gathered them together and burned them in piles just as the Bolsheviks had done in Kiev and Moscow and in St. Petersburg at the beginning of their revolution. Many, many ancient icons, dating back to the time of the apostles, were burned, were destroyed or hacked to pieces. And in churches, murals were whitewashed over. The icon of our Lord Jesus Christ and His blessed mother was eradicated from public places of worship in the Byzantine Empire. And the people who hid icons in their houses, who hid them in their basements or buried them in their backyards, if found out, were brought to public trial and were executed in the same way that the Roman pagans had executed Christians. Monks and nuns who resisted the destruction of the icons, who were the warriors for the holy tradition, were brought into the hippodrome and publicly ridiculed, stripped naked, scourged, forced to marry, or kill.
Throughout the Byzantine empire war on the icons took place. And it didn’t end in a short time. It lasted off and on for over 120 years. You see, this was a fit of self doubt that caused people to doubt the unbroken tradition of the holy apostles. And yet out of the heart of the Islamic world, from Baghdad, came forth the writings of a man from Damascus, Syria. His name was John. His father, a Christian, was the vizier to the Islamic Caliph. He was a translator in court who had risen in the ranks of the government and who was honored with the position of secretary of state to the Islamic empire. Muslims always preferred Christians in high ranking offices because they could trust them, they didn’t trust each other. John was expected to rise to high office in the government, or in the military, but instead he entered the monastic life. And he wrote, and he is called a doctor of the church because of his writings. He wrote in defense of the holy images. And told the whole world, right in the middle of the Islamic kingdom he told the whole world: Icons are not idols. Idols are images made to be inhabited by the god, in other words, the belief is that they are possessed. And indeed most of them are, by demons. Idols are images in which some divine force is supposed to enter in and take control of it. You can walk around behind an idol, an idol exists in space in time. And people bow down to idols as though they were the manifestation of the deity they were worshiping itself.
He said idols were forbidden to the Jewish people. No image could be made of God because no one had ever seen God. God revealed Himself in types and shadows in the Old Testament. He revealed Himself to Abraham as three angels. He revealed Himself to Moses on the mountain as a burning bush. He revealed Himself to Isaiah in the temple as the ancient of days. It was always Christ preincarnate, because the Father has no form, it was always the Son who revealed the Father, but by shadows and types. As Melchizedek, who received tithes from Abraham. So if you tried to make an image of God in the old covenant it would always be a false image, it would be an idol. In fact, the Israelites tried when they left Egypt to make a visible god for themselves. They made a golden bull-calf to show the strength of God, like the bull Baal. And Moses destroyed it, and he burned it, and he made them drink the ashes of the golden statue. But he said, “Now, God, who in sundry times and in diverse manner spoke unto the prophets, has spoken unto us face to face, through Jesus Christ. And so if we have seen Jesus Christ, if human beings with their eyes have seen God in the flesh, then it is as much a sin now NOT to make images of God as it was then to make them.” Because if you don’t make images of God, if you refuse to, you’re saying God didn’t really come in the flesh. If worshiping the image of Jesus is idolatry, it means Jesus is not God. It is never a sin to worship God.
And He said, “What of our ___ of saints?” He said, what we worship in them – and worship is the correct word. We Orthodox get embarrassed just like the Assyrian emperor did and we say, “Oh, we don’t worship icons, we venerate them.” But the word “worship,” brothers and sisters, comes from a form of “to prescribe worthiness,” that is, it is the acknowledgement of what a thing is worth. In Great Britain, maybe today – they used to – call lords and justices “your worship.” It meant, “Your worth-ship;” it meant, “your worthiness.” And so what we do when we worship the icons is not to give them divine worship, we don’t worship them like God. We give them the worship that is due to them, we ascribe to them what they are worth. And what is that? St. John says that if our Lord Jesus Christ, in the bread and wine, communicates to us His Body and Blood, that the Holy Spirit, through the medium of pigment and wood communicates to us the presence of heaven on earth. In other words, icons are windows into heaven. You can’t walk around behind an icon. You can walk around behind the image. Now I knew a silly goose priest once, in Kansas City a long time ago. He was at the Russian church and he had on his iconostasis the Last Supper. This man was a painter, so if you walked in the altar and looked up over the holy doors, instead of seeing the Icon Not Made With Hands, which should be inside the holy doors facing the altar, you saw the backs of all the apostles painted on the inside of the iconostasis. But you see, you don’t see the backs of people in icons, do you? The people who you only see part of your face – like the devil – they’re not really persons. They’ve given up their personhood because of denying God. So if their face is turned like that and you can’t see both eyes, that’s somebody like Judas who has turned his back on God.
But icons are windows to the divine. They are a medium by which we, looking upon them, enter into the actual presence of the person or the event that is depicted in them. They are as though we are transported into the presence of that person. These icons around us represent for us the presence of all these saints. And somebody said, “Why do you have so many women saints? We’re heavy on women saints.” Well, I want good voices to sing the praises of God and women’s voices are sweeter. Not only that, we honor the female saints because probably, numerically, even though the clergy rank ahead of the pious monks and nuns, there are probably a lot more women saints than men. Still, the holy images are for us communion with the holy persons who are represented in them.
Now, some of us have pictures of our children. Some of us have pictures of our departed parents, our grandparents. And even the pictures, which are photographic images, we will pick up and kiss sometimes. How much more you should kiss the images of those who are saints present with us here on earth. They remind us not that the saints came down to earth again, but that we, when we are in this temple, are raised up to heaven where they surround us. As St. Paul says in Hebrews, “Seeing we are compassed about by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sins that so easily beset us and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” So when we venerate, when we worship, an icon, every icon has around its head a round halo, a nimbus. And what that nimbus tells us is that the uncreated light that is Jesus Christ lives in them, that God’s uncreated energy is in them. So when we kiss an icon of the mother of God, or of a holy saint, or angel, or prophet, we are venerating Christ who lives in them. So, all holy icons are images of Jesus Christ, and we want that same light in ourselves – and some times we have it, and sometimes we lose it and we have to get it back again. But that’s what makes us saints. When the priest raises the lamb, he says, “Holy things for the holy.” What we’re saying is, “Holy things for the saints,” so when you come forward you acknowledge that you are struggling and striving for sanctity.
Now, I’ll tell you two stories that will illustrate how icons are with us not only to bring us into heaven, but for heaven to touch us. When I was in San Francisco twenty-three years ago, I went to the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral. That day, it was St. Stevens day on the holy calendar, and the church was full. I was very happy. The third day of Christmas and the church was jammed with people. And I went to the bookstore, and they said to us there’s another liturgy being celebrated across town. There’s a Chinese priest, and he’s celebrating the 75th anniversary of his ordination. Now since he couldn’t have been ordained until he was at least 20, that meant the man was at least 95. Xenia told me he lived to be – how old? (Xenia says “A hundred and ten!”) A hundred and ten years old. And I went in and there’s two subdeacons and they’re holding him up at the altar under his arms. And he served the liturgy. In the middle of the room was an icon. It was an icon of the Hodigitria, the Mother of God and Guide of Pilgrims. And that icon, as the liturgy went on, exuded holy oil from the face. All over the face oil came, and it dribbled down. And at the bottom of the icon were large gobs of cotton wool, and that cotton wool was filling up with oil. And they said to me, “Would you like to venerate the icon?” and I went up and kissed it, and as I kissed it I almost fainted because of the smell of the perfume of the oil. And I bumped the icon, and it slipped, so it wasn’t wired. There were no tubes into it. Nobody was faking anything. It was just a plain wooden tablet with our lady painted on it, and it was exuding myrrh. And they gave me some of the cotton wool in a bottle, and I brought some back. And someday, if you want to, I’ll show you. Right in here, in this oil, in this little locket here, and you can smell the perfume twenty-two years later. Matushka took a piece of this and put it behind a picture of the icon that we framed in our house, and that icon began to have oil on it. For two or three years, oil came down the face of the Mother of God in that picture.
And then about fifteen, twenty years ago, some of you will remember, an icon was brought to us from Georgia. This icon was actually just a laminated wooden board, it was not painted at all. It was also an icon of the Hodigitria, of the Mother of God the Guide of Pilgrims. And that icon was reputed to have exuded myrrh from the eyes, but it had not wept for three years. It was brought to Denver and in the morning we served the liturgy, and we served a moliebin, and my voice was about like it is right now, and at noon all of the priests went over to the house to eat and I was left here to do another moliebin for the pilgrims who came at noon, and I could barely talk. I did the moliebin and afterwards, somebody said to me, “could you touch my picture of the icon” - because they were giving away pictures of it – “to the face of the icon?” And I said, I don’t even think I can open it up, but I went and yes, there was a latch. Matushka was over there. And we took the cover and we laid it back and set her icon on the dry face of the image and when we took it up, the eyes of the picture had streaks of oil on them, and the icon began to weep from the eyes. It wept all afternoon, through the third moliebin, through the liturgy, through taking it over to St. Augustine’s and bringing it back here, through taking it to St. Herman’s the next day, taking it over the mountains to Delta, and down to Calhan, and to Pueblo. All the time the icon was in Colorado, holy myrrh streamed from the eyes of it. And then, when it was time to leave, the icon stopped. Was the weeping a bad sign? No. it was the mother of God showing her love for us, her sorrow for our sufferings, and showing us her joy, by the fragrance and the smell of the myrrh, that we were coming to venerate her in faith.
I know I told you I was going to tell you two stories, but I’m going to tell you a third one. This image here, was written by Daria ____vich. I told her just how I wanted the icon of the joy of all who sorrow. Traditionally that icon has writing on scrolls all over, and it looks cluttered. So I told her to put the writing on top.
And I said to her, “What are those flowers?”
And she said, “Well, heavenly flowers.”
And I said, “They look like weeds to me.” Maybe that’s the Russian idea of heavenly flowers, but they look like weeds.
I said, “To me, heavenly flowers are flags,” so I asked her to put them up there. The kind of flowers I have in my garden – irises. So we put irises on them. So that day a woman named Diane Rogi called me up. She had been praying and trying to have a child for three years, and the doctor had said to her, “You have to face it lady, you are infertile. The only way you can have a baby is we’ll take some eggs out, we’ll fertilize them in a dish. We’ll plant some of them in your womb and the others we’ll throw away, and then later we’ll go back and take out some of the embryos so that you don’t have multiple births.”
And she said, “You want me to kill babies in order to have a baby. I won’t do it.”
And she came here to tell God that she was not going to have any children. And then after she left, the icon came. And I called her that day, and I said, “Come here tonight. We’re going to do a service for you.” At the same time, Nick here had a tumor in his lung. The doctor said, I heard him say it as he went into surgery, “I know it’s going to be cancer. I’m not going to be able to find it, and then it’s going to spread and you’re going to die.” That’s a wonderful thing to tell a patient going into surgery, right? I thought Pauline was going to kill the doctor. But the night before we had done the service for Diane, and for Nick, and also for Daria herself because she had come here as a sad desperate woman. She had spent her life studying cardiology. She ignored dating or having boyfriends, she had thought maybe she would be a nun. But now she longed to be a wife. But there was no one around that was available, and she was very sad. So we did for these three people. The next day we found Nick’s tumor was benign – how many benign lung tumors do you know about? The next month we found that Diane got pregnant that week, and two months later, a guy who had been in the seminary, who had gone off to a monastery for two years, who had decided he wasn’t supposed to be a monk, had gone back to the seminary for an advanced degree, wrote her a letter saying, “Why don’t you come out here and visit me? I would like to have you be my guest at the seminary.” And now she is Matushka Michael Carni. She didn’t eat any meat while she was here, and then when she got married she started eating meat, so I bet that made her Daria con Carni. Anyway, that was three miracles that happened, and this is not the best icon on earth, this is a certainly a sort of frosted window into heaven, but it’s a very nice icon and in the process we now have nineteen babies that were born to infertile women after we have done the moliebin for them before this icon. There is only one person who ever prayed for a child before the icon who did not have a baby, and that woman’s husband refused to come with her, and God probably knew that she would have the support that she needed to raise a baby. Nineteen babies. Now, we don’t tell people that because we don’t want to be the “Church of the Miraculous Baby Factory.” You know, I’d have people standing in line putting money in a box all day long, but that does not honor our Lady.
So brothers and sisters in Christ, thank God that the fathers of the church – the holy monks, the holy bishops – rose up. They threw out the scoundrels, they restored the holy icons, they gave us back our windows into heaven.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, glory to Jesus Christ1