Sermon for the Feast of the Port Arthur Icon (2018)

Sermon for the Feast of the Port Arthur Icon (2018) - Holy Cross Monastery

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


In December 1903 an aged sailor who had fought to defend Sevastopol during the Crimean War traveled to the Kiev Caves Lavra to pray before the holy relics. One night, he awoke and saw the image of the Mother of God that we see before us; standing upon two discarded and broken swords on the shore of a bay, with her back turned to the water. She was holding a white cloth upon which was an Image of the Savior, “Not-Made-By-Hands.” Angels in the clouds of blinding light were holding a crown above her head and the Lord of Sabaoth was sitting still higher on the throne of glory, encircled with the blinding radiance.

The Theotokos said to him: “Russia will soon be involved in a very difficult war on the shores of a far sea; many a woe is awaiting her. Paint an icon showing my appearance as it is now and send the icon to Port Arthur. If the icon is in that city, Orthodoxy will triumph over paganism and Russian warriors will attain my help, my patronage, and their victory.” The icon was painted but had not been taken to Port Arthur and Russia lost the war.

Although the origins of this icon and its history are extraordinary, it is not unusual. More to the point is the fact that icons reveal the presence of God with us, whether it be through events depicted in an icon such as the one before us today, or through the person who has been painted thereon.

In today’s homily, what we will address is the commonplace which icons have in our life; “commonplace” not in the way that we only become aware of them if they are missing, but commonplace in that way in which we frequently utilize them at various times throughout our day—in the cell, in the church, in trapeza, at our places of work, in our cars.

In the Old Testament, Moses instructed the Israelites to always keep the words of the Lord before them, to teach them to their children, to talk of them when walking or sitting, to have them written on the doorposts and gates (Deut. 6:1-9; 11:18-20), so after the incarnation of Christ we have images and we are taught to place them, “In the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside…” as it was stated by the Seventh Ecumenical Council,  “the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people.” The more we see these representations, the more we are drawn to their prototypes, the reality which lay behind the images, and the more we long for them.[1]

Images in the Old Testament

We first encounter the use of figures and statues in the Old Testament when reading the Pentateuch.  Moses built the tabernacle which is modeled after the heavenly tabernacle (Heb. 8:5) and in this tabernacle were fashioned two Cherubim which overshadowed the mercy seat of the altar (Exodus 25:18; 26:1, 31). He also fashioned a bronze serpent atop a pole, on which, if the Israelites gazed, they would live and not die from the bites of snakes (Num. 21:6-9). In these examples, we see that not only were objects constructed resembling things on earth or in Heaven, but what is more, men such as Bezaleel and Aholiab were filled with the Spirit of God for the execution of this craftsmanship as we read in the book of the Exodus (Ex. 31:1-6).

Calling to mind the second commandment in the Decalogue which says:  “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” We need to continue reading the next verse in order to understand what is meant by “graven images”. It says: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…” (Ex. 20:4-5f; cf. Deut. 5:8-9).

The commandment does not forbid these things to be constructed but forbids them to be constructed for the purpose of worship. This distinction is the difference between idols and icons. The worship of idols changes the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things (Rom. 1:23). Professor Yaroslav Pelikan writes that, “Ultimately, the distinction between the two was this: the images of heathen worship were devoted to the service of the devil, the the icons of Christian worship were dedicated to the glory of the true God.”[2]

Images in the New Testament

Since New Testament times, icons have existed in the Church, the Apostle Luke being the first iconographer having painted an icon of our Lord’s mother. Another early instance of an image is the icon Not-made-by-hands given by Christ to King Apgar. A fragment of this story is first recounted by Eusebius, the Church historian who lived in the third to the fourth century.[3] St. John of Damascus repeats the account but more comprehensively when writing against those who speak ill of icons.[4] Not only does Eusebius narrate the account of the image Not-made-by-hands but he also writes about “paintings” with which he was familiar of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and also of Christ Himself.[5]

Not too long ago, as we may recall, we heard about the life of St. Mary of Egypt, who lived in the fourth century. She went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in order to venerate a piece of the true Cross but was prevented from doing so. Moved by the grace of God, she then went before an icon of the Mother of God near her, prayed and asked to be allowed to venerate. Only then was she allowed and did.

From these few examples, we can see the prevalence of icons from the beginning of Christian times and the devotion and attention that was given to them. And today, we prayerfully and reverently stand before the Port Arthur Icon of the Mother of God which we venerate and honor.

The Difference That The Incarnation Makes

In the Old Testament, God had never become incarnate as in the New Testament. Instead, He reveals Himself to Moses in a cloud and to Elijah as a still small voice and therefore is not able to be depicted. In the New Testament, God has become man in the person of Jesus Christ. A person whose representation can be depicted in images, whose life can be set forth in scenes such as His birth, His presentation in the temple, His time at the well with the Samaritan woman, His death, His resurrection.

God became man. In the person of Christ, we find that He is fully human and fully God with no intermingling and no lessening of either nature. If merely “mental contemplation” of Christ were enough to proffer salvation from God, then it would have been sufficient for Him to come to us in a merely intellectual way, says St. Theodore the Studite; but He did not.[6] Instead, by becoming man, God has sanctified the material world around us which assists us and is used by us to direct our mind towards Him. From the beginning of the Church, it was even the material bodies of the saints that became revered because of their relation to Christ. This devotion is observed by St. Gregory of Nyssa who describes it saying, “Those who behold [the relics] embrace, as it were, the living body itself in its full flower. They bring eye, mouth, ear, all their senses into play. And then, shedding tears of reverence and passion, they address to the martyr their prayer of intercession as though he were alive and present.”[7]

What Is An Icon?

Unless you make a distinction between those things which are holy and those things which are not you will not realize the difference between icons and idols. “What person with any sense does not comprehend the distinction between an idol and an icon” said St. Theodore.[8] As Professor Yaroslav Pelikan further observes, “An idol was the representation of persons or things that were devoid of reality or substance, while an icon represented real persons…” and, we may add, real events.[9]

The reality of the incarnation enables the scenes of Christ’s life and the content of icons to be portrayed. It is the same content which is illustrated in writing and in icons. “If one is worthy of honor, the other is worthy of honor also,” notes [St.] Nicephorus, the Patriarch of Constantinople.[10] Those who were against icons were making a both/and into an either/or requirement to choose between the Gospels and icons, writes [St.] John V, Patriarch of Jerusalem, adding: “why do you worship the book and spit on the picture?”[11]

St. Theodore the Studite, noting the similarity between depicting Christ through the writing in the Gospels and His depiction in icons, writes,

[Christ] nowhere told anyone to write down the ‘concise word,’ yet His image was drawn in writing by the apostles and has been preserved up to the present. Whatever is marked there with paper and ink, the same is marked on the icon with varied pigments or some other material medium.[12]

How Is An Icon Venerated?

There is one worship which honors God, yet there are others by which we honor kings, parents, or friends but the distinction should be obvious for there is no one like God. The worship of God is not to be confused for the worship offered by idolators.  

When one bows before an icon and venerates it, the worship is directed towards that which is represented in the image. “The honor that is paid to the image passes over to the prototype,” writes St. Basil the Great.[13] This is the reason that St. John of Damascus can say: “I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God.”[14]

But, some may say, where are we told that the icon of Christ is to be worshipped? The answer, St. Theodore said, is “Wherever it is written that Christ is to be worshipped.”[15]

To not use matter in the worship of God is to deny the reality of the incarnation, the reality wherein Christ took upon Himself the flesh of mankind for the purpose of our salvation. To honor matter is to understand its place in the economy of our salvation which does not confuse the worship of the Creator for the worship of the creation. As we chant during Vespers for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, “…if we hold fast to the ikon of the Saviour whom we worship, we shall not go astray. Let all who do not share this be covered with shame; but we shall glory in the ikon of the Word made flesh, which we venerate but worship not as an idol…”[16]


As we look to the Port Arthur Icon of the Mother of God, she has come to us, bearing the image of her Son in the icon Not-Made-By-Hands that earliest of icons. My dear fathers, brothers, and sisters, let us not be negligent about the help that has come to us in this icon. In Russia, carelessness towards the Mother of God affected the outcome of their war yet they were not totally abandoned by God. But now the Mother of God has come from Russia to us in her icon. Truly she is the glory of West Virginia. It is a great blessing indeed and one in which we are surely not worthy, and yet she is here to guide us in our Orthodoxy and to protect the Church. Therefore, in return for such undeserved gifts may we Orthodox Christians of North America, preserve the Orthodox faith as it has come down to us, for this faith is our firm foundation. [17]

Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Amen.

[1] The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, in NPNF, 2nd series,  H. R. Percival trans. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishing, 1999),14:550f.
[2] In Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 2:123.
[3] Church History, Bk. 1, Ch. 13. This account is also used by St. John of Damascus, St. Theodore the Studite, and St. Andrew of Crete in defense of the antiquity of icons (Cf. The Christian Tradition, 2:101).
[4] “The Orthodox Faith” in The Fathers of the Church series, trans. Frederic H. Chase Jr. (Washington D.C.,: CUA Press, 1958), 37:372-373.
[5] Church History, Bk. 7, Ch. 18.
[6] On the Holy Icons, Catharine P. Roth trans. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 27.
[7] Quoted in The Christian Tradition, 2:104.
[8] Ibid., 2:123.
[9] Ibid.
[10] The Christian Tradition, 2:131.
[11] Ibid., 2:131.
[12] On the Holy Icons, 30-31.
[13] On the Spirit in NPNF, 2nd series, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace eds. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishing, 1999), 8:28ff.
[14] Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images part 1, para. 14
[15] The Christian Tradition, 2:123.
[16] Tone Two in The Lenten Triodion. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos are trans. (South Caanan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002), 300.
[17] From the “Troparion” for the Port Arthur Icon of the Mother of God.

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