"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Wednesday, 21 March 2018


The only time I ever met Aidan Hart, he had a beard and an Orthodox monk's habit, long, long ago, long before I went to Peru and he got married and began producing little icons of another kind.  However, he has played a big part in the life of one of our Peruvian monks, Father Alex Echeandia who, largely thanks to him, is now an accomplished iconographer.  For this, we shall always be grateful.

my source: Orthodoxy in Dialogue
Aidan Hart

Icon painting has always been affected by the surrounding culture, incorporating and transforming elements from it. And more recently, icons in turn have been appropriated by and affected that culture. These are the very topical themes that I want to discuss in this article.

Icons are an extension of the Incarnation. This is true not only because of what they depict but also because of how they depict things. The way Christians have painted traditional icons throughout the ages has always been influenced by the culture of which they are, to a degree, a part, and to which they naturally wish to respond.  The icon is a union of the eternal and the local.

Put another way, healthy iconography is Pentecostal, for it declares eternal truths in the language of its viewers. One example is the early encaustic icons that used as their basis Romano-Egyptian funerary paintings (often called Fayum portraits). A second instance  is the Church illuminations of the Macedonian Renaissance that were based on works from Classical manuscripts. Both these examples we shall discuss below.

In subsequent centuries the style of icons in Byzantium continued to be influenced by the imperial court’s emphasis, or lack of emphasis, on classical learning. And in Medieval Rus distinct schools developed in different principalities, affected by such things as the extent of their trade contacts (a lot in the case of Novgorod) and the influence of monasticism (as in Moscow in the time of St. Andrew Rublev). Celtic Christian art likewise drew much of its inspiration from its pre-Christian traditions.

But this enculturation is a difficult task for the iconographer. It requires both discernment and creativity. Thinkers of the early Church, for example, strove to find the correct response to the Hellenistic philosophy of their culture. The Church Fathers succeeded, while those we call heretics failed.

The Fathers had the discernment to know what was good, what was neutral, and what was outright wrong in the various pagan philosophies. They then had the creativity to describe the ways of God using these philosophers’ insights.  They found truths or partial truths in the pagan writings and expressed eternal truths through them. They did in a more detailed way what Saint Paul had done on the Areopagus. He began his address to the seekers gathered there, not with a rant against their idols, but by praising them for their inscription to the Unknown God. He went on to quote wise words from their own poets and philosophers, and showed them that Christ was the Wisdom whom they were seeking.

In contrast to these Fathers, the heretics such as the Gnostics or the Arians failed in this meeting of the new and the old, because they let worldly thinking enter their thinking. They re-tailored Christian dogma to suit the truncated wisdom of the world. This was not the transformation of human culture through the Spirit, but the disfiguration of dogma through vain speculation or rationalism.

Iconographers today find themselves in a similar situation to these early Church Fathers. As with the myriad of philosophies discussed at the Areopagus two millennia ago, there is today a vast array of artistic work around us. And not just the new but also the old, laid out before us in thousands of museums. We could even say that our postmodern society puts iconography in an even more challenging situation than the early Church, for we are exposed to a plethora of images on a scale like no other culture before us. The media, low cost travel, the internet, and cheap colour printing present us with a visual variety that would stagger a medieval mind.  How are we to respond?

This exposure is both an opportunity and a danger—an opportunity because it presents us with a potentially wider vocabulary, a broader set of musical scales; and a danger because it can confuse us and tempt us to cut and paste arbitrarily and without discernment.

What then are some of the principles that can guide our discernment? This is a big subject, and I have discussed it in more depth in two articles in Orthodox Arts Journal, “Towards Indigenous and Mature Liturgical Arts” and “Today and Tomorrow: Principles in the Training of Future Iconographers.” Space here allows me only to summarize some of my thoughts on the matter. As a full-time icon painter for over thirty years, I have used the following questions, and others, to help me decide whether or not I should use a particular stylistic convention in an icon:

Will it help the icon to work better liturgically, promoting the subject and offering a focus of prayer and veneration, or will it be so novel as to attract attention to itself, away from the subject?
Will it help create in the praying viewer a state of inner stillness and insight, or will it generate agitation and excitement?
Will it open the icon into liturgical space—the actual space between itself and the viewer—or will it create a fictitious, imaginary space?
Will it reflect a world transfigured, or a world deformed or fantastical?
Will the colours and forms create harmony or dissonance?
Will it help to wake the eye of the heart, inviting viewers to draw their mind into their heart and thus open vistas, or will it encourage them to remain within closed rational systems, within their comfort zone?
Will it help reflect the spiritual state of the saint depicted, such as joy, compassion, inner prayer, watchfulness, sobriety, or will it make the image carnal, sensual?
Will it affirm the goodness of the material world and the body, or will it dematerialize?
So far we have discussed the affect of art on the icon tradition. What of movement the other way, of the Orthodox icon’s influence on or use by non-Orthodox artists? Broadly speaking this can take two forms, although deciding when the outcome is positive and when it is negative is still debated among Orthodox thinkers.

When the use of one’s tradition by others is considered misappropriate or lacking in authenticity it is often called cultural appropriation, or less ambiguously, cultural misappropriation. When viewed positively it can be described as the transformation of, or contribution to, that other culture. How does one tell the difference in the case of the icon’s use?

It must first be acknowledged that the icon tradition is itself, to some extent, the child of cultural appropriation. Early panel icons are undoubtedly much indebted to the Romano-Egyptian funerary portrait.  6th-century icons such as we see in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai show clear derivation from these Fayum portraits, both stylistically and in their medium of wax on wooden panels. 

Furthermore, the Christian association of image and prototype could well have been taken from the Fayum portrait tradition, as well as from the imperial custom of having the emperor present through his image at the many courts of justice built throughout the empire.

In the case of the Fayum works, the person’s portrait was painted during his or her lifetime, then incorporated into their mummy when they died, placed over their face. We know that at least some of these mummies were not immediately buried, but spent a period of time upright, perhaps in homes, presumably to help the household retain a sense of connectedness with the deceased. So these portraits were intended to act like a window to the other world. The Church may have appropriated this function as well as many of the Fayum stylistic elements. 

“Fayum” Romano-Egyptian portrait, 1st-2nd century

St. Peter, detail, Sinai, c. AD 600

Fayum portrait in its original mummy

As well as the Fayum appropriation, many early Christian illuminated manuscripts were heavily based on classical works. The Byzantine Paris Psalter is a good example (c. AD 900). One of its images shows David like Orpheus, surrounded by personifications, all derived from classical models. Scholars have shown these Byzantine illuminations to be an imitation, with adjustments, of a Classical Roman work or works of the 3rd to 5th centuries.  

 King David, Paris Psalter, c. AD 900, based on Classical manuscripts 3rd-5th centuries

“Dido Sacrificing,” Vatican Virgil manuscript, c. AD 400, such manuscripts  the basis for the Paris Psalter

So what are we to make of cultural appropriation of icons today? Perhaps the best known works of this type are the paintings by the Roman Catholic Franciscan, Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. Besides making recognizably Byzantine icons of traditional subjects, Lentz also creates images broadly Byzantine in style but of people not canonized by any church, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Harvey Milk,  and Albert Einstein, all of whom he depicts with haloes.

Johann Sebastian Bach (Robert Lentz)

Harvey Milk (Robert Lentz)

Albert Einstein (Robert Lentz)

Other times he uses novel means of depicting traditional subjects—Christ as Lord of the Dance or Christ of Maryknoll, for example.

Christ the Lord of the Dance (Robert Lentz)

Christ of Maryknoll (Robert Lentz)

What are we to make of this? I would make two observations.

Traditional icons are liturgical, that is, they express the mind of the Church and depict people and events that are recognized by the Church as holy, and can therefore be venerated by the faithful without misgiving. In Lentz’s case he seems to take it upon himself to decide who can be depicted as a haloed saint. While the Orthodox Church does not have a top-down system of canonization but a more organic process, there is nevertheless eventually a service of formal canonization. Often it is the laity who first venerate someone as a saint, and in due course the hierarchy acknowledge this formally. In the Roman Catholic Church, of which Brother Robert is a member, there is a more legal and prescribed process leading up to canonization. 

So surely Brother Robert is acting outside his ecclesial community by unilaterally declaring someone a saint by painting them with a halo, and by using such an obviously liturgical format as the icon. The artist is using the icon format to legitimize his personal opinion rather than reflect the life of the Church. Individuals might be drawn to the radical and social message that these images reflect, but what is the consensus of the Roman Catholic Church of which Brother Robert is a member?

Icons and truth must go hand in hand. Icons are not intended to be propaganda or illustrations of someone’s ideology, but of real people depicted as they are in Christ. The marked homosexual agenda of Robert Lentz has lead him to distort traditional
SS. Polyeuctus & Nearchus (Robert Lentz)
icons to promote his gay agenda, without worrying much about the verity of his biographical assertions. He adjusts icons of saints who are traditionally paired to suggest that they were homosexual. Saints such as Sergius and Bacchus, Polyeuct and Nearchus, and Perpetua and Felicity have been prey to this treatment. There is no Church tradition or indication in their vitae that these saints were gay, so where is the truth in these images? These saints shared a common love for Christ and a fraternal love for one another in Christ, but nothing in their lives suggests they were homosexual. Again, the icon format is being misappropriated to add legitimacy to opinion.

This criticism is not to say that the icon tradition is stilted, merely a matter of mindlessly copying past models. When healthy, Orthodox iconography responds to pastoral needs and major theological currents of the times.

Just last month I completed a triptych of Christ with St. Irenaeus and St Isaac the Syrian. The commissioner wanted the triptych to incorporate the Church’s teaching on the need to treat members of the animal kingdom with compassion. In one sense it is a new icon, but in another its design grew out of long established elements of Church tradition and theology. An explanation of its design is due to be published in Orthodox Arts Journal within a month. The icon is humbly offered before the Church, and if the Spirit reveals through the mind of the Church that it does not express the mind of Christ then it will be laid aside. If it does express it, then it will be adopted and other icons will branch from it.

Christ Breaking the Bonds of Animal Suffering (Aidan Hart)

In conclusion, the Orthodox Church can’t do much about any mistreatment of its icon tradition by non-Orthodox; but within its own icon practice it can nurture an atmosphere of maturity, intelligence, and discernment. We need to walk a wise path between the two excesses of erroneous novelty and mindless copying. For this, each iconographer needs the music of heaven in his or her heart, and the Church as choirmaster needs the discernment to correct any discordancy within the choir of iconographers. It is a difficult task to nurture both creativity and theological precision, but both are needed if iconography is to regain its full potential.

Aidan Hart has worked as a professional iconographer since 1983, when he became a member of the Orthodox Church at the age of 26. From 1988 to 2000 he tested his vocation as a monk on Mount Athos and in the UK. His monastic experience has influenced his work profoundly. He is now married with two children.

Visit Aidan Hart Sacred Icons, Aidan Hart Mosaics, and Aidan Hart & Co Church Furnishers.  

Orthodoxy in Dialogue is committed to providing a forum for a diversity of viewpoints in order to facilitate the free exchange of ideas. Our decision to publish any given article implies neither our agreement not disagreement, in whole or in part, with the opinions expressed therein.

Thursday, 15 March 2018


Judica me Deus -Introit

Reading 1 JER 31:31-34

The days are coming, says the LORD, 
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant, and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.

The Characteristics of the New Covenant:
a) I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; (I do not live but Christ lives in me.)
b) I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Christ as Temple and Sacrifice.)
c) No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the LORD. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD, (He who eats my body and drinks my blood, I shall live in him and he in me)
d) for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.  (This is the year of the Lord's favour.)

Confitebor tibi Domine-Offertory

Reading 2HEB 5:7-9

In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears 
to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

Gospel JN 12:20-33 
He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. - Hebrews

Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and
asked him, "Sir, we would like to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew;  then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

Jesus answered them, 
"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.

Whoever serves me must follow me, 
and where I am, there also will my servant be.
The Father will honour whoever serves me.

"I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?  'Father, save me from this hour'?
But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name."
Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it and will glorify it again." The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder; but others said, "An angel has spoken to him." 
Jesus answered and said, 

"This voice did not come for my sake but for yours.  Now is the time of judgement on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I 
will draw everyone to myself."

He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

Christ glorifies his Father on the Cross by manifesting and reflecting in his own sacrificial love the truth that God is Love.  The same idea is behind the pairing of the Transfiguration scene and the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane in the Synoptic Gospels: the light of the former and the suffering obedience of the latter depict the same Love, the same Glory under different circumstances.  It also tells us that we cannot have the wonderful light without the Cross in this life.
In the Crucifixion, we are presented with the sacrificial Love of God in Christ.  How we respond to this reality is how we are judged.  Christ crucified is the Judgement of the world, it is the light from which those who prefer darkness flee.
Confitebor tibi Domine
(Escolania Escorial)

The readings for Passion Sunday show us how Jesus Christ is both the culmination of Old Testament religion and radically new at the same time. The old covenant is brought to perfection but is embedded in a new covenant in which "I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts."
For one thing, the Law is not a written document: it is a Person who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, who lives in us and we in Him as we celebrate the Eucharist and live it out in our daily lives.

He also fulfils the function of the TempleThe purpose of the Temple was so that God could live among His people and that the people could approach Him without being obliterated in the process.  No one can see God and live, and  (korban), sacrifice, the main activity of the Temple, comes from the verb 'to approach'.   As incarnate Lord, fully God and fully man in one divine Person, Jesus is the closest unity between Creator and created that could ever be devised and hence more than adequately fulfils the function of the Temple. 

Within the Holy of Holies there was originally the Ark of the Covenant, sometimes called the "Throne of God", sometimes his footstool.   This too has been superseded by a human being who more than adequately fulfils the function of receiving Christ on behalf of us all.  She is the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary.  When she entered the house of Elizabeth, John the Baptist jumped and danced in his mother's womb like David before the Ark.  In icons, she is recognised as the new Ark by two cherubim on either side of her, adoring the Child she carries.

There are two acts of humble obedience absolutely essential to bring about our salvation.   The first in importance is that of Jesus, "Not my will but Yours be done!"  In so far as he lived this out to the ultimate shedding of his blood, he earned the salvation of the human race and the corresponding transformation of creation. However, He had to become Man in order to save humankind and to unite the Creator with His creation. The second act of humble obedience was that of the Blessed Virgin Mary who said, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord..."   By living this out, by living in intense obedience , in synergy with  the Holy Spirit, she made possible the Incarnation and became the personification of all who receive Jesus into their hearts in humble obedience and live in synergy with the Holy Spirit. This humble obedience placed her at the foot of the Cross  She is the personification of the Church when it says "Yes" to Jesus and the first among all human beings to carry Him in their hearts.  Thus, she is not only the Ark, she is also the New Eve to Christ's New Adam.

As the Word who enlightens every man coming into this world, as Source of the Father's Spirit who unites all human beings of all times and places to his death and resurrection,  Christ more than fulfilled the function of all sacrifices that have ever been offered by letting us share in the historical event by which He passed from history into eternity and into his Father's Presence.

Jesus is the Bread from Heaven that gives us Life, not just any life, not simply a more vital and intense human Life, but a share in the very Life of the triune God.   As St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote:
The soul in which God dwells by grace is no impersonal scene of the divine life but is itself drawn into this life. The divine life is three-personal life: it is overflowing love, in which the Father generates the Son and gives him his Being, while the Son embraces this Being and returns it to the Father; it is the love in which the Father and Son are one, both breathing the Holy Spirit. By grace, this Spirit is shed abroad in men's hearts. Thus the soul lives its life of grace through the Holy Spirit, in Him, it loves the Father with the love of the Son and the Son with the love of the Father.
In the old covenant, the Presence of God with his people could be located out there, in a building called the Temple, very near, certainly, but manifested and at the same time hidden behind the veil of the Holy of Holies.   In the new Covenant, God's personal Presence is manifested and at the same time hidden in the human nature of Jesus Christ, deep down in his Heart.

The Church Fathers have taught us that, deep down at the centre of every human being there is what is our most intimate point, where God's Love is loving us into existence.   In being estranged from God by sin, we became estranged from our heart, from our own most intimate self.   Jesus, because he is truly human, also has a Heart where the Word is being made flesh and from where his Spirit goes out to enlighten everyone who comes into this world.  However, being without sin, he is not estranged from his Heart, and it has become the Heart of all hearts that are open to him.

Our religion is a religion of the heart.  Jesus is the Heart of humankind beating in the Presence of the Father in time with countless souls he has saved and the whole of heaven.  As Pope Francis has said, the Eucharist is the beating heart of the Church, in which the Church across time and place, and with the Church the whole of humankind, participates in the life, death and resurrection of Christ and shares in the liturgy of heaven.  And, as we receive Christ in communion, so our own hearts become temples of the Holy Spirit and dwelling places of Christ; and we become a living sacrifice of praise (EP IV) with Him as He makes us an everlasting gift to the Father (EP III).

Hence, as Jeremiah foretold, God will forgive people their sins and place in their hearts the law of sacrificial love.  In the words of the Cistercian founder, we will live in order to love and die in order to rise again.  As Jesus himself says in the Gospel,
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.
The more we live in Christ, the more He lives in us, the more we will spontaneously manifest his Presence in the Spirit by sacrificial love.   The Church is made visible to the world by this quality of love and becomes just one other worldly institution when it is lacking.

Moreover, while God's Presence among His People in the Temple was an exterior presence, even though a very close one, His Presence among us is from Heart to heart and very intimate. The death of an animal was necessary to offer its life completely to God; but the animal was only a symbolic substitute for ourselves.   Now that we have been invited to share the life of Divine Love, it needs our own death to permit us to give ourselves totally, holding nothing back, so that we can love as God loves; but this is only possible if our death is made one with that of Christ, so that we can rise again with Him.  Hence, our death as the end of life has been destroyed by Christ's death and it has become a doorway into his life of love for all eternity.

A Jesuit Ministry
Background on the Gospel Reading

Jesus teaches his disciples about the way in which he will be glorified by God, and a voice from heaven is heard to affirm this teaching.

Today’s Gospel reading is taken from the Gospel of John. We are reading much further into John’s Gospel than we have for the past two weeks. Chapter 12 of John’s Gospel is a preparation for the beginning of the passion narrative to follow. Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead—an important sign in John’s Gospel, which inspired many people to believe in Jesus. This event also marks the turning point in Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish authorities. John’s Gospel tells us that the Sanhedrin met after this event and made plans to kill Jesus. In the 12th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus is anointed at Bethany and enters Jerusalem in triumph. We again see evidence of the significance of the raising of Lazarus to this event; John reports that the crowds also gathered to see Lazarus.

Following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus predicted his suffering, death, and Resurrection and prepared his disciples to believe in the salvation that his death would accomplish. Using the metaphor of the grain of wheat, Jesus presented the idea that his dying would be beneficial. He also taught that those who would be his disciples must follow his example of sacrifice. This theme will be repeated in John’s account of the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples as an example of how they must serve one another.

The final section of today’s Gospel might be read as John’s parallel to the agony in the garden. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John does not record Jesus’ anguished prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest. Although comparable words are found in today’s reading, Jesus gives a confident response to the question he raises when asking God to save him from his impending death. After announcing his conviction that it is for this purpose that he came, a voice from heaven speaks, as if in answer to Jesus’ prayer. This voice, like the one heard at Jesus’ baptism and at Jesus’ Transfiguration—events reported in the Synoptic Gospels but not in John’s Gospel—affirms that God welcomes the sacrifice that Jesus will make on behalf of others. In John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that this voice was sent for the sake of those who would believe in him.

In today’s Gospel, we also hear Jesus speak about the cosmic framework against which we are to understand his passion, death, and Resurrection. Through his death and Resurrection, Jesus conquered Satan, the ruler of this world. In this way the world is judged, but the judgement is not condemnation. Instead, through Jesus’ dying and rising, salvation is brought to the world.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018


How precious is the gift of the cross! See, how beautiful it is to behold!…It is a tree which brings forth life, not death. It is the source of light, not darkness. It offers you a home in Eden. It does not cast you out. It is the tree which Christ mounted as a king his chariot, and so destroyed the devil, the lord of death, and rescued the human race from slavery to the tyrant. It is the tree on which the Lord, like a great warrior with his hands and feet and his divine side pierced in battle, healed the wounds of our sins, healed our nature that had been wounded by the evil serpent. Of old we were poisoned by a tree;  now we have found immortality through a tree.

…By the cross death was killed and Adam restored to life. In the cross every apostle has gloried; by it every martyr has been crowned and every saint made holy. We have put on the cross of Christ, and laid aside the old man. Through the cross, we have joined Christ’s flock, and are granted a place in the sheepfold of heaven.” (St Theodore the Studite)

The Way to Joy? Take Up Your Cross
by Fr. Ted

“The kingdom of God cannot be imposed; if it is to be brought about we must be born again, and that supposes complete freedom of spirit. Christianity is the religion of the Cross, and it sees a meaning in suffering. Christ asks us to take up our own cross and carry it, to shoulder the load of a sinful world. In Christian consciousness the notion of attaining happiness, justice, and the kingdom of God on earth without cross or suffering is a huge lie: it is the temptation that Christ rejected in the wilderness when he was shown the kingdoms of the world and invited to fall down and worship. Christianity does not promise its own necessary realization and victory here below; Christ even questioned whether he will find any faith on earth when he comes again at the end of time, and foretold that love itself will have grown cold.

Tolstoy believed that Christ’s commands could be easily fulfilled simply by recognizing their truth. But that was a mistake of his over-rationalizing  consciousness; the mysteries of freedom and of grace were beyond him, his optimism contradicted the tragic depths of life. “The good which I will I do not,” says the apostle Paul, “but the evil which I will not, that I do. Now if I do that which I will not it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” This testimony of one of the greatest of all Christians unveils the innermost part of the human heart, and it teaches us that the “failure of Christianity” is a human failure and not a divine defeat.”

(Nicholas Berdiaev, Tradition Alive, pp. 96-97)
Russian Orthodox Chant (bass)
Thy Cross
Patriarch of Moscow celebrates
Cross-Bowing Sunday

The Patriarch of Antioch on Cross
Adoration Sunday

by Father Brendan at Belmont Abbey, Hereford

Nicodemus & Michelangelo

 Image result for michelangelo pieta

In 1498 a French Benedictine Cardinal commissioned a young sculptor, to create “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better.” That would be quite a challenge but not for the confident and brilliant 24-year-old Michelangelo. The people rushed to marvel at his masterpiece, the infinitely tender Pietà. How did he create such beauty? How could a man so young chisel hard stone into the soft and supple skin of Christ’s body held gently in his mother’s arms? A mother’s love to the end.

Michelangelo enjoyed a long and successful life. Fast forward 50 years and we find the devout 70-year-old artist working furiously through the night on one of his last great sculptures, with a just single candle to illuminate his work. But this was not a for a commission. This was an intensely personal work of faith and devotion. The old Michelangelo was working on another Pietà, that would stand over his own tomb.


This Pietà (now in Florence) was different. Now it is not the Virgin Mary who holds up the body of the dead Christ. In her place is an old man, a tall hooded figure with a broken nose. Not Mary, but Nicodemus. What’s more, Michelangelo gives Nicodemus his own features. It is a moving self-portrait of Nicodemus-Michelangelo holding on to the Body of Christ.

Nicodemus is an intriguing man. We meet him first in the 3rd Chapter of John’s Gospel described as a Pharisee, a Jewish leader. Very tellingly the Gospel says he came to Jesus “by night.”  Note those references to light and darkness in today’s Gospel. He came to Jesus on the sly, he wanted to play it safe, so he waited until his neighbours were tucked up in their beds before slipping over to question Jesus. An admirer, but a secret one, perhaps like many today who are cautious to admit their faith because in some quarters it is socially unacceptable. Perhaps that is why Michelangelo portrays Nicodemus as a hooded figure, a man who does not want to come out into the daylight with his faith.

Today we listen-in to the tail-end of their conversation. Jesus had said to him something rather perplexing. It boils down to this: unless you are born again, you might as well give up. That is all very well, says Nicodemus, but how are we supposed to manage that. How is an old man to be born again when it is something just to get out of bed in the morning? But Jesus tells him it is not something that we do, it is what the Spirit does. Like the wind rushing down the chimney that causes dying embers to burst into flame. Being born again is like that. And that is when Jesus says that the sign that is to be given, of the Son of Man lifted high on the cross, is a sign of love that is so creative that it brings to new life, to a new and imperishable eternity, those who believe.
Image result for san clemente basilica

Jesus speaks of the Son of Man being ‘lifted up.’ It is a clever play on words that points to Good Friday but also to Easter. The Greek verb means both to ‘lift up’ or ‘to raise’ as if raising the wood of the Cross (Good Friday, if you like); but it also means ‘to lift up’ in the sense of ‘to exalt’ or ‘to glorify. (Easter Sunday, if you like).’ Through the Cross, the power of death is overthrown. A symbol of shame becomes a revelation of divine love – that God so loved the world. IT is why we delight in marking ourselves with the sign of the cross, because we have come to believe in God’s love, revealed on that glorious tree. God so loved the world. I often quote Dame Julian of Norwich. “Love was his meaning before ever he made us, he loved us, and always will.”

This homily could stop there, because what more needs be said? But like Nicodemus we often linger in the shadows, fail to absorb this love, live lives that far from reflecting it, fail to live in the light. “Let everything be done in the light” says St Benedict (RB 41:9).

But it is beautiful to Nicodemus go on a journey of faith. In Chapter 3 his story seems to fizzle out, and the last words we hear from him is the question “How can it be?” He remains in the shadows. He reappears in Chapter 7, this time he speaks up for Jesus in public. And finally, we meet him at the Cross, where he takes the body of Jesus for burial. No longer a figure of the night, he now pays his respects in broad daylight. It is a crazy thing to do with the witch-hunt going on, but he decided that it was more than worth it. He must “live by the truth.”

He takes the body of Jesus and wraps it in linen cloths with myrrh and aloes. A hundred Roman pounds of myrrh and aloes. Mary of Bethany had shown her love with just a pound of costly perfume and the house was filled with fragrance. Nicodemus arrives with 33 kilograms! How the scent of myrrh and aloes must have met Mary Magdalene on the Easter Morning, a hundred pounds of love and affection lavished by Nicodemus. This is a royal burial. Nicodemus, the tentative believer, had come by night, but at the foot of the cross he is born from above and lavishes love on the body of Jesus and lays it in the grave ready for the light of Resurrection. Nicodemus had preferred the darkness but was drawn towards the light, and had that Easter faith.

Michelangelo too had been on a journey of faith. He had produced immortal works:- the David, Moses, the Pietà, the Sistine Chapel. He had left people amazed, breathless. Yet at the end of his life, he had come to see that even these masterpieces – in the light of eternity – were like incomplete words. “I am barely beginning to babble,” he said. And most of all he saw that the beauty of his art was but a pale reflection of the source of all beauty, “the fount of mercy whence we all exist,” God himself. While he was working on the Florentine Pietà (c. 1547–1555) he wrote: (Poem 285, 1552-54):

The voyage of my life, at last, has reached,  across a stormy sea, in a fragile boat, the common port all must pass through…Neither painting nor sculpture will be able any longer to calm my soul, now turned toward that Divine Love that opened His arms on the cross to take us in.  

There is an old Christian tradition that Nicodemus was himself a sculptor, just as St Luke was an artist. No surprise that Michelangelo would identify himself as Nicodemus in this Pietà of his old age. As he worked frantically at night by the light of just a single candle, this was not any old sculpture. He seems to be carving a prayer for his own grave that he too, this old man, this sometimes proud, arrogant, tetchy and difficult man, would be born again like Nicodemus. That he too would come into the light. Have that Easter faith.

He prays that the Nicodemus-Michelangelo, who holds the body of Christ in his hands will experience a rebirth. It is a prayer we can make our own today as we hold the Body of Christ in our hands, as we eat the bread of life, the food of rebirth, of renaissance, of Resurrection.


Until the end of time when God intervenes, Adam's sin continues in the war of flesh versus spirit, the darkness of the human intellect, the laziness of the will, and the evil inclination of the heart. Satan disavowed the difference between himself and God in a disobedient denial of truth. He rebels not only against God but against his own being, for in saying "no" to God, he destroys the harmony of his own being: love, joy, willing service. This denial of simultaneously becoming hatred — of self, of all others, and of God. Thus evil is a being contrary to its own nature and direction, a perverted being . . . And for the person vacillating between good and evil there is the possibility of conversion, of cooperation with God's call to justification and grace. God can see the repentant sinner in Christ and accept Christ's expiation for the sins. For Christ is the only proxy for all sin before God; through His merit, the sinner attains contrition and grace. This is God's compassion for the sinner, that He justifies the sinner through redemption worked by Christ. The mystery of the cross makes possible a restoration of the original order of grace as the "highest good." And the fullness of humanity leads to God's ultimate goodness — eternal life.

The soul in which God dwells by grace is no impersonal scene of the divine life but is itself drawn into this life. The divine life is three-personal life: it is overflowing love, in which the Father generates the Son and gives him his Being, while the Son embraces this Being and returns it to the Father; it is the love in which the Father and Son are one, both breathing the Holy Spirit. By grace, this Spirit is shed abroad in men's hearts. Thus the soul lives its life of grace through the Holy Spirit, in Him, it loves the Father with the love of the Son and the Son with the love of the Father.

The Christian Mystery: 
The Christian mysteries are an indivisible whole . . . Thus the way from Bethlehem leads inevitably to Golgotha, from the crib to the Cross. (Simon's) prophecy announced the Passion, the fight between light and darkness that already showed itself before the crib . . . The star of Bethlehem shines in the night of sin. The shadow of the Cross falls on the light that shines from the crib. This light is extinguished in the darkness of Good Friday, but it rises all the more brilliantly in the sun of grace on the morning of the Resurrection. The way of the incarnate Son of God leads through the Cross and Passion to the glory of the Resurrection. In His company, the way of every one of us, indeed of all humanity, leads through suffering and death to this same glorious goal.

By this sign, Conquer

Exactly one thousand, seven hundred years ago yesterday, the Battle of Milivian Bridge took place on the northern outskirts of Rome. Constantine was the victor of the battle and soon became the undisputed Emperor of Rome. We now know that he eventually became the first Christian Emperor and, with his favor of the Church, completely changed the course of history.

But before the famed battle, there was a vision. Or a dream -- the sources aren't quite clear. But something seems to have happened to Constantine. Something which inspired him to credit the one true God for his victor over his rival Maxentius. And something that transformed the image of the Cross from a ignominious sign of state-sponsored execution into a symbol of hope and an image of victory.

The Time Before Constantine

Imagine a Christianity without the Cross--at least without the visual symbol of the Cross. Believe it or not, the Cross was not widely used by the earliest Christians. In fact, for the first few decades of her history, the Church and her members operated largely without any artwork or graphic symbology, except that which was borrowed from the pagan Roman culture and re-constituted for Christian use.

So what designs and themes were popular among the earliest Christians? Well, the image of a shepherd tending his sheep is one good example.

The Good Shepherd, fresco from the
Catacombs of St. Callixtus in Rome.

The shepherd was a popular motif among pagans in Rome and throughout the Empire. For them, it could hold secular or sacred meaning. But by the second century, Christians began decorating their baptistries and tombs with this image in fresco (pictured at left), mosaic and sculpture. For Christians, the image symbolized Christ as the Good Shepherd (in reference to John 10:1-21). Both plant and animal imagery was also popular among both pagans and Christians in the earliest centuries of the Church, but Christians soon attached sacred meaning to many of the popular classical motifs of the time: grapevines had Eucharistic meaning for Christians while peacocks became symbols of heavenly paradise. Christians also developed use of their own symbols not found in pagan artwork of the time: extensive use of the fish (a symbol of Christ), the symbol of Jonah and the fish (taken from the story found in Genesis) and depictions of a ritual meal with loaves and fish on the table (early symbols of the Eucharist). 

What you don't find often in these early centuries, however, are artistic representations of the Cross. We know from the writings of the early Church Fathers that early Christians used the Sign of the Cross (i.e. the gesture of signing one's forehead, body and/or objects with the symbol of the Cross). But the symbol of the Cross is very rare from the earliest-known examples of Christian artwork. That all changed on the after the Battle of Milivan Bridge.

The Night Before the Battle

On the evening of October 27th, 312, the forces of Constantine and Maxentius--both claimants to Roman imperial title--had converged on either side of the Tiber River, just north of the city of Rome. 

Maxentius had accepted the imperial purple six years earlier, in 306. Now, six years later, he had become a leader barely tolerated among the people of Rome. Constantine had also been acclaimed emperor in 306, at York (in present-day England) at the death of his father. He had moved slowly towards Italy, shoring up his support first in Roman Britain and then in western Europe, over the course of six years. But now he had arrived at the doorstep of Rome, challenging Maxentius's claim as Emperor of the West.

Maxentius had prepared Rome for a long siege by shoring up supplies and removing most of the bridges across the Tiber River that provided access to the ancient city. In addition to this, despite his unpopularity, Maxentius had amassed an army twice the size of Constantine's. But on the evening of October 27th, both men's armies were converged at the one point of access across the Tiber: the Pons Milvius or Milvian Bridge; poised for battle the next day. 

As the sun set on the gathered armies of the opposing leaders on the banks of the Tiber, a mysterious event occurred which has both inspired and baffled every generation since: Constantine, encamped along the Tiber with his men, experienced some sort of vision or dream which inspired him, a non-Christian, to adopt a symbol of the Christians as his battle standard. 

The Christians--a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire of 312; the scorned followers of a crucified Jewish messiah from the backwaters of the Empire; the group who was distrusted and disdained by their fellow Romans. This was the group whose symbol Constantine was inspired to adopt on that fateful evening. And the next day, Constantine's troops marched into battle, outnumbered two-to-one and against tremendous odds, against the army of Maxentius. Less than a decade after the start of the Empire's most fierce and most widespread persecution of Christians, a Roman army marched into battle under the symbol of the Christians... and they were victorious. 

Which Christian symbol was it, anyway?

In the popular mind and in pop history, Constantine has become associated with the Cross. Romantic paintings, centuries removed from the actual event, show Constantine gazing towards the heavens, focused on a blazing cross. Constantine's association with the symbol of the Cross has become part of accepted lore in both Eastern and Western culture and, has inspired countless works of art through the centuries. In an odd twist of history, Constantine's cross even became a popular inspirational theme of Protestant fraternal groups in eighteenth and nineteenth century England and America

But the facts aren't quite that clear. 

Actually, there are two accounts of the event which differ slightly in details. According to Lactanius, a contemporary of Constantine and Christian who later became the tutor of Constantine's son, Constantine experienced a vivid dream on the night of October 27th. Here is Lactinius' record of the what happened, which he penned in about the year 321:

"Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ. Having this sign, his troops stood to arms." (Lactanius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Ch. 44, Vs. 5)

So, according to Lactanius, who presumably heard this account from the lips of Constantine himself, Constantine experienced a dream wherein he was commanded (by an angel? by Christ himself?) to have the "Chi-Rho"painted on the shields of his soldiers before the battle. 

The Chi-Rho

The "Chi-Rho" (pictured at right) was a very ancient symbol of the Christians. In Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written and the most common language of the Church until the third century, the letters Chi and Rho were the first two letters of the Greek title Christos, or Christ. Early Christians adopted these two letters, interlocked in a unique symbol, as a sign of their Savior and as a symbol of their faith. In fact, the "Chi-Rho" was a widespread Christian symbol by the time of Constantine. According to Lactanius, it was this symbol which was shown to Constantine in a dream and which he had his soldiers paint on their shields the following morning before their battle. Conspicuously absent from Lactanius' account is any mention of the Cross. In its place, Lactanius stresses the use of the "Chi-Rho" by Constantine and his soldiers as the "symbol of victory."

The Cross

The other account of the events was recorded by Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea and another contemporary of (and later advisor to) Constantine, who emphasizes Constantine's adoption of the Cross. In his Ecclesiastical History, which he completed around the year 323, Eusebius recounts the event just as Constantine told him. They start a few days before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, in an unrecorded location where the following occurred: 

"He [i.e. Constantine] said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, EN TOUTO NIKA ["In this, conquer"]. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle." (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Ch. 28, Vss. 4-5)

After this initial vision, according to Eusebius, Constantine did not understand its meaning. Later, in his sleep, Constantine had a dream in which Christ himself appeared to him "with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies." 

Eusebius continues in his account: 

A depiction of Constantine's labarum,
as found on a silver medal from
the period

."At dawn of day [Constantine] arose, and communicated the marvel to his friends: and then, calling together the workers in gold and precious stones, he sat in the midst of them, and described to them the figure of the sign he had seen, bidding them represent it in gold and precious stones. ... [I]t was made in the following manner: A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it. On the top of the whole was fixed a wreath of gold and precious stones; and within this, the symbol of the Savior's name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters, the letter P being intersected by X in its centre... From the cross-bar of the spear was suspended a cloth, a royal piece, covered with a profuse embroidery of most brilliant precious stones; and which, being also richly interlaced with gold, presented an indescribable degree of beauty to the beholder. This banner was of a square form, and the upright staff, whose lower section was of great length, bore a golden half-length portrait of the pious emperor and his children on its upper part, beneath the trophy of the cross, and immediately above the embroidered banner." (Ibid, Ch. 31)

So, according to Eusebius, Constantine responded to an appeal from Christ himself, who commanded Constantine to construct "the same sign which he had seen in the heavens," i.e., the Cross. In response, Constantine had his workers construct a cross of gold (made with a wooden spear as the vertical shaft, onto which was affixed another, horizontal shaft of wood, all covered in gold) and, at the top of this, the Chi-Rho symbol surrounded by a wreath. To this, Constantine had affixed an embroidered tapestry.

Both Lactanius and Eusebius were contemporaries of Constantine and were in his consort. Both of them were certainly familiar with the story of his marvelous visions and dreams. Both men also, as Christians, were familiar with how the fortunes of Christians had changed 180 degrees under Constantine's leadership. And whether it was the Cross or the "Chi-Rho" which inspired Constantine to victory over Lactanius at the Milvian Bridge on that October day, it's obvious that we modern Catholic Christians should recognize the power and importance of our Christian symbol.
By this sign you will conquer!

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