June 2, 2015

Saint Nikephoros the Confessor as a Model for our Lives

St. Nikephoros the Confessor (Feast Day - June 2)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

Saint Nikephoros the Confessor, Patriarch of Constantinople, was from Constantinople. His parents Theodore and Evdokia were wealthy and of aristocratic origin, but they were primarily pious and virtuous. His father was especially distinguished for his zeal and love for the Orthodox faith, as well as his struggles against the heresy of iconoclasm, for which his life ended in exile.

Saint Nikephoros, like his father, was also zealous and fiery, but also held an excellent education and therefore served as chief secretary at the Palace for a long time. Then he retired to his estate near the Bosporus, to dedicate himself to prayer, study and asceticism. Later he entrusted his address to the large poor houses of Constantinople, where he ministered with admirable zeal until the day of his election as Patriarch of Constantinople. He rapidly received the three orders of the Priesthood consecutively, and on Pascha Sunday in 806 he ascended the patriarchal throne.

As Patriarch of Constantinople, beside his pastoral ministry, he also saw to the preservation of the Orthodox faith, which heretical iconoclasts tried to distort, thus preserving the unity of his flock, which they tried to divide. This resulted in his suffering unimaginable hardships, persecutions and exile. It is worth noting that thirteen of his twenty years as patriarch were spent in exile and it was there that his earthly life ended. But first and foremost he was interested in the prosperity of his flock and their preservation from the noetic wolves, the heretics, and not his own personal progress and stay in power. For him, the ministry of the throne was crucifying and not about a rise to earthly pleasures. Besides, great figures of the Church, the divine Chrysostom, Saint Gregory the Theologian and many others, did not remain on the throne till the end of their lives and for this they are particularly honored, because the first was exiled by the enemies of the Truth and reposed "in peace" while in exile, and the second resigned in order to preserve the unity of the faithful by preventing potential schism within the Church, although he was not to blame in any way.

The sacred hymnographer, in the hymn composed for Saint Nikephoros, summarizes in a few words his life and conduct, his exiles and courageous confession, which resulted in the victory of the Church against heresy:

Through your inspired confession, you gained victory for the Church, divinely-inspired Hierarch Nikephoros. You suffered unjust exile because of your reverence for the icon of God the Word. Venerable Father, entreat Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.

I wanted to dwell a little on the phrase "your reverence for the icon of God the Word," and mention briefly the Orthodox teaching on sacred icons. First we must say that Christ, the Son and Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is an icon (or image) of God the Father. Man is made according to the image (or icon) of God and is an image (or icon) of Christ. In other words, man is an image of an Image, an icon of an Icon (Basil the Great).

Anyone who reveres and loves Christ embraces the image of His form, as well as the icons of the Panagia His Mother and His friends the Saints. It is striking that the more one loves a person the more they love to see them and enjoy their presence. And when this is not possible due to the distance between them or for any other reason, then they take their photograph, they kiss it, hold it to their heart, and do not consider the fact that it is paper and ink, but it represents the person they love. In a similar way are holy icons embraced, for which our respect and love is given to the person depicted, and not the material object, because, as Basil the Great stresses: "The honor towards the image passes on to the prototype." Here it should be clarified that worship belongs only to the Holy Triune God, but to the Theotokos and the Saints is given honor and not worship.

But the person who reveres the imprint of Christ on paper or wood, should also revere and love the living image of Christ, namely all people. Indeed, the more one loves Christ, the more they will love His image, namely people. As Fr. Porphyrios would say: "When the soul falls in love with Christ, it also loves people and cannot hate them." And as it follows that they honor the icons, even when they are old and dirty and fallen over, they lift them up, clean them off and kiss them, in the same way, and even more so, they revere the living images of Christ, even if they are fallen and dirty, and they neither scorn them nor condemn them. Judgement belongs to God and we are not allowed to grab hold of with impudence and appropriate the rights of God. Also, we must not forget that there is repentance, by which immortal souls are saved.

Once Fr. Paisios, saying goodbye to a guest priest, said to him among other things: "Go to your parish and clean the icons." He meant the living icons, which through purification have the ability to arrive at illumination and theosis, namely the enjoyment of eternal divine life.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ἅγιος Νικηφόρος ὁ Ὁμολογητής", June 2005. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.