By CAROLE BRESLIN
At the end of the patrician age, iconoclasm reared its ugly head in the Christian community. Iconoclasm “rejected as superstition the use of religious images and advocated their destruction . . .occasioned by the rise of Islam which considers all sacred images idolatrous” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. John A. Hardon, p. 263). In defending the true teaching of the Church, St. John Damascene nearly lost his life.
However, some decades later, the iconoclasts gained more recognition and again sought to destroy the sacred images in use at the time. Eventually, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 clearly defined the teaching that sacred images were permissible and to be venerated. Largely through the efforts of St. Nicephorus, the heresy was again held in check.
The parents of St. Nicephorus set a good example for their son, defender of images, who was born around 758. His father held high office under the Emperor Constantine Copronymus (Constantine V) as secretary and commissioner. Yet when the emperor persecuted the orthodox faith, Nicephorus’ father held true to the honor of sacred images with such zeal that he was stripped of his office, tortured, and banished.
Despite the banishment, Nicephorus received an excellent education further developing his innate abilities fostered by his parents who loved the faith. When Constantine VI and his mother, the Empress Irene, changed the restrictions on sacred images, Nicephorus came to their attention as he was brought to court. In fact, Nicephorus attended the Second Council of Nicaea as the representative of the Empress Irene.
Despite all the honors and authority bestowed upon him, Nicephorus sought the quiet of the monastery he had founded on the Thracian Bosphorus on the Black Sea. Although still a layman, he greatly appreciated the quiet, religious life.
This life was not meant to be. When the patriarch of Constantinople, St. Tarasius, died, Nicephorus became the leading candidate to succeed him. Because of his lay status, many opposed his appointment and he himself turned away from it. However, at the formal request of the emperor, St. Nicephorus received Holy Orders and accepted the office.
At his installation, he took the treatise he had written defending the treatment of images and placed it behind the altar, pledging that he would defend the doctrine of the Church. You can imagine what happened next. Without much delay, the new patriarch was persecuted, suffering at the hands of hostile rigorists.
A priest named Joseph had been exiled for celebrating the nuptial Mass of Emperor Constantine VI and Theodata even though his first wife, Empress Mary, was still living. St. Nicephorus reinstated the priest. Common belief held that Nicephorus did this to avoid greater scandal among the Christians as well as to demonstrate the mercy to be shown to a repentant sinner.
A group known as the Theodore Studites refused to have anything to do with the new patriarch who seemed to support what the Studites called the “Adulterine Heresy.” They appealed to Pope Leo III who, although he sent them an encouraging reply, did nothing about the situation since he had heard nothing from St. Nicephorus about the situation.
The Church in the East did not answer so much to the Pope in Rome as it did to the emperor who acted with much authority on the operations of the Church and the installations of the bishops or patriarchs. Because of the opposition of the Studites, the emperor had imprisoned Theodore and the monks dispersed.
Finally, Nicephorus sent a letter to Pope Leo explaining the situation and vowing to keep Rome more informed of the events in Constantinople. Thus the factions were reconciled and Theodore was released. They worked together in improving morals, restoring discipline in the monasteries, and improving the behavior of the clergy. Once again the brief period of tranquility ended.
In 813 Leo the Armenian (Leo V) became the emperor in the East. Before his installation, Nicephorus sought to get a profession of faith from Leo, especially regarding iconoclasm, but the politician eluded the efforts of the patriarch to get a definitive statement from him.
As Leo V became more confident of his position, he expressed his views more freely. He urged Nicephorus to support him in the destruction of the images in the churches that had been replaced after being removed or destroyed during the last rampage of the iconoclasts. The emperor did this despite the approval given to the images by the Second Council of Nicaea.
St. Nicephorus held true to his vow taken on the day of his installation and defended the images, replying, “We cannot change the ancient traditions: We respect the holy images, as we do the cross and the book of the Gospels.”
Evil is restless and cunning. Emperor Leo made subtle movements, under the mask of reverence, to get a crucifix removed. By ordering a soldier to profane the corpus on the cross, Leo claimed that he would remove others to prevent further profanation of the images. Thus he shrewdly attempted to manufacture events to ensure he appeared to be respecting the images.
His plotting did not stop at this. He then called the bishops of the iconoclasts to his court and then ordered the patriarch and his sympathetic bishops and clergy to the palace. Their response, however, was to pointedly refuse, telling him that he must leave Church matters to the Church and not the court. Not surprisingly, Emperor Leo became enraged.
Next the iconoclast bishops summoned the patriarch to appear before them but again they were rebuffed as Nicephorus unequivocally challenged their authority to summon him. “In my diocese you have no jurisdiction,” he wrote to them. The iconoclasts were then excommunicated from the Church.
Having the support of the emperor, they continued to issues statements against Nicephorus. Even worse, they made several attempts on his life before he was forced into exile. He returned to the monastery he had founded.
Although Emperor Leo’s successor, Michael the Stammerer, invited Nicephorus to return to Constantinople, he could do so only under the condition that he remain silent about the issue of iconoclasm. Nicephorus refused, saying that silence was tantamount to endorsement which he could not in good conscience do. Thus he remained in the monastery on the Bosphorus for his remaining days, soundly writing in defense of the sacred images. His writings have been preserved to this day.
The Eastern Church celebrates his feast on June 2 while the Latin Church celebrates it on March 13. St. Nicephorus died in the year 828. On March 13, 846 his remains were transferred to Constantinople.
Dear St. Nicephorus, may we learn from your writings and lively defense of sacred images to explain this doctrine to our separated brethren in Christ. O Lord, by your cross and Resurrection you have set us free. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)