St. Botolph’s Parish, Triumph of Orthodoxy, 5 March 2017
When you were under the fig tree, I saw you (John 1.48).
From the balcony, you see him wander in. Wide-eyed, full of wonder. A teddy, held tightly, ears gnawed, face kissed bare of its velvet fur. From the crevices among the old Norman rafters, from the secret cleft in the oak, from a cricket’s crawlspace where no sunlight has shone for nine hundred years, you watch him. At age four, maybe five, he has never been inside a church. Scanning bleak walls, frigid Edwardian columns, a Georgian plaque with Hymns 512, 534, and 666 firmly in place, his eye sees through the names of dead vicars. Modestly engraved in mouldy mahogany. He smiles. ‘He sees!’ red-robed, golden-winged Michael clasps his sword. ‘How does he see us?’ ‘His eye is pure’, Catherine leans upon her fiery wheel. ‘He has not yet learned to hide’. ‘Mikey, so there you are’, a frantic voice calls his name. ‘Don’t you ever, ever wander into strange places all alone’. ‘I’m not alone here, Mummy’, he replies. ‘Don’t you see them?’ His mother stares at a bare, brown wall. ‘There’s nothing on these walls’, she runs her hand over the empty panel. ‘Can’t you see the faces, Mummy? A lady on a wheel. A soldier with a sword’. ‘He sees!’ the archangel tugs at your monastic sleeve. ‘Go help him, Agathon’, great martyr Catherine commands. ‘Hold his hand. He may be one of us’. Climbing down the stairwell, you slip your left hand invisibly around his. ‘Father Agathon?’ he stares into sockets, where once were eyes.
‘They’re here!’ Mikey sobs, ecstatically. ‘They’ve never left!’ ‘Who?’ Mother asks. ‘Father Agathon …’ ‘Agatha?’ she puzzles. ‘The icons! What? Mikey cups his ears. ‘What’s that? Mummy, what’s a … hairy tick?’ ‘Don’t say heretic’, Mother scolds. ‘It’s intolerant’.
Ever so Christian, ever so tolerant, the parish church stands cleansed of ‘graven images’. A few cobwebbed pews, of course. A creaking pulpit, yellowing hymnals, and a plaque of wooden hymns where Holy Catherine once leaned in triumph on a flaming martyr’s wheel. ‘Mustn’t be triumphalist, Mikey’, Mum insists. ‘Icons for instance. Helpful to some, rather unhelpful to others. Neutral, really.’ But at age five, Mikey is not yet versed in double talk. Where archangel Michael once pierced the heart of a lawless icon-smasher, Lucifer, now stands the graven plaque of ten commandments. No foul talk, no illicit sex. No … graven images. In the name of a commandment, by royal decree, an image of Christ ripped from atop the gate. Wailing nuns toppling the ladder, butchered in the street. Fingers, toes, breastbone ripped from a saint’s tomb in the ashes of a gutted monastery. Snapped under a Saracen sandal or a Bolshevik boot. So it begins. Again and again. You watch them come and go. Gérmanos the patriarch, dying in exile. Nikíphoros, Methódios refusing to burn an image. Christ the express Image of his Father. Bound to your chair, Monk Agathon, you can hear the fire crackling. Sense the sap gathering under gold leaf, red flames licking the dry yolk from your Saviour’s eyes. Feel the blood at the root of a singed beard, on the stump of an icon-painter’s arm. Hollowed-out sockets in his face where once were eyes.
Now you inhabit dark places. Gutted churches. Whispering, ‘we are the martyrs of the holy icons. We are still here’.
Monks yield to magistrates, priests to parsons. Holy images to Word of God. In your new, reformed ‘church’, where then is Aaron’s golden robe and bejewelled breastplate? Where is the ark sheltered by winged cherubim, toppling the idol of Dagon in his temple? Where is the incense offered to the Child in Bethlehem, fit only for a God in the flesh? Scattered. Among slivers of the Saviour’s image, hacked into kindling. His Mother’s, his monk’s, eyes gouged from the sockets. A child wanders the ruins. He knows. He sees. He never blinks at a God who eats and weeps, bleeds and suffers and rises. What Caliphs and Calvinists, Latimer and Lenin, KGB, Gestapo, and so-called Islamic State forget, he remembers.
Clasping his hairless teddy, kissed bare of its fur, he knows precisely what a Holy Icon is. Whoever honours the Holy Icon is his friend. Whoever dishonours it is Antichrist.
On the outskirts of Bethsaida, Christ the Holy Icon appears to Philip. No Torah scroll held in his hand. A human Face that eats and weeps, bleeds and suffers and rises from death commands him: ‘Follow me’. ‘We’ve found him!’ Philip sobs, ecstatically. ‘The One we’ve heard about, read out in Moses and the Prophets. Jesus, from Nazareth!’ ‘Nazareth?’ his friend Nathanael laughs aloud. ‘I’ve seen him’, says Philip solemnly. ‘Come. See’. Still on the horizon, the Holy Image remarks: ‘Behold a child of Israel in whom is no guile’. ‘How have you heard of me?’ asks Nathanael. ‘When you were sitting under the fig tree’, says the Holy Image, ‘I saw you’. ‘Rabbi’, the words barely escape his lips, ‘you are the image of the living God!’ ‘All because of the fig tree?’ the Image jokes. ‘Wide-eyed Galilean full of wonder, you will see the heavens open, and fiery angels descending on him who sets the captives free’. ‘All the captives?’ asks Nathanael. ‘All who recognise my image’.
‘He who rejects my Image, rejects me; and he who rejects me, rejects him who sent me’.
Beloved in Christ: from a secret cleft up in the oak rafters, from a cricket’s crawlspace, an old ghost-monk named Agathon watches a boy enter a gutted church. Always hoping that he, like a new emperor Michael, will restore the holy icon on a new Sunday of Orthodoxy. Unseen in dark places among forgotten rafters, he watches – but does not hide. He never hides again. ‘Spit!’ he hears those heretic voices, fire entwining his feet. ‘Spit in the face of your idols!’ But the scourged spine, the bleeding stump, the stubborn lips never move. Climbing his torso, the flames consume his cassock. Not his conscience.
Gathering around him the scattered who are yet to believe, he knows what heresy is. And what is Orthodoxy.
One day, in the desert of Wadi al-Natrun in Lower Egypt, a few monks tested the resolve of his patron saint, Agathon of Scētis. ‘Are you Agathon the fornicator?’ they taunt. ‘Yes’, the aged monk replies sadly. ‘Are you Agathon, who talks foul rubbish?’ ‘I am’, he lowers his face. ‘Are you Agathon the heretic?’ ‘I am no heretic’. ‘Holy Father’, the young monks ask ashamed. ‘Why did you suffer us to call you an idle gossip, even a fornicator, but not a heretic?’ ‘I am the weakest of men’, Abba Agathon answers. ‘But a heretic is an enemy of God’. In the war between truth and error, there are no neutrals. Whoever is not with us is against us. Whoever does not gather with us, scatters abroad.