Today, 14 Jun 2012, is the memorial of St Methodius of Constantinople, a bishop who endured a lot of suffering in the 9th century battle to preserve the gift of sacred images in the Eastern branches of the Church. If you have found the use of statues, holy pictures and icons helpful in your prayer life, you owe a debt of gratitude to St Methodius, to St John Damascene and others like them.
St Methodius of Constantinople was actually born in Sicily. Because he was a talented and educated youngster he went off to the major trading metropolis of Constantinople to see if he could secure a position in the court of the Eastern emperor. However God had other plans for him, and so instead Methodius secured a position in the heavenly court by entering a monastery and growing in holiness. In this monastery after years had passed Methodius became the abbot.
The growing effect of Islam was being felt in Constantinople, and because they forbid the use of representational images Christians came under increasing pressure to forsake the use of sacred images in worship and prayer. The nations which had embraced Islam were major trading partners with Constantinople. Unsurprisingly the ones who resisted the trend away from sacred images were the monks, because they both used them extensively and created them.
When Abbot Methodius’ reputation for holiness reached the ears of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nicephorus I, the Patriarch called him to Constantinople. There Methodius was able to defend the tradition of sacred images through preaching and writing. Soon Emperor Leo V the Armenian initiated a new persecution of those who used sacred images. He had Nicephorus I deposed and exiled. To combat this Nicephorus sent Methodius to Rome to report about the persecution to the Pope. While Emperor Leo was alive, Methodius stayed in Rome, only returning to Constantinople when news of the Emperor’s death arrived. However Constantinople was still a hot spot for those who treasured the graces that God gives through sacred images. Immediately he arrived home, Methodius was arrested and imprisoned for at least 7 years. Modern day prisons by comparison are palaces compared to where Methodius was incarcerated. (You don’t normally have to share prison space with a dead body and no sunlight.) Only an amnesty in 828 set him free.
Methodius used his freedom to promote the use of sacred images even more enthusiatically than before. If we had gone through what he went through, we would have eagerly searched for a quiet corner to live out live in peace. The next Emperor to try and stamp out the use of sacred images was Theophilus. When Methodius went to remonstrate with him, Theophilus responded by having his jaw broken, his body scourged and thrown into prison. Thankfully those who supported Methodius helped him escape from prison and tended to his wounds. Persecution in various forms continued until the death of Theophilus in 842.
The new rulers, Empress Theodora and her infant son, caused the persecution to cease. Almost overnight the churches in Constantinople and the regions under its jurisdiction had sacred images back on the walls. Methodius was now appointed Patriarch of Constantinople and in that role, as one would expect, he vigorously encouraged the use of sacred images. To mark the joy which everyone felt on the return of the sacred images to the churches and to prevent any future outbreaks of iconoclasm, Methodius introduced an annual feast of Orthodoxy on the anniversary of the return of the sacred images, currently celebrated on the First Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Rites.
Much of what St Methodius wrote during his lifetime is sadly no longer extant, but the memory of his holy and courageous life is. In the few years remaining to him until his death in 847, Methodius had the remains of St Nicephorus returned to Constantinople and worked to heal the rifts between those who had remained true to the tradition of sacred images and those who had not.
St Methodius, pray for us, and for all of those defending the Church’s teachings at personal risk to themselves. Thank you for not giving in, and for teaching us that visual reminders of God’s love and of His Saints help us on the road to holiness.