11 February 2023

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 11 February 2023

The Cathedral of the Virgin Spiliotissas and Saint Vlassis and Saint Theodora overlooks the harbour of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before today becomes a busy day, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

These weeks, between the end of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, are known as Ordinary Time. We are in a time of preparation for Lent, which in turn is a preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday later this month (22 February), I am reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The shrine of Saint Theodora is to the right, behind the iconostasis in the cathedral in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Agios Vlassis or Saint Blaise, an Armenian miracle worker and martyr, and Saint Theodora (815-867), the empress who brought to end the conflicts and divisions of the iconoclastic heresy, both have their feast days today (11 .February).

These two saints are celebrated together in Corfu in Greece, where the Cathedral of the Virgin Spiliotissas and Saint Vlassis and Saint Theodora.

Corfu’s most-visited church is the Church of Saint Spyridon, with the relics of Saint Spyridon and a landmark bell tower. But the cathedral has served the Diocese of Corfu, Paxos and the Diapontian Islands since 1841 and was built in 1577 on the site of a much earlier church.

The Cathedral of the Virgin Spiliotissas and Saint Vlassis and Saint Theodora stands on a small square at the top of marble steps looking out over the harbour of Corfu and across to the Ionian Sea. It is one of the many beautiful churches in the Old City, but is often difficult for visitors to find in the labyrinth of narrow streets and warren of side alleys.

Even then, the impressive marble stairway and the purple façade of the cathedral with a decorative sunburst surrounding the rose window are only appreciated by stepping out of the cathedral and down into Mitropolis Square to which it gives its name.

The Diocese of Corfu traces its history to two disciples of Saint Paul, Jason of Tarsus and Sosipatrus of Achaea (see Acts 17: 5-9 and Romans 16: 21). The Bishops of Corfu took part in ecumenical councils from 325 to 787, originally as suffragans of Nicopolis and later of Kephalonia.

The diocese was transferred from the oversight of Rome to the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the eighth century, became an archbishopric in the 10th century, and became a metropolitan see later in the 11th century.

After Corfu fell to a Western alliance of the Genoese, Venetians and Angevins in 1204, a Roman Catholic archbishopric was established on the island. Under Roman Catholic rule, the Orthodox people of Corfu were served by a head priest (protopapas), who were often in episcopal orders.

However, the Orthodox Diocese of Corfu was not restored until 1800, following the fall of Venice in 1797 and the formation of the Septinsular Republic.

Until the Ionian Islands were united the modern Greek state in 1864, the Diocese of Corfu remained under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Since then, it has been integrated into the Church of Greece.

The cathedral was built as a church in 1577 on the site of an older church dedicated to Agios Vlassis or Saint Blaise, an Armenian miracle worker and martyr whose feast is celebrated today (11 February).

The new church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary Spiliotissas after the destruction of an older church with the same name. The name Spiliotissa is derived from spilia, meaning cave, a reference to an older church at a cave at the foot of the New Fortress.

The cathedral is a three-aisled church built in a Baroque style that is typical of many churches in the Ionian islands, and with many Renaissance details and features.

Like all Greek Orthodox cathedrals, Corfu Cathedral is filled with icons, treasures and large chandeliers. But here too is a carved wooden iconostasis or icon screen and important paintings from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Byzantine icons like the Panagia Dimossiana, painted in the 15th century on both sides, icons by Mikhailis Damaskinos from Crete, Emmanouil Tzanes and Panayiotis Paramythiotis, and three remarkable but dark paintings of Old Testament scenes.

When I visited the cathedral, I was invited behind the icon screen to see and reverence the most celebrated relic in the church, the shroud-wrapped body of the Empress Saint Theodora (Θεοδώρα), kept in a lined silver sarcophagus in a shrine on the right-hand side of the iconostasis.

Saint Theodora (815-867) was empress and wife of the emperor of the Byzantine, Theophilos. She lived during the conflicts and divisions of the iconoclastic heresy, and she brought that conflict to an end in the Great Church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople on 11 March 843, an event celebrated in the Orthodox Church as ‘the Triumph of Orthodoxy.’

Her husband Theophilos was an iconoclast, but Theodora held fast to the veneration of icons she kept in her private rooms in the imperial palace.

One story recalls how a servant witnessed her venerating her icons and reported her to the emperor. When her husband confronted her, she stated that she had merely been ‘playing with dolls.’ Two of her icons are kept at the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos to this day and are referred to as ‘Theodora’s Dolls.’

When her husband Theophilos died on 20 January 842 at the age of 29, Theodora became the regent for her son Michael. She called a council chaired by the Patriarch Methodius, at which the veneration of icons was finally restored and the iconoclastic clergy were deposed.

Theodora died sometime after the murder of her son Michael in 867. She was recognised as a saint because of her zeal for the restoration of icons. Her body and the body of the island’s patron saint, Saint Spyridon, were moved to Corfu after the Fall of Constantinople.

Saint Theodora’s feast day is 11 February – the same day as feast of Saint Vlassis, and they both share the dedication of the cathedral.

The relics of Saint Theodora the Empress are carried in procession through the streets of Corfu on the first Sunday of Great Lent, celebrated in the Orthodox Church as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. On the same day, the church distributes pieces of watermelon in remembrance of a miracle attributed to Saint Vlassis, who cured the children of Corfu of a disease of the throat.

Inside Corfu Cathedral … built in 1577 and a cathedral since 1841 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 8: 1-10 (NRSVA):

1 In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, 2 ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. 3 If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way – and some of them have come from a great distance.’ 4 His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ 5 He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ 6 Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. 7 They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. 8 They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.

The gallery at the west end of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary for the past week has been ‘Christianity in Pakistan.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Nathan Olsen.

The USPG Prayer Diary today invites us to pray in these words:

Let us give thanks for the witness of the Church in Pakistan and its passion to educate and train its clergy and laity. May we be inspired by their example and never take our freedom for granted.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Looking out to the harbour and the Ionian Sea from the steps in front of the cathedral in Corfu

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The bust of Patriarch Athenagoras outside Corfu Cathedral … he was Metropolitan of Corfu in 1922-1930 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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