23 June 2024

The Institute for Orthodox
Christian Studies is
celebrating its 25th
anniversary in Cambridge

Christ the Teacher, the new icon by Aidan Hart marking the 25th anniversary of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge

Patrick Comerford

For many years I attended the summer courses of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge. Over those years, I stayed regularly in Sidney Sussex College between 2008 and 2016, attended lectures and seminars, and each year joined the IOCS day at the Orthodox Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, about 75 km south-east of Cambridge.

In addition, I also took part in a number of day events and seminars organised by the institute in Cambridge, including a memorable day at Westcott House in 2014 honouring Metropolitan John Zizioulas, who died last year (2023). The other speakers that day included Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), who died in 2022, and Archbishop Rowan Williams.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and the celebrations marking this special silver jubilee begin this week with a special Donors and Friends Service and Reception in Westminster Abbey.

As part of these celebrations, the world-renowned iconographer and artist Aidan Hart has completed an icon of ‘Christ the Teacher’ that will be shown in Westminster Abbey. Aidan Hart is also an IOCS Research Associate and he has based the buildings behind Christ in the icon on the buildings in Cambridge related to the institute.

On the viewer’s right-hand side (Christ’s left) is the tower of the Cambridge University Library, as a symbol of the scholarship that lies at the heart of the institute and of its historic connection with the Divinity Faculty of the university. On the viewer’s left-hand side (Christ’s right) is a section of the old Wesley House, now part of Jesus College, where the institute started in 1999.

The icon has other personalised elements to reflect the institute’s unique ethos and location. Christ is holding the Gospel book is open at the verse: ‘That they all may be one; as you, Father are in me and I in you, that they may also be one in us; that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17: 21). This verse reflects the institute’s vocation towards the unity and communion of the Church, both on the pan-Orthodox level as well as on the ecumenical one.

Aidan Hart’s new icon was blessed two weeks ago (9 June 2024) during the Holy Liturgy officiated by the IOCS Principal, Father Dragoș Herescu.

The Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies was founded in Cambridge in 1999 and is a member of the Cambridge Theological Federation. The institute was registered as a company on 9 June 1999, so this month marks the 25th anniversary of the IOCS officially starting its educational witness in Cambridge and adding the Orthodox tradition to the other Christian voices in the Cambridge Theological Federation.

Later this summer, an ‘Orthodox Day’ dedicated to promoting the Institute is being held in Southwark Cathedral on Saturday 3 August. This is being planned as a day to experience the Christian Orthodox tradition and as an ecumenical encounter with the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

The IOCS is also organising a day dedicated to alumni and a fundraising concert. The date later in the year has still be announced.

I initially received the Oulton Prize for Patristics that enabled me to study at the IOCS in 2008, as I developed and taught an elective module on Patristics at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. I spent a week almost every year until 2016 year on these courses, then held in Sidney Sussex College, and I look forward to returning for one of the events later this year.

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
45, 23 June 2024, Trinity IV

An interpretation of the ‘Icon not made by Hands’ or the ‘Mandylion’ above the Royal Doors in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IV, 23 June 2024), but in the calendar of the Orthodox Church this is the Day of Pentecost. Later this morning I hope to be part of the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford.

But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The image of the ‘Icon not made by Hands’ or the ‘Mandylion’ in the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford is above the Royal Doors and beneath an icon of the Mystical Supper or Last Supper (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Mark 4: 35-41 (NRSVUE):

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion, and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And waking up, he rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Be silent! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

A Romanian version of ‘The Icon not made by Hands’ or the ‘Mandylion’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 8: ‘The Icon not made by Hands’ (‘Mandylion’):

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

Other icons on this tier usually include depictions of the patron saint or feast day of the church, Saint John the Baptist, one or more of the Four Evangelists, and so on.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Beautiful Gates, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Immediately above the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, and beneath the icon of the Mystical Supper or Last Supper is a carved interpretation of the ‘Icon not Made by Hands’ or ‘Mandylion’.

According to Orthodox tradition, the ‘Image of Edessa’ – as it is also known – was a square or rectangle of cloth imprinted with a miraculous image of the face of the living Christ, which would make it the first icon. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is often known as the Mandylion.

According to legend, King Abgar of Edessa (present-day Urfa in south-east Turkey, near the border of northern Syria) wrote to Christ, asking him to come to cure him of leprosy. King Abgar received a reply from Christ, declining the invitation. However, he says that when he has completed his earthly mission and has ascended, one of his disciples will visit the king and heal Abgar.

Later, it is said, the Apostle Thaddaeus or Jude came to Edessa, bearing the words of Christ, and by these words the king was miraculously healed.

Later legends say that when the successors of King Abgar reverted to paganism, the Bishop of Edessa placed the image inside a wall, and set a lamp before the image, sealing them behind the wall. The image was uncovered later on the night of a Persian attack, and saved the city from the Persians.

This legend was first recorded in the early 4th century by Eusebius of Caesarea in his History of the Church (1.13.5-1.13.22). Eusebius says he transcribed and translated the actual letter in the Syriac chancery documents of the King of Edessa. However, he does not mention any image.

In the year 384, Egeria, a pilgrim from either Gaul or Spain, was given a personal tour by the Bishop of Edessa, who told her of many miracles that saved Edessa from the Persians. He gave her embellished transcripts of the correspondence between Christ and King Abgarus. She spent three days visiting every corner of Edessa and the surrounding area. However, her account makes no reference to any image or icon in Edessa.

The first reference to an image of Christ is found in a Syriac text, the Doctrine of Addai, ca 400. Addai is the Disciple Thaddeus, and the messenger is the painter Hannan or Ananias who paints the image and brings it back to King Abgar, who treasures it in his royal palace in Edessa.

The image is said to have resurfaced in 525, during a flood of the Daisan, a tributary stream of the Euphrates that passed by Edessa. This flood is mentioned in the writings of the court historian Procopius of Caesarea. During rebuilding work, a cloth bearing human facial features was discovered hidden in the wall above one of the city gates of Edessa.

Writing soon after the Persian siege of Edessa, led by the Emperor Chozroes I in 544, Procopius says that the text of Christ’s letter, by then including a promise that ‘no enemy would ever enter the city,’ was inscribed over the city gate, but does not mention an image.

The first record of an icon like this comes half a century later from Evagrius Scholasticus, who writes in his Ecclesiastical History (593) about a portrait of Christ, which is of divine origin (θεότευκτος) and which miraculously helps the defence of Edessa during the Persian siege in 544.

The later, developed legend, says the painter was unable to capture Christ’s image because he was so dazzled by the light shining from his face. Instead, Christ wiped his face on a towel after washing himself and left an image behind.

So the legend develops from a letter, but without an image (Eusebius), to an image painted by a court painter (Addai), to a miraculously-created image supernaturally made when Christ presses a cloth to his wet face (Evagrius).

This last and latest stage of the legend became accepted in Eastern Orthodoxy, so that the ‘Image of Edessa’ was ‘created by God, and not produced by human hands.’ This idea of an icon that was acheiropoietos (αχειροποίητος, ‘not-made-by-hand’) is a later enrichment of the original legend. I have come across similar accounts of supernatural origins for other Orthodox icons in Greece.

It is said the Holy Mandylion disappeared again after the Arab Sassanians conquered Edessa in 609. A local legend says conquering Muslims threw it into a well in what is today the city’s Great Mosque.

However, other accounts say the Image of Edessa was moved to Constantinople in the in 944, when Edessa was besieged by John Kourkouas and it was exchanged for a group of Muslim prisoners.

The Image of Edessa was received with great celebrations in Constantinople by the Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos, and placed in the Church of the Most Holy Theotokos on 16 August. The earliest known Byzantine icon of the Mandylion or Holy Face dates from the following year, 945, and is in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.

It is said this icon repeatedly gave exact imprints of itself. One of these, ‘On Ceramic,’ was imprinted when Ananias hid the icon in a wall on his way to Edessa; another, imprinted on a cloak, ended up in Georgia.

The Image disappeared during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 in the Fourth Crusade. It later reappeared in Paris as a relic belonging to King Louis IX in Sainte-Chapelle, Paris – not to be confused with the Sainte Chapelle at Chambéry, which housed the ‘Shroud of Turin’ for a time.

It has not been seen since the French Revolution, but some accounts claim the Mandylion of Edessa is now in the Pope’s private Matilda chapel in the Vatican.

The Eastern Orthodox Church feast of this icon is on 16 August (29 August New Style), and commemorates its translation from Edessa to Constantinople.

I had a number of icons in my study in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, in the house where I lived in Dublin and in the Rectory in Askeaton. One of those icons, in a quiet corner, was a Romanian version of ‘The Icon not made by Hands’ or the Mandylion, but, like the original, it has been lost or mislaid during the course of many moves in recent years.

In front of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford, another new fitting in the church is the chandelier or polyelaios (πολυελαιος).

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Psalm 135 and Psalm 136 (134 and 135 in the Septuagint) are called the Polyeleos (Πολυέλεος) or ‘Many Mercies,’ named such after the refrain ‘for his steadfast love endures for ever,’ or ‘for his mercy endures forever’ (ὅτι εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ) in Psalm 136.

The Polyeleos is sung at Orthros (Matins) of a Feast Day and at Vigils. On Mount Athos and in some Slavic traditions, it is read every Sunday at Orthros On Mount Athos, it is considered one of the most joyful periods of Matins-Liturgy, and the highest point of Matins.

In Athonite practice, all the candles are lit, and the chandeliers are made to swing as the psalms are sung, it is also accompanied by a joyful peal of the bells and censing of the church, sometimes with a hand censer that has many bells. At vigils, it accompanies the opening of the Royal Doors and a great censing of the nave by the priests or deacons.

Because of its liturgical importance, beautiful settings for the Polyeleos have been composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff and other composers.

The Polyeleos also gives the name polyelaios (πολυελαιος) to the chandelier in many churches in the form of a very large circle with many candles and often adorned with icons of saints.

The polyelaios is suspended by a chain from the ceiling. During the chanting of the Polyeleos psalms, all the candles are lit, and it is pushed with a rod so that it turns back and forth during the singing to symbolise the presence of the angels and adding to the joy of the service. This custom is still a practice in the monasteries on Mount Athos and in many Orthodox monasteries.

The chandelier or ‘polyelaios’ (πολυελαιος) in front of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford is another new fitting in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 23 June 2024, Trinity IV):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Anglican support and advocacy for exiled people in Northern France.’ This theme is introduced today with a programme update by Bradon Muilenburg, Anglican Refugee Support Lead in Northern France, the Diocese in Europe, the Diocese of Canterbury and USPG:

They spent forty days in doing this, for that is the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him for seventy days. Genesis 50:3 (NRSV).

‘Grief is the price we pay for love.’ – Queen Elizabeth II

Jacob fled famine and died in exile. Egypt responds with something akin to a royal state funeral: 70 days of national mourning.

Let’s follow their example and hold space for lament this week in our prayers. As the Church, let’s grieve the continued suffering and deaths of refugees far and near home.

The day I’m writing this reflection marks seven days since I was at the burial of a little girl from Iraq named Roula, that’s one day for each year she lived. Her life was cut short because she was allowed no safe route to claim asylum in the UK.

Lament means facing harsh realities. It means refusing to use the luxury of power to distract ourselves. We must pass through grief, then we will find hope. The Kingdom of Heaven is waiting for all of us on the other side.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Sunday 23 June 2024, Trinity IV) invites us to pray:

Bless all who seek refuge on this earth.
Meet their needs for safety and home.
Move the hearts of your people to show them welcome.
Cause wars to cease and bring justice to the nations
so that no one will need to flee again. – Diocese of Salisbury.

The Collect:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal God,
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you have fed us at the table of life and hope:
teach us the ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Gracious Father,
by the obedience of Jesus
you brought salvation to our wayward world:
draw us into harmony with your will,
that we may find all things restored in him,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Collect on the Eve of Birth of John the Baptist:

Almighty God,
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist
was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour
by the preaching of repentance:
lead us to repent according to his preaching
and, after his example,
constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice,
and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Standing beneath the ‘polyelaios’ (πολυελαιος) or chandelier in front of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis (15 June 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.