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Devotion and an Old Icon

by Fr. John Oliver

Have you heard the story about the Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God? This icon measures 34 inches by 43 inches, and is named for a village in northwestern Russia that is its current home. It has been a source of great veneration and comfort to the Russian people, especially during times of great suffering.

According to Orthodox Christian tradition, the icon was painted by the Apostle and Evangelist Luke—as in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and after its completion it stayed in Jerusalem for five hundred years. In the sixth century, the icon was taken to Constantinople, where it became a reassuring sign of the tenderness of the Mother of God for the inhabitants of that city.

The icon made its way north to the land of Russia. In 1383, fisherman on the northern Russian Lake Ladoga witnessed the icon hovering above the waters. It appeared in various locations, and eventually came to rest near the Tikhvin River where, in 1560, the Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible ordered that a monastery be built specifically to house the icon—a monastery dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God, the feast celebrated on August 15th.

Over the course of the centuries, the Tikhvin Monastery became the site of pilgrimage to which all kinds of people came to pray, and where countless miracles occurred as the Theotokos interceded for her children.

Then, in 1917, tragedy struck the Russian people. Churches and monasteries were destroyed, millions of Orthodox Christians were killed, and a cold, dark cloud of hostility toward the things of God spread over the Russian land. The Revolution of 1917 brought brutal changes to the Russian Church, and the Tikhvin Monastery was shut down in 1924.

Conscious of the extraordinary treasure in their midst, some Russian Orthodox people confiscated the icon. After its escape from the monastery, the icon was taken to Latvia and Poland and Czechoslovakia and Germany. This treasure came to be cared for by a bishop whose name was John.

Bishop John eventually traveled to America, and resided in New York City. When he was elected Archbishop of Chicago and Minneapolis of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America in 1949, Bishop John brought the icon with him and placed it in Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago.

Before he died in 1982, Bishop John entrusted the care of this wonderworking icon to his adopted son, the priest Serge, with this instruction: when the dark cloud of secularism and indifference toward God lifts over Russia, take the icon back to the land where it belongs. Like the prophet Moses of old, Bishop John did not live to see his precious possession reach its Promised Land.

The Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God made one last tour through the United States before its historic departure for the re-opened Tikhvin Monastery in northwestern Russia. On that tour, the icon was even brought to St Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania when I was a seminarian there not too long ago.

When the icon finally arrived in Russia, the event was unlike anything the land had seen for decades. President Putin and leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church arranged the celebrations. The icon was taken with processions to visit churches and monasteries throughout Russia. In Moscow, the icon stood for days in the huge Cathedral of Christ the Savior—the church that Joseph Stalin had destroyed (installing a swimming pool in its place) and Boris Yeltsin had restored. In St Petersburg, 150,000 people showed up to welcome the icon. All over Russia, as in centuries passed, many miracles occurred for those who venerated the icon “in the fear of God, with faith and love.”

The day arrived when the icon arrived by train at the end of its journey at the Dormition Monastery in Tikhvin. Hundreds of tents were set up to provide shelter for overnight services. More than 1500 police were on hand to ensure security for dignitaries and important guests.

Now, listen to this: as its journey came to an end, a line of pilgrims formed to venerate the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God – a line that was four miles long and took three days to go through. Did you catch that? Christians coming to venerate this precious icon formed a line that was four miles long and took three days to get through!

Take a moment to imagine four miles, in any direction, from where you are right now. Now, imagine a line of people winding its way along the route you’ve just drawn in your mind; they are children and men and women – all ages and shapes and conditions – shuffling along for three days. And finally, imagine this: what – or whom – would you wait in line four miles and three days to see? A celebrity? A sporting event? A book release? A rock concert? A miracle-working icon? We must ask ourselves: What is worth four miles on our feet and three days of our time?

In too many places of our fallen world we do not know how to venerate the holy. Take America, for example: some of what we venerate, God finds detestable; some of what we ignore, God finds precious. So, we who are both American and Christian will, automatically, be in conflict with our culture when it comes to what is worth our deepest devotion. And that’s okay: we expect it, we accept it, and we strive to live in such a way as to make our Christian faith attractive to others.

Is your faith worth four miles on your feet and three days of your life? Do you take the really important things for granted? I do, from time to time. But, to take for granted, is to miss the granted. To take for granted means that we miss the really good things God has given to us—His Church, His liturgy, His Body and His Blood, His bible, His grace, His forgiveness, His creation, His children, and, if we are not careful, His heaven.

May each of us strive to value the really important things more and more as the days and months and years pass. That is my prayer for me; that is my prayer for you, too.