May 9, 2011 Length: 10:59
Guest homilist Abbot Gerasim explains the life and icon of St. Laurence the Archdeacon. (Learn more about one of these icons.)
Before us here, we have icon image called the image of the martyr, Archdeacon Laurence. An icon is a type of figurative art. Figurative art depicts figures. These figures represent persons. This is very different from photography, which tries to capture what is apparent to the naked eye, or the type of art we call realism, which tries to portray life as it appears to us, to reproduce our known experience. Iconography, as figurative art, uses a series of figures or forms on various surfaces or media. For example, walls, tile, glass, sacred vessels, wood, or little panel icons, such as this one. It’s a form of art that uses a language of signs.
We have here an icon depicting the figure of the archdeacon and martyr, Laurence. St. Laurence served as an archdeacon in the Church of Rome beginning approximately in the year 257 (that is the middle of the third century), and he lived about 1,700 years ago. A long time ago. The rulers of the Roman Empire at that time were called emperors. The emperor at that time was the Emperor Valerian.
They were pagans. That is, they were not Christians. They did not believe in God as we know God. They did not believe in Jesus Christ. Instead, they worshiped idols. Idols are things that represent creatures or beings, mythical beings, they honor as divinities or gods. The pagan Roman emperors were threatened by Christians because Christians did not believe in their idols, did not worship their gods.
Valerian feared the unarmed Christians because they would not accept his authority over their lives or his authority over their religious views or their worship. The Christians would tell the Emperor Valerian that he was wrong, that he was deluded, that he was foolish for worshiping created things as idols or gods. The Christians would even go as far at times to destroy these idols.
Emperor Valerian seized St. Laurence’s bishop, the bishop of Rome or Pope Sixtus, and threw him into prison. On the way, he told Laurence, who cried out to him, “You cannot go without your archdeacon!”
He said, “You too, there will soon come a time when you will suffer for Jesus Christ.” Soon after that, Pope Sixtus and his two deacons were beheaded in prison.
The icon tells us about St. Laurence. It shows the figure of a man. This figure is dressed as a deacon. The long orarion over the shoulder of St. Laurence tells us that he is a deacon. The term “deacon” comes from a Greek word that means “servant” or “minister.” Deacons are depicted in iconography by means of certain signs that we call attributes. For example, the most common of these for a deacon is a censor because one of the main tasks of a deacon, as you saw this evening, is they cense in church. There are other examples of attributes, for other saints. For example, those of you who have served in the altar or have a good birds eye view of the altar know that we have in the altar certain frescoes that have the attributes. For example, Abraham holds a ram. Abel holds a sheep. And Noah, a dove. Over there we have St. Catherine holding a wheel.
These attributes tell us who these saints were and also what they did, what was significant about their life, or, in St. Catherine’s case, how they died. They help us identify who these saints are in the icons. In this icon, St. Laurence is holding a grill. Now, St. Laurence, in his life, probably never held a grill. But the reason we have that there is it tells us that it is St. Laurence, and it tells us about St. Laurence. We learn about this from the story or life of St. Laurence. When he was taken to prison, he healed a man from blindness, and he baptized that man. St. Laurence refused to deny Christ, and he instructed the Emperor Valerian to abandon worshiping the false gods. The emperor became enraged, and he ordered St. Laurence to be beaten with stones and whipped. A guard who witnessed this saw St. Laurence’s strong and steadfast character. He saw that he would not renounce Jesus Christ. This guard came to believe in Jesus Christ, and because he believed, the emperor ordered him to be put to death.
The archdeacon Laurence was placed upon this grill. It was a large grill. Underneath it, a large fire. A hot fire was kindled. It became extremely hot, and St. Laurence was roasted. What is known about St. Laurence is that he said to his persecutors, “I am done on this side. Turn me over that my other side also might be cooked.” That is, he endured his martyrdom willingly. He saw that he was suffering for Christ. He would not renounce God in whom he believed. So this is the account of St. Laurence’s confession that is represented or depicted in the icon.
Knowing this, if you go to another country, and say you see an icon, and the icon has another alphabet that you cannot possibly read, you will know by the way he is dressed and by the attributes in the icon, you will know that it’s St. Laurence. And you’ll go tell everybody. You’ll tell all these foreign tourists and you’ll explain to them, “that’s St. Laurence.”
They’ll say, “Can you read Babylonian?”
“No. I can read iconography.”
St. Laurence, the martyr archdeacon also has what we call a halo or nimbus, and this halo or nimbus is an attribute of glory or sanctity. It’s a figure of the crown of glory that Jesus Christ gives to his martyrs and saints. It is God who gives this glory or power or grace to mankind. Human beings, for this reason, are spoken of as shining with glory or with light.
This is something that happens not only to saints, but God sends his grace upon us too. Even in this life we can share in the glory of God. The saints have been given this glory by God to rule together with him in his kingdom. We gather in church to experience the grace of God, to experience, even now, this power of the kingdom in our own lives. And so when we see the icons, these are not only objects that depict saints. They also depict us. That is who we are and who we are to become.
And so when you see the halo in an icon that reflects the glory of God, know that this is God’s will for you also in your life. We have the example of St. Laurence who expressed his faith in God, who suffered 1700 years ago, who was ready and willing to offer his life for Jesus Christ. And though some of us might be young, we should prepare ourselves in whatever way to offer our life to God. That means to commit our life to God, to make a commitment, and we learn that in daily life by making small commitments and by remaining faithful to those commitments that we do make. In this way we learn to be faithful to God, that we belong to him, that he loves us. And know that whatever happens in our life, if we serve him, we also, like the saints, will be crowned with glory. Amen.