During his general audience on April 29, Pope Benedict XVI continued his teachings on the great medieval writers of the Church from the East and the West. He offered his reflections on St. Germanus, a little-known figure who was patriarch of Constantinople during the eighth century.
Germanus played an important role in defending the use of sacred images during the iconoclastic crisis of his day, suffering exile for his opposition to the emperor, who considered reverence for these images a form of idolatry. His writings, steeped in an ardent love for the Church and devotion to the Mother of God, had wide influence both in the East and in the West. More recently, Pope Pius XII included one of his texts in the apostolic constitution proclaiming Mary’s assumption into heaven a dogma of the Church.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople, of whom I would like to speak today, is not considered to be one of the more famous figures of the Greek-speaking Eastern Christian world, yet during the seventh ecumenical council — the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 — his name was solemnly listed among the foremost defenders of the use of sacred images. The Greek Church celebrates his feast day on May 12.
Germanus played an important role in the complex history of the battle over the use of images during the so-called “iconoclastic crisis” and valiantly resisted pressure from Emperor Leo III, who opposed the use of icons.
In Defense of Icons
During Germanus’ patriarchate (715-730), Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was dangerously under siege by Saracen armies. During that time (717-718), a solemn procession was organized in the city in which an image of the Mother of God — the Theotokos — and a relic of the holy cross were carried, and God’s protection upon the city was invoked. As a result, the siege was lifted.
The invaders decided once and for all to refrain from any attempt to establish their capital in that city, which was a symbol for the Christian empire, and the people were extremely grateful for God’s help.
As a result of this event, Patriarch Germanus was convinced that God’s intervention was to be interpreted as clear approval of the people’s devotion for holy icons. Leo III, on the other hand, who assumed the throne in the year 717 as the undisputed emperor of Constantinople and reigned until 741, felt otherwise.
After the liberation of Constantinople and several other victories, the Christian emperor began ever more openly to show his conviction that the consolidation of empire had to begin by reorganizing expressions of the faith, with particular reference to idolatry, a risk to which, in his view, people were exposed because of their excessive veneration of icons.
Patriarch Germanus’ appeals to Church tradition and to the demonstrated effectiveness of certain images that were unanimously recognized as “miraculous” were to no avail.
The emperor became even more intractable in implementing his plan for reform, which included the elimination of icons. When the emperor openly took a stand against the veneration of images during a public gathering on Jan. 7, 730, Germanus would not yield to the emperor in any way on an issue he considered vital to the orthodoxy of faith, which, in his opinion, included the veneration of and love for holy images.
Consequently, Germanus was obliged to resign as patriarch, thereby condemning himself to exile in a monastery where he died in relative obscurity.
Nevertheless, his name re-emerged during the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, when the council fathers, who were devoted to the orthodoxy of the faith, made a decision in favor of the use of icons and recognized Germanus’ merits.
Ardent Love for Mary
Patriarch Germanus took a special concern for any liturgical celebration, and, for a time, some people even considered him to be the author of the Akatisthos, an ancient and famous hymn dedicated to the Theotokos, the Mother of God, which was developed in the Byzantine Church.
Even though Germanus cannot be described as a great thinker from a theological point of view, some of his works did cause a certain sensation, especially some of his insights on Mariology. Indeed, several of his homilies with Marian themes have survived, some of which have had a profound effect on the piety of entire generations of faithful both in the East and in the West.
His splendid Homilies on the Presentation of Mary in the Temple remains a vivid testimony to an unwritten tradition of the Christian Churches. Generations of monks and nuns, as well as members of numerous institutes for the consecrated life, continue even today to discover priceless treasures of spirituality in these texts.
Some of Germanus’ writings on Mary — SS. Deiparae Dormitionem — that are part of the homilies he delivered on the feast of the Dormition, which corresponds to our feast of the Assumption, still inspire awe even today, including a passage that Pope Pius XII chose and set like a pearl in his apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus (1950), in which he declared the assumption of Mary as a dogma of the faith.
Pope Pius XII cited this text as one of the arguments in favor of the Church’s ongoing faith in Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven.
As Germanus wrote: “O most holy Mother of God, could it ever happen that heaven and earth would feel honored by your presence, and that you, by leaving, would leave men deprived of your protection? No. It is impossible to think this. Indeed, just as you did not feel estranged from the realities of heaven while you were on earth, so too, even after departing from this world, you did not estrange yourself from the possibility of communicating spiritually to men. ... You have not abandoned those whose salvation you have guaranteed. … Indeed, your spirit lives eternally, just as your flesh was not corrupted in the tomb.
“You, O Mother, are near to everyone, and protect everyone, and even though our eyes are prevented from seeing you, we know, nonetheless, O most holy one, that you live in our midst and are present in our lives in the most diverse ways. ... You are she who, as it is written, appears in beauty, and your virginal body is all holy, all chaste, entirely the dwelling place of God, so that it is henceforth completely exempt from dissolution into dust. Though still human, it is changed into the heavenly life of incorruptibility, truly living and glorious, undamaged and sharing in perfect life. Indeed, it was impossible for her to remain enclosed within the tomb of the dead, who was the vessel of God and the living temple of the most holy divinity of the only begotten Son. Moreover, we believe with certainty that you continue to walk with us” (PG 98, coll. 344B-346B, passim).
It has been said that the discipline of rhetorical form in preaching is, for the Byzantine people, as important to the celebration of the liturgy — and even more so in the hymns or poems they call troparions — as the beauty of the sacred building in which the celebration takes place.
Patriarch Germanus is recognized within their tradition as one of those who most contributed to keeping alive the conviction that the beauty of the words and the language have to correspond to the beauty of the building and the music.
Love for the Church
I will cite, in closing, the inspired words at the beginning of one of his small masterpieces with which Germanus describes the Church: “The Church is the temple of God, a sacred space, a house of prayer, where the people, body of Christ, are called together. ... It is heaven on earth, where the transcendent God dwells and walks as though he were in his own home, but it is also the mark (antitypos) of what he has accomplished and fulfilled through the crucifixion, the tomb and the resurrection. ... The Church is the house of God where the life-giving mystical sacrifice is celebrated, which is also the most intimate part of the sanctuary and a holy grotto. Indeed, the tomb and the table, food for the soul and the guarantee of life, are found there. Therein are found, at last, those truly precious pearls that are the divine dogmas of the teaching that the Lord directly offered to his disciples” (PG 98, coll. 384B-385A).
Lessons for Today
Yet, the question remains: What does this saint, who chronologically and even culturally is so distant from us, have to say to us today? In essence, I can think of three things.
First of all, God has a certain visibility in the world and in the Church that we have to learn to perceive. God created man in his image, but this image has been so covered by the filth of sin that it is as though God can no longer shine through. Therefore, the Son of God truly became man, a perfect image of God.
In this way, we can contemplate God’s face in Christ and learn to be true men and women ourselves, true images of God. Christ invites us to imitate him, to become like him, so that the face of God, the image of God, may shine through once again.
It is true that God did forbid graven images of himself in the Ten Commandments, but this was because believers, within the context of paganism, would be exposed to the temptation of idolatry. But when God became visible in Christ through the incarnation, it became lawful to reproduce the face of Christ.
Sacred images teach us to see God in any depiction of the face of Christ. After the incarnation of the Son of God, it then became possible to see God in images of Christ and even in the face of his saints and in the faces of all men in whom God’s holiness shines forth.
Secondly, Germanus shows us the beauty and dignity of the liturgy. Christians who have been formed in the faith have a commitment to celebrate the liturgy with an awareness of God’s presence and with a beauty and dignity that will enable them to catch a glimpse of God’s splendor in it.
Thirdly, Germanus teaches us love for the Church. In our relationship with the Church, we human beings are inclined to see, above all, its sins, to see the negative things.
Yet with the help of faith, which enables us to see things in a more authentic way, we too, today and always, can rediscover God’s beauty in the Church. God is present in the Church, offers himself to us in the holy Eucharist, and remains present there for adoration. In the Church, God speaks to us; in the Church, God “walks with us,” as St. Germanus said. In the Church, we receive God’s forgiveness and he teaches us to forgive.
Let us pray that God may teach us to see his presence and his beauty in the Church and his presence in the world — and help us to be transparent in his light.