March: Translation of the Relics of St. Nicephorus

Nikephoros I of Constantinople tramples on John VII of Constantinople, who is laying on the ground with coins. Miniature from the "Chludov Psalter." Photo: Public Domain

This month’s saint with a funny name is not “Nice 4 Us” like some ancient precursor of Toys R Us. Think hard “k” sound. Something like: Ni-ki-for-os. That’s more like it.

Nicephorus (feast day March 13) spent most of his life close to the throne, during a time when political change was the only constant. He was born in 758 in Constantinople to a nobleman who served as secretary to the Byzantine emperor.

Unfortunately, this emperor, Constantine V, was an iconoclast — an adherent of the heresy that said using holy images in prayer was a form of idol worship. Icon smasher for short. But Nicephorus’s dad was an iconophile — an icon lover — and he stood up to his boss, the emperor. Emperors don’t like that so Constantine V fired Nicephorus’ dad and scourged him and banished him. No wonder people called Constantine V Copronymus (Greek for Poopy-name). All this made Nicephorus look on his dad as a hero.

It wasn’t long before another emperor, Leo V, succeeded his pa. He was an iconoclast, too but at least he only reigned for five years. After him came his son, Constantine VI. He was only 10 years old so his mom, Irene, ruled for him. Irene, whose name means peace, was an iconophile. Her husband Leo had persecuted her for it during their marriage and now that he was out of the way she reversed all his anti-icon policies.

Enter Nicephorus. Empress Irene took notice of Nicephorus, well educated, holy, icon lover that he was. She gave him his dad’s former job, secretary to the emperor. She also sent him as one of her representatives to the Second Council of Nicaea, the subject of which was — you guessed it — icons.

Nicephorus soon became more interested in the Church than in politics so he founded a monastery by the Black Sea where he figured he would live out his days. Nope. The patriarch of Constantinople died and they needed a new one. Nicephorus was it. There was some opposition among the clergy at his elevation to the patriarchy. After all, he wasn’t even a priest. He had to be ordained to the priesthood and consecrated bishop and elevated to the patriarchy in a hop, skip, and a jump.

Soon there was a new emperor too, Nicephorus. Different guy. Same name. The name Nicephorus must have been trendy in the ninth century. Anyway, Emperor Nicephorus was an iconoclast, too. He soon died in a battle and his son succeeded him. He was soon deposed and his brother-in-law, Michael was elevated to the throne. St. Nicephorus crowned him. By now, everybody was happy to accept his authority as patriarch. Michael was well intentioned but kind of wishy-washy. He didn’t last. And the next emperor was, oh dread, another iconoclast.

Emperor Leo the Armenian was determined to bend Nicephorus to his will. But Nicephorus remembered the example his father had given long long ago. He refused and turned to prayer. He spent a long night trying to persuade the emperor in vain to take his position. The iconoclast bishops likewise tried to summon Nicephorus to a meeting at the palace. He pulled rank and said he would only obey a fellow patriarch. They ceremoniously deposed him from his patriarchate. They surrounded his house and yelled insults at him.

After a couple of futile attempts on his life, the emperor banished Nicephorus and put an illiterate iconoclast (aka puppet) in his place. The emperor Leo was later killed and the next emperor was not as bad, though when Nicephorus wrote and demanded the restoration of icons, he did not listen. Status quo was his motto. He said Nicephorus would be welcome to come back but only on the condition that he be silent about the whole thing. Nicephorus refused. He wrote extensively about the veneration of images until the day he died, still in exile, in 829.

His triumph was not long in coming. The year 849 saw the restoration of the icons. There continued to be dissenters, of course, but never again did they have the support of the throne. Around the same time, the reigning Emperor Michael and his mother, Empress Theodora, commanded that the bones of the stalwart Nicephorus be brought back to Constantinople at last and enshrined in the Church of the Apostles.

And that, my friends, is what this feast day is all about. St. Nicephorus’s feast day is in June but we also celebrate the day his relics were translated for public veneration. Easterners do love their relics,  just as much as they love their holy icons. It’s all part of celebrating the Incarnation of Our Lord, who divine, took on human nature. And that’s pretty nice for us.


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