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A new window towards the Kingdom of Heaven


The sermon of His Beatitude Daniel, Patriarch of Romania, delivered on the feast of Saints Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, the dedication day of the Church of Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest, Wednesday, 07 October 2015:

 

The consecration of the new iconostasis of the church of Cotroceni Palace, a representative monument for Romanian medieval culture, spirituality and civilization, represents a great, holy and blessed event, with a spiritual importance and a special gracious blessing.

 

A memorial of the history of salvation and a prophetic anticipated vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Orthodox iconostasis, also called the veil of the temple, isn’t a mere separating wall between the altar and the nave, or an ornamental or artistic element, but has a profound liturgical and theological meaning. The entire history of the salvation of the world is resumed on the iconostasis, which symbolizes the coming of the Kingdom of God to humans, so that humans enter the Kingdom of God.

 

The new iconostasis of the church of Cotroceni Palace was crafted in detail, being a faithful copy of the original iconostasis, which is now exhibited at the National Arts Museum of Romania, both regarding the stand and the ornamental wooden elements, and regarding the style of painting the icons. The multitude of ornaments and the beauty of the details crafted in this wooden lacework received through gilt a brightness of gladsome light, enclosing the existing icons, which have been also painted in the fashion of the old icons, in a majestic, mystic, solemn and prophetic frame.

 

As an image of Christ’s Church in the Kingdom of Heaven, the glistening iconostasis of the Church of Cotroceni Palace suggests that Christ stands simultaneously in the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, together with the Saints, and also humbly on Earth, together with the people who pray to Him. Therefore the iconostasis doesn’t represent a sign of separation, but of unity, a sign of communication between the altar and the nave, between Heaven and Earth, eternity and time, the Creator and creation. The iconostasis represents a spiritual view of the Kingdom of Heaven, foretasted by the faithful, as a guarantee, through the Holy Sacraments, and especially through the Holy Eucharist, which is being offered to the faithful amid the Royal Doors of the Holy Altar. In ancient times, the iconostasis was very little developed, sometimes presenting only two icons: of the Saviour and of the Theotokos. It developed especially after the victory of Orthodoxy on iconoclasm (843), reaching during the 14-16 centuries the unitary form and structure that we know today, with several rows of icons.

 

The unique act of the incarnation of the Son of God motivates and explains the unique peculiarity of Orthodox Christian iconography. In this respect, church painting is a liturgical visual expression of the confession of the faith of the Church in the incarnated Son of God, Who became flesh out of love of humans and for their salvation.

 

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In the light of the incarnation of the Word or Son of God, on which bears witness the New Testament, we can clearly and unequivocally understand that the interdiction of the Old Testament to represent God in a visual form (Exodus 20:4) had only a pedagogic role. It prepared the receiving of the unique event of the incarnation of the unique Son or Word of God, the receiving of Jesus Christ, the eternal Image or Icon of God, as the only possibility, within history and eternity, to perceive God the Father through Him. Thus, the face of God the Father cannot be seen but only through the human humble or glorified face of His incarnated Word or Son. That is why, when the disciples asked the Lord Jesus Christ to show them the Father, even though they well knew that man cannot see the face of God and live (Exodus 33:20), He didn’t tell them again that God cannot be seen, but that God the Father can be seen through the human face of His Son, Jesus Christ: “He who has sen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Thus, the primary function of the Orthodox iconography is to witness the Mystery of Christ’s incarnation. Therefore, against the charges of idolatry emitted by the iconoclasts against the venerators of icons, St John Damascene (†749) brought briefly the Orthodox reply: “I do not adore the material, but the One Who for my salvation has become material”, that is the Son of God Who has become Human. The 7th Ecumenical Council (787) mentioned that the veneration or the honouring of the holy icons is turned to the persons represented by them. In the similar way as the Symbol of Faith (the Creed) is a verbal confession of the Mystery of Christ’s incarnation for the salvation of humans, likewise Christ’s icon is a visible witnessing of the faith in Christ and has the same content as the verbally confessed faith. For this reason, the iconography of the Orthodox Church cannot be reduced to a simple artistic and ornamental act, but it firstly represents a way of witnessing the faith in Christ the God-Man and His spiritual communion with His Church. Therefore, an icon isn’t common art, but a sacred one, that is theological and liturgical, which signifies the encounter of man with the Holy God and His Saints. In other words, the icon is a sacred symbol of prayer and loving communion between man and God. The icons remind to the praying Church that Christ is present in her midst (Matthew 8:20, 18:20). The gracious presence of the praying saints represented on the icons help the faithful to intensify their spiritual life, and increase their love and joy. The icons are venerated as visible spiritual windows towards the gracious unseen presence of Christ and His saints. In this regard, the icon of Christ turns us towards Christ, it reminds us that Christ is present in front of us, is looking for us right here and right now, and sets us in a gracious relation with Him. That is why, the most appropriate attitude of man in front of the icon is the utterance of prayer with much faith and love towards the holy person represented on it. If they are exhibited in a museum, the icons call us to an esthetical examination or to artistic admiration. But when they are placed in the Church, i.e. in the context of liturgical celebration and of witnessing the faith that produced them, the icons call the man to prayer! In a museum, the icon reminds us of the artist that created it; in the Church it firstly reminds us of the spiritual presence of the Saint represented on it, and especially it confirms the loving and sanctifying presence of Christ the Lord, Who promised the ones who believe in Him: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

 

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This Church of Cotroceni palace is now a new church, a revived church, entirely rebuilt on the old foundation and entirely keeping the form of the initial church, following the efforts of the regretted architect Nicolae Vlădescu and of his collaborators, and also through the care of the Presidential Administration and of Cantacuzino Foundation. Just like her spiritual protectors, Holy Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus whom we today celebrate, the church of Cotroceni Palace has known many painful and damaging trials over time. A foundation of the pious and erudite prince Şerban Cantacuzino, Ruler Prince of Wallachia, the old church, built from 1678 to 1682, faced the hardships of the times until 1947, when, once with the installation of the atheistic communist dictatorship, the Church of Cotroceni Palace was definitively closed for liturgical service. Untended and abandoned for 30 years, the church was severely damaged in the earthquake of 1977. The tragic moment arrived in 1984, when the church was “killed” by demolishment and laid “dead” for almost 20 years (1984-2003), until when her partial rebuilding began during the presidency of Mr Ion Iliescu. Thus, through the prayers of the Theotokos and of the Holy Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, who through their strong faith in the crucified and risen Christ have become good victorious martyrs, the Church of Cotroceni palace revived, being rebuilt from her foundations.

 

From 2008 to 2009, in the time of President Traian Băsescu, the entire reconstruction of this church was completed and was equipped with all the necessary objects for services, in order to be commemorated here “the blessed and ever-memorable founders”, but also to celebrate the Divine Services as an answer to the spiritual requests of the personnel working in the Presidential Administration, as well as of the faithful from the surroundings.

 

In the day of her re-consecration, that we personally officiated on 11 October 2009, this church, dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos and to Holy Martyrs Sergius an Bacchus, received as a gift at our request and through the kindness of His Eminence Metropolitan Irineu of Oltenia two fragments of the relics of the two martyrs, which were brought from the Metropolitan Cathedral in Craiova, while the Romanian Patriarchate offered to the new church the reliquary where the two fragments of the relics of these holy martyrs are kept.

 

Today, on the feast of the Holy Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, when we officiated at the consecration service of the new iconostasis, in the presence of Mr Klaus Werner Johannis, the President of Romania, we remember with reverence the founders of the old monastery of Cotroceni: ruler princes, hierarchs, priests and faithful confessors of the true faith, but also the founders, the benefactors and the worshipers of the new church, enlightened by faith and piety, generosity and love of the nation, for the glory of God and the well-being of the Romanian people.

 

†Daniel

Patriarch of Romania

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