(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Michael of Synada, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saint Michael of Synada
The controversy over the display of icons in the Christian Church was so deep-rooted that it remained a burning issue for more than one hundred fifty years, fed by flaming passions on both sides, not only among princes and peasants, but among prelates as well. Despite the concerted efforts of well-meaning but misled iconoclasts, the sacred icons of Orthodoxy remained intact, thanks in no small measure to the courage and integrity of men such as St. Michael the Confessor, bishop of Synada. His determination in the face of overwhelming odds is one of the principal reasons why venerated icons adorn the Greek Orthodox Church today and will continue to augment the Liturgy in the worship of Jesus Christ.
The resolute Michael was a product of the turbulent eighth century whose lifespan well into the ninth century exemplified that era’s religious firebrands largely responsible for Christian comfort as it is known today. In sacrificing themselves for Christ, men such as Michael dedicated their lives to the Church, which is considerably more than the Christian is asked to give in this era of religious freedom. From the outset, Michael evinced a total commitment to the Savior and while still a young man was made bishop of Synada in Asia Minor after brilliant service as a priest and defender of the traditional faith.
The title “Confessor” was applied to him in recognition of his great work not only in theology but also in his stubborn defense of the icons with no regard for his personal
welfare. It is one thing for a bishop to stand up to another in a dogmatic debate, but it is quite another thing to argue the point with so formidable an opponent as the emperor himself. A man of less determination than Michael, faced with the awesome opposition of a king, could have used the escape valve of compromise or even yielded to superior force, and not been derelict in his duty to God, because of a sovereign duty. The intrepid bishop knew only one duty, however, and that was to the Savior; nothing else mattered, not even the king’s will, so long as it conflicted with what he saw to be the will of God. In the eyes of the king’s ministers this action may have seemed foolhardy, but in the eyes of the Christian community it demonstrated the kind of courage which made them proud.
The emperor at that time was Leo the Armenian, who had become such an avid iconoclast that he sought to impose his will on the religious scene by ordering the destruction of all icons, and furthermore threatening to punish any who did not comply. Michael’s first move was to request an audience with the willful Leo in the hope of convincing him that removing the icons would have long-range consequences so grievous as to undermine the dogmatic concepts that were the very fiber of Christianity. At the meeting between these two, Leo argued that the Church had been transformed into a museum and that the presence of icons was tantamount to idolatry.
The emperor could not have been anything but greatly impressed by the eloquence of the bishop who dared to disagree with him and who proceeded to outline the meaning of the icons which dated back to the first painted by St. Luke, the “Glorious Physician.” Michael contended that icons were there to be venerated, not adored, and that the worship of Jesus Christ was held in the presence of His image, which could hardly be called idolatry. He went on to point out that the Church itself was the handiwork of many men, primarily the saints whose portraits were as much a part of the Church as they themselves were. He then stressed, in an eloquence lost to us for lack of record, the philosophy and dogma applicable to the subject, for which the emperor had no rebuttal except to say that he was the emperor and there would be no further discussion.
The confused emperor withdrew with the demand that Michael conform to his edict or face whatever punishment he deemed necessary, and in due course Leo found it necessary to rid himself of the bishop or suffer embarrassment. As a result, Michael was exiled. The dauntless bishop was consigned to a bleak region whose desolation he endured for fifty years, and where he died in isolation on May 23, 860. His holy remains are entombed at Hagia Lavra, the oldest monastery on Mt. Athos.