Saint of the Day: Transfer of the Icon of Christ from Edessa

(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 The Transfer of the Icon of Christ, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)

The Transfer of the Icon of Christ from Edessa

The many well-intentioned Crusaders that trekked across Europe centuries ago are remembered as hapless Christians whose missions were never fulfilled, but there are few items not taken by them in their capacity as souvenir hunters who made off with priceless treasures of the early Church, the most priceless of which was the miraculous linen icon of Jesus Christ. The commemoration of the taking of this treasured fragment of cloth is commemorated on August 16 each year, the anniversary date of but one of the many miracles ascribed to a scrap sanctified by the Savior, transferred by a Christian emperor who could not have foreseen that what he meant to preserve for all time would be snatched as a memento of the Crusades.

The holy icon came about as the result of an ailing king’s wish to be healed from the dreaded disease of leprosy. The king’s name was Abgar, who ruled over Edessa, an ancient city founded by Seleucius I in the third century B.C. and the reputed birthplace of Abraham. This Abgar came into power when the Messiah was spreading His word in the far-off regions of Jerusalem, but the distance was too great for the king to travel to be healed at the hands of the Man of Nazareth.

According to the great church historian Eusebios, the king sent a message to the Savior, pleading for help to be cured somehow, knowing that the only hope for him lay in a miracle. He selected as the bearer of this note a man called Ananias, an artist of some repute, hoping that he might return with a sketch of Jesus, so that at least he could gaze upon the likeness of the Son of God. He urged Ananias to lose no time in reaching the Savior, hoping He could be induced to come to Edessa before death reached the stricken monarch.

Ananias arrived in Jerusalem in time to hear Jesus preaching to the multitudes on the Mount of Olives, after which he went to one of the apostles, who led him to the Messiah. With so much to be done, it was impossible for Jesus to leave the many so sorely in need for the sake of one man, king or otherwise. The Savior promised to send Thaddeus (St. Jude) in His stead as soon as that great apostle could complete his own mission, and at this point Ananias said that it was urgent he return without further delay and that he would be grateful if he could bring back with him a portrait of Jesus. Whether to save the hours required to sketch a reasonable image or to spare the now thoroughly awestruck Ananias in the presence of the Master, or both, Jesus picked up a piece of linen cloth which He applied to his face and then handed it to Ananias, who looked on the fabric in disbelief to see the image of Jesus as though woven thereon.

Ananias went back to Edessa with all speed, and with the solemnity he had found in the company of the Savior, he handed the wonderful linen cloth to the king, who looked upon the holy likeness with a heart filled with wonder and awe, which gave way to solemn gratitude when his body was cleansed of the vile disease. His forehead still bore traces of the disease, however, remaining there until the arrival of Thaddeus, who arrived as Jesus had promised and placed his hand on the still-diseased brow. When the apostle’s hand was withdrawn, there was no trace of the disease left.

Thereafter, the holy linen icon of Jesus Christ was kept in a tiny chapel to serve as a shrine to which Christian pilgrims were drawn for centuries until it was brought to Constantinople on August 16, 951 to work its miraculous power on the ailing Emperor Romanos of the Byzantine Empire. Thereafter, the holy icon was kept in the city to be venerated by countless Christians, together with a note that Jesus had written that had been borne to the king of Edessa centuries before.

This most precious fragment was as powerful a force as the might of arms of the Byzantine Empire in preventing the Saracen hordes from invading from the East. However, during the Fourth Crusade of 1204, which sacked the city of Constantinople, the holy icon vanished with undisciplined crusaders, together with the note which Thaddeus had carried. A little more than two centuries later the Ottoman Turks overran what was left of the Byzantine Empire. The whereabouts of the linen cloth and
note are known only to God.

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