The Start of Bright Week
'Bright' and 'Monday' are two words we don't often think about using together in our age, when Mondays mark the weekly return to work for many of us. Especially for us Orthodox in countries that don't have a majority Orthodox population, we feel this more sharply at this time: this day is not usually a holiday as our Pascha is normally on a different weekend from the western Easter.
However, this year we might find ourselves working at home and therefore not burdened with the usual journey to work or we may be in other circumstances concerning work which are more uncertain. Either way, it may give us the opportunity to take a look at a story that we associate with Bright Monday, when the Church commemorates the Sweet-Kissing (Glykophilousa) Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos.
This story is understood to have taken place in the reign of the iconoclastic Emperor Theophilos (829-842): a nobleman named Simeon was also an iconoclast and therefore shared the emperor's hatred of icons, but his wife Victoria, on the other hand, venerated them, especially a certain icon of the Mother of God before which she prayed each day. Simeon could not tolerate his wife’s piety, so he demanded that she give him the icon so he could burn it. Victoria threw the icon into the sea, hoping that it would be preserved through God’s providence. It floated away from her, standing upright on the waves.
Years later, the icon appeared on the shores of Mt. Athos near the monastery of Philotheou; the monks had received a revelation of its arrival from the Theotokos. The igumen and the brethren of the monastery retrieved the icon and placed it in the church, where it worked many miracles. Every Bright Monday, there is a procession and blessing of water in commemoration.
The icon is one of the Eleusa (Tenderness) type. It is unusual in that it shows the Virgin kissing her Child. Christ raises His hand as if to repulse His mother’s caress.
Victoria's desire to save the icon reminded me of an old man I met at St. George's cathedral in Beirut some years ago. I believe he was looking after a precious icon of the Theotokos - I remember how tears came came to his eyes as he showed me fire marks on the icon that he had had occurred during wartime. It seemed like the incident was just as real to him as if it had happened very recently. The violent damage to an icon is a matter of deep-felt injury to the Orthodox. Nevertheless, the fact that the icon was not destroyed - it survived otherwise in tact - can be seen as a miracle in itself.
In the case of the Glykophilousa icon of Bright Monday, protection from fire came from the power of the moving waves that carried it, just as Victoria had hoped - and the icon also escaped serious water damage, which is miraculous as well. Maybe it's appropriate that in Bright Week we can view the veneration of icons with more clarity: during this week, the central doors of the iconstasis stay open. This unblocked view of the altar symbolises the open door of Christ's empty tomb as well as the rent veil of the Jewish Temple, which was torn apart at the moment Christ dies.
Furthermore, there is no fasting at all during Bright Week. So we can look forward without our customary Monday sluggishness to a week that brings us the joy of the resurrection.