Monday, February 25, 2013

Saint Tarasios, patriarch of Constantinople

Saint Tarasios, patriarch of Constantinople (784 - 806) is known in the Church history as the one who leaded the ecumenical synod which conducted to the re-establishment of the icons cult in the Byzantine Empire, being celebrated on 25 February. 

Tarasios as layman
The most important source about his life is the Life of Tarasios written by Ignatios, his deacon and secretary. Another source is the Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor and the life and the correspondence of Saint Theodore of Studion.
Tarasios was born in Constantinople around 730, being the son of the eparch Georgios and his wife Enkrateia. At the time when Constantine VI and his mother, Irene took the throne of the Byzantine Empire (780), Tarasios was a functionary in the bureaucratic apparatus (protasekretis) of the imperial court. Later he attained the rank of senator, and finally became imperial secretary (asekretis) to the Emperor Constantine VI the Porphyrogenetos.
The Eastern Empire was at the time influenced by the oriental iconoclastic doctrines, imposed by the Isaurian Dynasty, came from the regions at the borders with the new Islamic world. The iconoclastic fight was with no means easier than the one of the ancient Roman emperors against the Christians. The ikonodouloi (defenders of the icons) were beaten and even killed, and many churches were vandalized. The Church in Rome refused to remain in communion with the patriarch of Constantinople, who at that time was a partisan of the official politics. Only after the death of Leo IV (775/780) and the beginning of the reign of his minor son Constantine VI (780/797) under the regency of his mother, Irene, the situation of the icons started to change.
The latter iconoclastic patriarch Paulos IV repented for his former iconoclasm and resigned of his throne (31 August 784), living as a simple monk. In this situation, the empress called a local council at her palace of Magnaura and after consulting the former patriarch, the people and the noblemen, she decided to propose Tarasios for this position, who at the time was a simple layman. The Chronicle of Theophanes reproduces the discourse of Tarasios who refused, but anyway he let himself convinced.
Nevertheless, like all educated Byzantines, Tarasios was well versed in theology, and the election of qualified laymen as bishops was not the first in the history of the Church (similar cases being St. Ambrose and probably St. Nicholas of Myra). Tarasios accepted the function on condition that church unity would be restored with the other Patriarchates and Rome, and that it will be held a synod for the restoring of the icons. During the next days he was ordained deacon and then priest. The consecration as bishop and patriarch was held on the Christmas day in 784.
Icon of the seventh Ecumenical Council

The 7th Ecumenical Council
As patriarch, Tarasios persuaded Empress Irene to write to Pope Hadrian I, inviting him to send delegates to Constantinople for a new council, in order to repudiate the iconoclastic heresy. The answer came on 26 October 785. The pope argued that the election of a layman as patriarch was against the canons, but finally he accepted the situation, in order to reestablish the ecclesiastical communion. The Pope agreed to send delegates, and it was convened that the synod will be held in the Church of the Holy Apostles on August 17, 786. During the last preparatory reunion, on 31 July, in the absence of the patriarch some rebel soldier troops, faithful to the former iconoclastic emperor Constantine V, distorted the calm and insulted the bishops and monks chasing them away. Anyway the patriarch and the empress maintained their position to hold the council.  The situation repeated during the inaugural seating. Tarasios and the Abbot Plato of Sakkoudion (the mentor of St. Theodore of Stoudion) have held discourses, but they couldn’t go with the chaos created by the soldiers. Later, the mutinous troops were removed from the city: the empress motivated the danger of a Muslim attack and sent them in Asia Minor, bringing instead some favorable troops from Thracia, known as iconodules. The situation still did not make possible the synod, which was held only a year later, starting on 24 September 787 in the cathedral of St. Sophia from Nicaea, and not in the capital city. 
icon of the seventh Ecumenical Council
The synod is recognized as the 7th Ecumenical Council or as the Second Council of Nicaea. Even if called as usually by the emperor, no crowned head participated to the reunions. The Patriarch served as acting chairman of the 365 reunited bishops who condemned the iconoclasm and formally approved the veneration of icons.  The official closing of the reunion happened on 23 October in the Magnaura Palace, the residence of Irene. Tarasios and Irene accepted easily the re-integration of the formal iconoclastic bishops who repented and to all those who promised they will change their opinions. This clemency was strongly criticized by the monks from Stoudion, the strongest partisans during the iconoclastic disputes. In any case, the politics of the Patriarch made that in the next period there wasn’t any iconoclast resistance. 
Irene - Image from Pala d'Oro - Venice, 10th century
The latter years
Seven years later Tarasios involved in the controversy started by Constantine VI who divorced his wife, Maria of Amnia, accusing her of trying to poison him. Tarasios approved tacitly the situation and the constantinopolitan monks were scandalized by the patriarch's consent. Abbot Plato of Sakkoudion and his nephew Theodore the Studite were exiled because of their position, but the uproar continued. Much of the anger was directed at Tarasios for allowing the marriage of the emperor to Theodota, although he had refused to officiate himself. Only later, after Constantine VI lost his throne in favor of his mother (18 august 797), and under severe pressure from Theodore, Tarasios excommunicated Joseph, the priest who had conducted this illegitimated marriage.
The last years of his patriarchate were marked by a new usurpation. Nikephoros, a patrician from Seleucia, appointed finance minister by Irene, contrived to dethrone and exile Irene, with the help of the patricians and eunuchs. He was chosen as Emperor in her stead on 31 October 802, and Tarasios crowned him against the public opinion, doing later the same with Staurakios as co-emperor in 803.
Saint Theodore from Stoudion Monastery
Tarasios had had a weak personality, but he served the three imperial regimes of Constantine, Irene and Nikephoros with loyalty. Anyway, his reputation suffered from criticism of his alleged tolerance of the elected bishops through simony, although he published an official document condemning this practice. In spite of these weak organizational skills, Tarasios lived a very austere life and spent his money on God-pleasing ends, feeding and giving comfort to the aged, to the impoverished, and to widows and orphans. Every year on Easter, he set out a meal for them, that he served himself. He commanded the building of a monastery on the European shore of Bosporus Strait which later took his name. He died on 25 February 806 and was buried in his monastery.

The Veneration
Though some scholars have been critical of Tarasios’ weakness before imperial power, the patriarch was revered in the Eastern Orthodox Churches for his defense of the use of icons, and his struggle for the peace and unity of the Church. His feast day is celebrated on February 25 both in the Eastern and the Western Churches.

Troparion (hymn) of Saint Tarasios
You shone forth as a light of the Spirit, adorned with an exemplary life and clothed in hierarchical vesture. You stilled the turbulence of heresy and became a pillar and foundation of the Church, which praises your struggles, holy Father Tarasios!

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