Theodore the Branded: Remembering Incarnation on the Third Day of Christmas

This third day of Christmas includes the feast of Saint Theodore the Branded. He and his brother Theophanes had twelve lines of iambic verse burned onto their foreheads with hot irons before being exiled for the second time in their lives as a result of having opposed their second emperor. This ordeal in 836 at the hands of Emporer Theophilos took two days. Theophilos expressly requested that the verse be badly composed but technically correct, and the lines identified them as “wicked vessels of superstitious delusion” who had done “many woeful, shameful and ungodly-minded things” despite being from the holy city of Jerusalem. While traveling in exile with these scars upon their faces, they were thrown into prison in 841 at the town of Apamea (Bithynia), where Theodore died in prison from complications due to his tortures years before.

With Theodore having earned the title “Confessor,” both brothers are also called “Graptus” (or “the Branded”). They were both born in Palestine and received the highest levels of formal education in the most distinguished monasteries where they both became monks and priests. With attacks upon icons taking place for the second time in church history, Patriarch Thomas of Jerusalem sent the brothers to Emperor Leo the Armenian as his best possible representatives for justifying and defending icon veneration.

Saint Theodore the Branded, with his defense of icons and his mutilated face, provides a wonderful opportunity, on the third day celebrating God’s birth, to meditate on the incarnation. Made in the image (or icon) of God, we never see this image fully until the birth of Jesus Christ who shows the icon of God to the world for the first time. With this baby, we finally see both God and humanity, and we learn who we ourselves are only as we gaze upon this first human and divine child. All the defenses of iconography depended on these teachings about the incarnation, whereby God became one of us, a human to be seen and touched and kissed.

In the faithful teachings and maimed faces of Theodore and Theophanes, we have the reminder that God is with us and also that faithfulness to God in our fallen world means standing up to the lies and the power that continue to claim dominance over God’s good creation. We are called with Jesus Christ to show God’s loving presence to a world that rejects God although this means exile and torture. In defense of our ability now to kiss the face of God, these saints suffered the maiming of their own faces.

Shortly after the death of his brother, Theophanes was made Metropolitan of Nicaea by Patriarch Methodius in 842 and administered it until his death in 845. During these last years, Theophanes composed numerous hymns still sung in churches today. For example, “Adam’s Complaint” is the Stichera at the First Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday (or Cheesefare Sunday) which is the final Sunday before the start of Lent. In this hymn, Adam sits disconsolate outside the gates of Eden and weeps over his banishment. At one point, Adam begs the plants within the garden to pray on his behalf:

O most-honored paradise, …beseech the Creator of all, by the tune of the rustling of Thy leaves, to open for me the gates which I closed by sin.

Or in a much wordier translation:

Whisper, with all thy leaves, in cadence faint, / One prayer to Him Who made them all, / One prayer for Adam in his fall!— / That He, Who formed thy gates of yore, / Would bid those gates unfold once more / That I had closed by sin.

This appeal to the flowers and trees—that they would pray on our behalf—also reminds us of the incarnation where our original calling to be icons of God does not set us apart from creation but instead binds us to creation as its beneficiaries and its caretakers. Humans are supposed to perceive God’s presence in all of creation (as Moses did in the burning bush) and also to return God’s blessing and care back upon all of creation. Incarnation is not just a human reality but a reality that touches all creation as it participates in both divine and human life. In this understanding of God’s world, even the trees and grasses can pray on our behalf as we sit penitent and exiled.

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