The Rev. George Livanos was awed and humbled when he received a call asking if All Saints Greek Orthodox Church in Canonsburg would host a visit of one of the most beloved icons in all of Orthodox Christianity.
It wasn't just that the 715-year-old Kursk Root Icon is said to have wrought many miracles. He felt a connection because he had named his son for St. Seraphim of Sarov, an 18th-century monk who was healed of a deadly childhood illness after venerating this icon of the Virgin Mary.
"After my jaw hit the ground, I said yes," said a delighted Father Livanos. "This icon is traveling throughout the United States, and they want to bring it here."
Today the icon is at Nativity of the Theotokos Monastery in Saxonburg, where an all-night vigil will begin at 4:30 p.m. After an 8 a.m. Friday Liturgy, the icon will be taken to Canonsburg, where a procession will begin at 5:30 p.m. After a prayer service, a talk will be given on its history.
On Saturday the icon will be at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in California for a 9:30 a.m. Liturgy; at St. Basil the Great in Belle Vernon for prayer at 2:30 p.m.; and at Christ the Savior in Indiana for an all-night vigil starting at 5 p.m. The final local stop is a 9 a.m. Sunday Divine Liturgy at Holy Dormition in McKeesport. A schedule is at www.eadiocese.org.
In Orthodox theology, icons are far more than pictures. The church teaches that they convey the word of God through imagery, much as the Bible does through writing.
"Icons are windows into Heaven," Father Livanos said. "The people who are portrayed in the icon are those who have lived amongst us who offered themselves as living sacrifices and made God the sole purpose of their existence. ... They are to remind us of what we are called to be and who we truly are."
According to tradition, in 1295 a hunter in the Kursk region of Russia found a beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary lying by a tree root. When he picked it up, a new spring began to flow. The hunter built a humble wooden chapel for the icon, and those who came to came to venerate it began to report miraculous healings. When a prince built a church for the icon in a nearby city, the icon is said to have miraculously returned to its humble chapel.
Tradition says that when Tartars tried to burn the chapel in 1383, it wouldn't ignite. When the invaders broke the icon in two, the pieces later miraculously melded in the hands of a saintly priest who had tried to protect it.
In 1597 a monastery was founded at the chapel site. During another Tartar invasion the icon was moved to the Kursk cathedral. A tradition began of carrying the icon 19 miles in procession each summer to the Kursk Root Monastery, where it would remain until Sept. 12.
The stories of its miracles continued. In 1898 anarchists planted a bomb in the Kursk cathedral. The windows were all blown out, an iron door was blasted off its hinges and a candlestick near the icon shot across the cathedral, but the icon was unscathed.
After the Bolshevik revolution, as communists closed churches and persecuted the faithful, monks smuggled the Kursk Root Icon to safety. It traveled within Russia before it was taken to what is now the Republic of Serbia. Smuggled to safety again in World War II, it brought comfort to newly freed prisoners and displaced persons in Munich. Eventually it found a home in the New York cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.
When it was returned to Kursk after the collapse of the Soviet Union, "hundreds of thousands of people came to venerate the Mother of God through this icon," Father Livanos said.
While it is known as a wonder-working icon, he cautioned his congregation not to be caught up in seeking miracles.
"God heals, and healing takes place in different forms at different times for different reasons," he said. "If 50 people who have cancer come and venerate it and none of them is healed, it's not because God has been on vacation. It's for other reasons surpassing human intelligence. ... Don't come here and say, 'Darn it, I still have to go for back surgery.' There, too, is healing."
Correction/Clarification: (Published January 21, 2011) The Kursk Root Icon will be at Holy Virgin Dormition Orthodox Church in McKeesport for the Divine Liturgy at 9 a.m. Sunday. An incorrect time and date were given in a story Thursday.
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.