2004.03.26 Morning Call : http://www.mcall.com/news/local/all-icon0326mar26,0,3556131.story?coll=all-newslocal-hed
From The Morning Call
Believers say oil is seeping from icon in Bethlehem
Unexplained event at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church began with Great Lent.
By Dan Sheehan
Of The Morning Call
March 26, 2004
The liturgy done, the crowds gone, the perfume of incense fading, the Rev. Michael Varvarelis led two visitors to the front of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church on Thursday and gestured at the 9-foot cross behind the altar.
Trails left over from a fluid substance can be seen on the torso of the crucifix at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church located at 1607 Union Blvd. on Thursday March 25, 2004.
Under the lights, vertical streaks of oil glistened on the head, torso and feet of the painted Christ.
Varvarelis said the 25-year-old icon at the Bethlehem church began exuding the colorless, odorless oil in late February, at the beginning of the Orthodox holiday of Great Lent. The strength of the flow has diminished since, but it hasn't stopped.
A blessing, declared Metropolitan Maximos, bishop of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh, when he visited the church two weeks ago at Varvarelis's request to examine the cross. St. Nicholas is part of the Pittsburgh Diocese.
The metropolitan said the oil would serve to draw attention to the cross and its meaning. He did not call it a miracle, though some in this church of 700 families are inclined to believe it is one.
''What message is trying to send us?'' wondered Varvarelis's wife, Maria, discerning a divine hand at work behind the oil. ''Sometimes a little sign like this makes you nervous, because you don't know what might happen. But we are excited about it.''
Christian history is rich with accounts of icons and statues bleeding or weeping, communion hosts defying gravity, dried saint's blood liquefying on holy days.
Some have been debunked as natural occurrences - condensation, for example - or outright hoaxes. Others are unexplained.
This month, at a Roman Catholic church in Medford, Mass., parishioners reported seeing a statue of the Virgin Mary shedding tears.
Churchgoers in Sicily have reported seeing bloody tears on a bronze statue of Padre Pio, the Catholic priest canonized in 2002 who bore the stigmata, or wounds of Christ, on his hands.
Varvarelis said he is familiar with many occurrences of Orthodox icons producing tears or oils.
He has no plans to have the St. Nicholas oil analyzed, though he said he would not object to the procedure. ''Come,'' he invited skeptics who would turn a microscope on the matter.
Gregory Ferguson, a chemistry professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, said an analyst might be able to come up with a hypothesis about the oil's origins.
''It's important to recognize that even if one did that, it doesn't diminish the spiritual importance of what's happening,'' he said. ''Science and theology are not opposed to one another. They are complementary ways of viewing the world. They're different, but not opposed.''
From afar, the cross at St. Nicholas - which stands behind the altar in a wooden base - looks like painted wood. It is actually wood covered in painted canvas, said its creator, George Fillipakis, a renowned iconographer from New York who has created religious images for 55 Orthodox churches in America since moving to this country from Greece in 1969.
Fillipakis said the wood was ordinary plywood, ''the kind you make cabinets from,'' and the paints were blended from dry pigments and egg whites.
Perhaps the emission of oil is some sort of chemical or atmospheric reaction, he said, ''but why does it happen from this one and not other ones?''
Or perhaps it is something else, Fillipakis suggested, some heavenly nudge toward devotion in the thick of the Lenten season.
''I don't know exactly what the message is, but I believe the oil coming out is holy oil,'' he said. ''If you are religious, you have to accept that oil as a miracle.''
Varvarelis, who carries the cross once a year in an Easter season procession, says the origin of the oil is less important than its effect.
''It's an encouragement to be a little more careful with our lives as Christians,'' he said.
That is precisely the view of such phenomena embraced by most Christian denominations, said Larry Chapp, chairman of the theology and philosophy department at DeSales University in Center Valley.
Unblinking acceptance ''can turn religion into a magical or superstitious sort of thing,'' he said. ''But if has the effect of focusing people's attention on the message of the cross during the season of Lent, that's a good thing.''
According to Chapp, a spate of such occurrences has been reported around the world in recent years.
To many believers, ''the world situation is bordering on apocalyptic,'' Chapp said. ''Their interpretation is that this is God's way of communicating a sort of sadness.''
The skeptic, too, sees earthly turmoil at the root of heavenly visions, he said.
''To the detached observer, it's created a kind of atmosphere in which any kind of phenomenon is interpreted as a kind of miracle,'' Chapp said.