On Tuesday September 25, a miracle-working icon was returned to its original home in Sumy, Ukraine after having been lost for over a century. The Icon of Christ the Saviour “Bread of Life” (in Ukrainian: Христа Спасителя «Хліб Життя»), had disappeared during the Ukrainian War of Independence, and was only rediscovered earlier this year.
The icon was revealed as wonder-working in the Autumn of 1887, in the village of Little Chernetchyna, Suny region. A peasant woman called Anisa Panchenko fell seriously ill and after many prayers received in a dream the vision of an icon of the Saviour hidden in a church basement, which healed her disease. She heard the words: “Come, pray, and believe in Me, and I will heal you of all afflictions”. Ten days later, on November 30 – the feast of St Andrew, the icon of Christ the Saviour “Bread of Life”, was found in the basement of the All Saints church in Chernetchyna.
Word spread of the appearance of the wonder-working Icon, and it was soon installed in the main part of All Saints, where pilgrims from all around flocked to receive healing, as Christ promised. The icon was processed around the Suny region during the Cholera epidemic of 1892 and within fifteen years the church was a major shrine not only for Orthodox Christians, but Catholics and Lutherans too. There are records of at least one Roman Catholic leaving money in his will to help in the funding of a riza for the icon.
The icon disappeared during the upheaval of the 1920s, after the Ukraine’s ravaging civil war and subsequent invasion of the Soviets. It was only in 2012 that the icon was rediscovered by art-collector Oleg Zdanovych. Restoring it and confirming its origins, Mr Zdanovych donated it to the Church in July, and after spending a few months in the Holy Dormition Pochayiv Lavra, it was finally returned to its home in Sumy on September 25 2012.
The Composition of the Bread of Life Icon
The wonder-working icon of Little Chernetchyna probably dates from the 18th century, though there are similar icons: both copies and precursors. The icon shows Christ stripped, wearing the crown of thorns, and with blood flowing from wounds in His hands. The blood flows into a paten that also acts as a pedestal for Christ. The image is clearly that of the Crucified Christ, Christ as the ultimate Sacrifice, mingled with the image of Christ the Bridegroom.
Around Christ’s halo and following the stream of blood on Christ’s left are the words: I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world. (John 6:51) and “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). These words have always been understood by the Church as referring to the Eucharist, or Mass, which Christ established as the main service of the Church. These words and their ancient understanding give the icon its name: “Bread of Life”, and its composition: Christ standing on the paten, which is used to hold the bread during the Eucharist. The icon shows the true nature and reality of the bread and wine consumed at the Divine Liturgy: it is the broken body and blood of Christ, given to many for the remission of sins (Matt 26:26-28).
The graphic depiction of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ has been revealed to certain Saints throughout the ages, most notably Saint Niphon of Cyprus (4th century), who at the consecration of the gifts during the Divine Liturgy saw the infant Christ pierced on the altar by angels and bled into the chalice; after the service the restored and uninjured Christ-child was taken back into Heaven by angels. Visions like these led to the iconographic depiction of the Lamb of God as an infant laying on the paten (see: Melismos, in the article on the Lamb of God in Orthodoxy); however, such overtly Eucharistic images of Christ as an adult also exist, the Ukrainian icon being one such example. An earlier example from Russia is the “Christ Bleeding” (Спаса Кровоточивого) Icon, which is strikingly similar except for the angels holding chalices to catch the blood of Christ.
Lord Christ our God, King of the ages and Creator of all, I thank Thee for all the blessings Thou hast granted me and for the communion of Thy pure and life-giving Mysteries… For Thou art the Bread of Life, the Source of Holiness, the Giver of all that is good, and to Thee we send up glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.
(from the Communion Prayer of St Basil the Great)
More information, and video, on the Bread of Life icon (in Ukrainian).
Gallery of images of the Bread of Life icon (article in Russian)
Life of Saint Niphon (Dec 23) – the full account of his vision of Christ on the altar is recounted in chapter 8 – His divine visions.