Prologue from Ochrid - November 28 [December 11]
1. Our Holy Father, the Martyr Stephen the New.
As aforetime Hannah the mother of Samuel, so Anna the mother of Stephen prayed God to give her a son. Praying thus at one time in the Blachernae church in front of the icon of the most holy Mother of God, a light sleep fell on her, in which she saw the holy Virgin, radiant like the sun, and heard her voice: 'Woman, go in peace; in fulfilment of your prayer, you have a son in your womb.' Anna indeed conceived and bore a son, this holy Stephen. He received the monastic habit at the age of sixteen on Mount St Auxentius near Constantinople, at the hands of the elder John, from whom he learned divine wisdom and asceticism. When John entered into rest in the Lord, Stephen remained on that mountain in strict asceticism, taking on himself labour upon labour. His holiness drew many disciples to him. When the Emperor Constantine Copronymos began to persecute the icons even more ferociously that his foul father, Leo the Isaurian, Stephen showed himself to be a zealous defender of the veneration of the holy icons. The demented Emperor listened to various slanders against Stephen, and himself devised a number of intrigues, solely to break Stephen and get him out of the way. Stephen was exiled to the island of Proconnesus, and then taken to Constantinople, put in chains and cast into prison. There he met three hundred and forty-two captive monks, brought from all sides and thrown into prison for their veneration of icons. In the prison, they followed the whole order of church services as in a monastery. The wicked Emperor condemned Stephen to death. The saint foresaw his death forty days before, and took his leave of the brethren. The Emperor's servants took him from the prison and, beating and buffeting him, dragged him through the streets of Constantinople, calling on all who were on the Emperor's side to stone this 'enemy of the Emperor'. One of the heretics aimed a blow at the saint's head with a piece of wood, and the saint breathed his last. As Stephen the Protomartyr suffered at the hands of the Jews, so this Stephen suffered at the hands of the iconoclast heretics. This glorious soldier of Christ suffered in the year 767, at the age of fifty-three, and was crowned with unfading glory.
2. The Holy Martyr Christos.
He was an Albanian Christian living in Constantinople, and was a gardener by profession. In the course of selling his fruit, he incurred the resentment of a Turk who slandered him to the judge, saying that he had promised to embrace Islam and then retracted. After interrogation, he was put in chains and thrown into prison. In prison, he was urged to eat, but he refused, saying: 'It is better for me to go before my Christ fasting.' After that, he took out some money that he had concealed under his belt, and gave it to one of the captives with the request that he use it for several liturgies to be celebrated for his soul. He was beheaded by the Turks in 1748, and was glorified forever in the Kingdom of Christ our God.
3. Our Holy Mother Anna.
A woman of gentle birth, she was tonsured as a nun after her husband's death by St Stephen the New. The Emperor Copronymos urged her to say that she had had physical relations with St Stephen, in order to humiliate him before the people, but this holy woman refused to become involved in the Emperor's intrigues against the saint, whom she venerated as her spiritual father. She was whipped for this, and then thrown into prison, where she gave her holy soul into God's hands.
4. The Holy and Devout Emperor Maurice.
He was murdered along with his six sons by the Emperor Phocas in 602.
Reading the examples of perseverance in the Faith and generosity of the saints of God, we also become persevering in the Faith and generous. When Copronymus's men urged St. Stephen to reject the veneration of icons to please the iconoclastic emperor, Stephen extended his hand, clenched his fist and said: "If I had in myself only a fist full of blood, I would shed it for the icon of Christ."
Emperor Maurice had six sons of which the sixth and youngest was not yet weaned. For this youngest son, the emperor kept a special wet-nurse at court who fed it. A terrible fate came upon Emperor Maurice: Phocas ousted him from the throne and condemned him to death together with all of his six sons. Before Maurice's eyes, his sons were slain, one after the other. When the wet-nurse had to hand over the emperor's sixth son to be slain, she genuinely felt sorrow over the fate of the unfortunate emperor and his children, and in a moment, decided to save the life of at least one of the emperor's sons. So, when they sought the emperor's son from her breast, she gave them her own young son and he was beheaded. Finally, the Emperor Maurice was beheaded. The emperor's youngest son grew up believing his wet-nurse to be his mother. However, when the wet-nurse revealed the secret to him, he became very serious, then resolutely left the world and withdrew to Mount Sinai, where he was tonsured a monk and dedicated himself to God. He did this to requite that innocent young child who was put to death in his place.
Contemplate God's wonderful Paradise (Genesis 2):
- How it was a kingdom of innocence, purity and righteousness;
- How there was not a trace of sickness or death, for there was not even a thought of sin.
On how the faithful must grow
But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into Him in all things, which is the Head, even Christ (Ephesians 4:15).
Brethren, here is all that is asked of us on this earthly journey: that we hold to the truth and that we live in love. Truth is revealed by Christ the Lord, and the example of love is given in Christ the Lord. Neither can one come to the truth apart from Christ the Lord nor find an example of true love apart from Him. Seeing this only true path to light and salvation in the confusion of many false paths, the Apostle Paul reminds us beforehand: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). Only God can reveal the truth; only God can show true love. One man can know more than another man, but only God can reveal the truth. Thoughts come to man like the wind, and illusions can seem to be truth to him. Deluded by his own thoughts, one man deludes another; deceived by illusions, one man then deceives another; but truth is in God and of God. Brethren, Christ is our whole truth and our whole love. When we think of Christ, we think of truth; when we act according to Christ, we act correctly; when we love Christ, we love Love itself. By Christ we live, by Christ we grow, by Christ we become immortal and are glorified. He is our Head-not merely the titular head of a group, but the actual head of a living body, of which we are members. Adhering to truth and love, we are made worthy to dwell eternally in this Body of Christ.
O Lord Christ, our most wonderful truth and our endearing love, enter into us and receive us into Thyself.
To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.
From The Prologue From Ochrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich
© 1985 Lazarica Press, Birmingham UK