Prologue from Ochrid - December 9 [December 22]
1. The Conception by St Anna of the Most Holy Mother of God.
Righteous Joachim and Anna were childless for fifty years of their married life. In their old age, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to them, to each one separately, and told them that God had heard their prayer and that a daughter would be born to them. Then St Anna conceived by her husband and, after nine months, bore a daughter blessed by God and all generations of men: the most holy Virgin Mary and Mother of God. There is a fuller account of all this on September 9th.
2. St Hannah, Mother of the Prophet Samuel.
Hannah was the wife of Elkanah from Ramathaim-Zophim, or Arimathea (I Sam. 1). She had had no child, being barren, and she wept and grieved bitterly for this. But God in His mercy took pity on her, and removed her barrenness in response to her ceaseless prayers and sighs. Hannah bore a son, Samuel, and dedicated him to God from his childhood. Samuel was a great leader of the nation of Israel, and a prophet who anointed two kings, Saul and David. St Hannah sang a hymn of thanksgiving to God, a hymn wonderful in its wisdom and beauty, which is used to this day in church services (I Sam. 2:1).
3. Our Holy Father Stephen the New Light.
This godly man was born and brought up in Constantinople in the house of his parents Zacharias and Theophano, his father being a priest at the Great Church in the time of Patriarch Methodius. When she was carrying him in her womb, his mother fed only on bread and water, and, when the child was born, a cross of light shone on his breast. Because of this, and because of his pure and godly way of life, he is named 'the New Light'. At the age of eighteen, Stephen shut himself up in a cell attached to the church of St Peter the Apostle, and devoted himself to prayer and fasting. Once St Peter appeared to him, and said: 'Peace be to thee, my child; thou hast made a good beginning. May the Lord strengthen thee.' After that, he spent many years in a cell by the church of the holy martyr Antipas. This saint also appeared to him, encouraging him: 'Know that I will not abandon thee.' Stephen took greater and greater labours upon himself. He ate only twice a week, and that unsalted cabbage. In all, this holy man spent fifty-five years in asceticism for the sake of the kingdom of Christ, and went to his rest in the Lord in 879, at the age of seventy-three.
4. St Sophronius, Archbishop of Cyprus.
He was born and brought up in Cyprus. Because of his great spiritual erudition and his many virtues, in particular his compassion, he was made archbishop after St Damian. Having faithfully served the Church and led a life pleasing to God, he died peacefully in the sixth century.
Fear of God drives all fear from the hearts of men. In every great hierarch of the Orthodox Church, we see meekness and fearlessness wonderfully united. St. Nicholas grabbed the sword of the executioner and pulled it away so that innocent men would not be beheaded. St. Chrysostom reproached the Empress Eudoxia for her misdeeds without consideration for the unpleasantness and danger to his own life, to which he was exposed as a result. And there are many, many other examples similar to this: Emperor Valentinian the Elder, upon hearing of Ambrose's stern criticism of him, said: "I knew of your fearlessness; that is why I helped you to be chosen as bishop. Correct our faults as the Law of God teaches, and heal our unrighteousness." When Valentinian the Younger, at the instigation of his mother Justina, an Arian, ordered that the cathedral church in Milan be yielded to the heretics, Ambrose shut himself in the church with the faithful and would not come out for three days. He sent a message to the emperor and empress that, if they desired his death, he was prepared at any moment "here in the church to be run through either by the sword or spear." Hearing this, the emperor and empress withdrew their decree. When a riot occurred in Thessalonica, at which time about seven thousand people were beheaded by the decree of Emperor Theodosius the Great, Ambrose became so enraged at the emperor that, when the emperor visited Milan and wished to enter the church, the saint forbade him. The emperor said to Ambrose: "Even David sinned and was not deprived of God's mercy." To this the bishop replied: "As you have imitated David in sin, imitate him also in repentance." The emperor was ashamed, turned back and repented bitterly of the sin he had committed.
Contemplate the righteousness of the righteous Noah (Genesis 6):
- How all men were corrupt and wicked;
- How, amidst universal corruption, Noah alone remained righteous and lived according to the will of God.
Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God (Genesis 6:9).
To be righteous among the righteous is a great and praiseworthy deed, but how far greater and more praiseworthy a deed it is to be righteous among the unrighteous. Noah lived among men who were filled with unrighteousness and evil; he lived among them for five hundred years and remained righteous before God: Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord (Genesis 6:8). The Most-high Judge, who looks at all the works of mankind and evaluates them without prejudice and without error, valued the labors of Noah because, in the midst of a corrupt and perverse generation, he remained in the righteousness of God; and God rewarded him with His grace. Assuredly, Noah endured much misery and bitterness from his evil neighbors. Assuredly, he was unable to have a friend among them. The greatest satisfaction for a sinner is to drag a righteous man down into his own mire and to share his sin with him. But Noah did not allow himself to be dragged down or misled. Noah favored God's friendship over that of unrighteous men. It was dearer to him to walk with God without men, than to walk with men without God. Fear of God, the Creator and Judge, preserved him from the worldwide corruption; and he was not only righteous but also perfect in his generations. That is, he did not allow himself, even in the least, to be contaminated by the common evil, but rather he cleaved to God's righteousness. The allurement of sin and the ridicule of the sinners: everything merely served to separate him all the more from them. When the universal flood befell the human race, God did not abandon his faithful Noah to perish with the others. Instead, He saved him and glorified him, making him the progenitor of a new generation of men. Brethren, this shining example of Noah teaches that each one of us can please God even in the midst of sinners, if only we want to.
O Righteous and Long-suffering God, uphold us on the path of Thy righteousness.
To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.
From The Prologue From Ochrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich
© 1985 Lazarica Press, Birmingham UK