Prologue from Ochrid - February 9 [February 22]
The Holy Martyr Nicephorus.
The life of this holy martyr demonstrates clearly how God casts down pride and crowns humility and brotherly love with glory. There lived in Antioch two intimate friends, the learned priest Sapricius and the ordinary, simple townsman Nicephorus. Their friendship somehow turned into a terrible mutual hatred. Nicephorus, who feared God, tried many times to establish peace with the priest, but the latter would not respond. When a persecution of Christians broke out, the priest Sapricius was condemned to death and brought to the place of execution. Nicephorus stood in great distress in the path Sapricius was to take, begging him to forgive him before dying, and to part in peace. 'I pray thee, thou martyr of Christ', said Nicephorus, 'forgive me if I have in any way sinned against thee.' Sapricius would not turn to his adversary, but calmly and proudly moved on to death. But, seeing the hardness of the priest's heart, God would not have him receive the gift of martyrdom and the crowning with the wreath, and secretly withdrew His blessing. At the last moment, Sapricius denied Christ before the executioner and declared that he would worship idols. Hatred had blinded him to such an extent! Nicephorus entreated Sapricius not to deny Christ: 'Oh, my beloved brother, do not do this! Do not deny our Lord Jesus Christ and lose the heavenly crown!' But all in vain; Sapricius was unmoved. Then Nicephorus cried out to the executioners: I too am a Christian; kill me in Sapricius's place!' The executioners reported this to the judge, who ordered them to let Sapricius go and kill Nicephorus in his place. Nicephorus joyfully laid his head on the block and was beheaded. And thus he was made worthy of the Kingdom and crowned with the eternal wreath of glory. This came to pass in 260, in the reign of the Emperor Gallienus.
The Hieromartyr Peter Damascene.
This saint is considered by some to have lived in the eighth century, and by others in the twelfth. This difference of opinion arises from there having been two Peters Damascene. The one about whom we are speaking was a great ascetic. Utterly selfless, he had not one single book of his own, but borrowed them to read. And he read untiringly, gathering wisdom as a bee does honey. He was at some time bishop in Damascus, but spoke out so strongly against Islam and the Manichean heresy that the Arabs cut out his tongue and sent him into exile deep in Arabia. But God gave him the power of speech, so that there in exile he preached the Gospel and brought many to the Christian faith. He wrote, and left to his descendants, a precious book on the spiritual life. He died a confessor and martyr and entered into the Kingdom of Christ.
Saint Peter Damaskin writes about the general and particular gifts of God and says: "The general gifts consist of four elements and all which result from them, as all the wonderful and awesome works of God outlined in Holy Scripture. The particular gifts are those gifts which God bestows upon every man individually whether it be riches for the sake of charity or poverty for the sake of patience with humility; whether it be authority for the sake of justice and the strengthening of virtues or subjugation and slavery for the sake of the expeditious salvation of the soul; be it health for the sake of helping the infirm or illness for the sake of the wreath of patience; be it understanding and skill in gain for the sake of virtue or weakness and lack of skill for the sake of submissive humility. All of this, even though it appears contrary to one another, nevertheless, it is by its purpose very good." In conclusion, St. Peter Damaskin says that we are obligated to give thanks to God for all gifts and with patience and hope to endure all tribulations and evil consequences. For all of that which God gives us or permits to befall us, benefits our salvation.
To contemplate the Lord Jesus as the Source of Joy:
- In the tribulations of life which only He is able to replace with joy;
- In the bondage of passions which only He can replace with the joy of freedom;
- In death, from which he alone can resurrect us.
About the word of God which is mightier than death
"Whoever keeps My word will never taste death" (St. John 8:52).
As long as a candle burns in a room, there will not be darkness as long as the candle burns and emits light. If food is seasoned with salt, it will be preserved from spoiling. If someone keeps the word of Christ in his soul, that one keeps salt and light in his soul and life will abide in him. Such a soul will not become dark in this life neither will it taste decaying death.
Whoever keeps the word of Christ in himself, the word of Christ sustains him from within and feeds him and enlightens him and enlivens him. Whether he is in the body or outside the body, he feels equally alive from the word of Christ, i.e., from the undying eternal life. The death of the body will give to his Life-bearing soul only a freer enthusiasm in embracing Christ, the Beloved Life-giver.
But, what does it mean, brethren, to keep the word of Christ within ourselves? That means; First: to keep the word of Christ in our mind, thinking about it; Second: to keep the word of Christ in our heart, loving it; Third: to keep the word of Christ in our will, fulfilling it in deeds; Fourth: to keep the word of Christ on our tongue, openly confessing it when it is necessary to do so. Thus, to keep the word of Christ means to fill ourselves with it and to fulfill it. Whoever would keep the word of Christ in this manner, truly, he will never taste of death.
O our Lord, Mighty Lord, mightier than death, give us strength and understanding to keep Your holy word to the end; that we do not taste of death and that death does not taste of us; that decay does not touch our soul. O Lord All-merciful be merciful to us.
To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.
From The Prologue From Ochrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich
© 1985 Lazarica Press, Birmingham UK