Prologue from Ochrid - September 5 [September 18]
1. The Holy Prophet Zacharias.
Father of St John the Forerunner, he was the son of Barachias, of the tribe of Aaron, a high priest in descent from Abia, and held the eighth degree of service in the Temple in Jerusalem. His wife Elisabeth was sister to St Anna, the mother of the holy Mother of God. In the reign of King Herod, the child-slayer, Zacharias was serving one day in his turn in the Temple in Jerusalem. An angel of God appeared to him in the altar, and Zacharias was afraid. But the angel said to him: 'Fear not, Zacharias' (Luke 1), and informed him that his wife Elisabeth would bear a son in answer to their prayers, for Zacharias and Elisabeth were both old. When Zacharias doubted the words of the heavenly messenger, the angel told him: 'I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God', and Zacharias was made dumb from that moment, and did not speak until his son was born and he had written on a tablet: 'His name is John.' Then his mouth was opened, and he glorified God. Later, when the Lord Christ was born and Herod began killing the children in Bethlehem, he sent men to find Zacharias's son and kill him, for he had heard of all that had happened to Zacharias and how John was born. Seeing the soldiers, Elisabeth took John in her arms - he was eighteen months old at that time - and fled from the house with him to a rocky and desert region. When she saw where the soldiers had driven them, she cried out to the mountain: 'O mountain of God, receive a mother with her child!', and the rock opened and hid the mother and child inside itself. Herod, furious that John had not been killed, ordered that Zacharias be cut down before the altar. Zacharias's blood spilled over the marble and became as hard as stone, remaining thus as a witness to Herod's wickedness. At the place where Elisabeth hid with John, a cave opened and a spring flowed forth, and a fruit-bearing palm grew up by God's power. Forty days after Zacharias's death, blessed Elisabeth also entered into rest. The child John stayed in the wilderness, fed by an angel and guarded by God's providence, until that day when he appeared by the Jordan.
2. The Holy Martyrs Juventius and Maximus.
Little is known about the lives of these two holy men, but their suffering for Christ is known from a sermon in their praise by St John Chrysostom. They were soldiers in the time of the Emperor Julian the Apostate. In conversation at an army festival, they condemned the Emperor for his persecution of Christians. Someone told the Emperor of this, and he had them thrown into prison. Some of the Emperor's men visited them, with the intention of turning them from the true Faith, telling them how many of their friends had denied Christ. To this, these great men replied: 'We must therefore stand firm and with courage, and offer ourselves in sacrifice for their apostasy.' They were beheaded with the sword under cover of darkness, but their relics were found and discovered to have wonderworking power.
3. The Seventy Holy Martyrs of Nicomedia.
Together with Urban, Theodore and Medimnus, these men were chosen by the Christians of Constantinople in the time of Valens' persecution of Orthodoxy, to go as the most honoured and eminent citizens of Constantinople to Nicomedia and beg the Emperor (an Arian) to leave at least their lives to the Orthodox Christians. The Emperor was furious and told them to go back home, but secretly ordered the sailors to set fire to the ship when they got out to sea, and save themselves in a small boat. The wicked servants of their yet more wicked master did this. The bodies of these glorious seventy were burned and drowned in the sea, but their souls swam off to the of eternal blessedness.
Men strive in vain to discover those things that God intentionally conceals from them. If God had not permitted, men would never have found gold and silver beneath the earth, or the power of steam or the glow of electrical light. In vain, Herod slaughtered countless children in Bethlehem in order to slay One. That One was hidden from the sight and sword of Herod. In vain did Herod seek John. Behold the wonder: soldiers pursued the aged Elizabeth, who was fleeing with John in her arms-and could not catch up with her! The enraged Herod summoned Zacharias and demanded: "Give me your son John!" The aged priest meekly replied: "I am now serving the Lord God of Israel. I know not where my son is." Insane with rage, Herod ordered Zacharias slain in place of John. The servants of the king entered the Temple and asked Zacharias: "Where have you hidden your son? Give him to us for the king has so ordered. If you do not give him to us, you yourself will die." Zacharias replied: "You will kill my body but the Lord will receive my soul." Thus Zacharias was slain, but Herod was not content with that. The wicked king had no peace, day or night, for he was tormented by a foreboding that John could be that newborn king proclaimed by the Magi from the East. Herod tried to find him, but in vain, for God had intentionally hidden him.
Contemplate God's punishment of David for his sins (II Samuel 17):
- How Absalom warred with his father and how many people died in that war;
- How Absalom perished;
- How David wept bitterly.
On the necessity of a second or spiritual birth
Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God(John 3:3).
Thus the Lord Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, and Nicodemus asked in amazement: "How can this be?" That is, how can a man be born again? Even to this day, many ask: "How can a sensual man become a spiritual man?" "How can a sinner become a righteous one?" "How can the grace of God enter a man and replace his sensual thoughts and will?" "How can the Holy Spirit illuminate the heart of man?" "How can water be changed into wine?" We know that when the Spirit of God descended upon the apostles, they became different men-new men, reborn men. We also know, from thousands of examples, how men of sensual thoughts and sensual life became spiritual men, regenerated men. Therefore, we know that it happened then and happens now, by the action of the grace of God the Holy Spirit. It is not necessary for us to ask how this happens. It is enough for us to know that it does happen, and to strive that it happen in us, for the grace of the Spirit is given to everyone who seeks it and prepares himself to be able to receive it. There is no more difficult task than to explain spiritual things to men who think and judge only sensually. St. John Chrysostom says: "A soul which is given over to passions cannot achieve anything great and noble, for it suffers from a grievous blindness, like that of eyes darkened by the flow of pus." Usually the most sensual men inquire about the greatest divine mysteries. They do not inquire about that in order to know how they can be saved, but rather to confuse the faithful and to ridicule the Faith, and to justify their own sinful and passionate life. Unable to raise themselves to the first rung of the heavenly ladder, they fantasize about the last rung. Brethren, when such as these inquire about the profoundest mysteries of the regeneration of the soul and the Kingdom of Heaven, ask them, first of all, to fulfill the ten basic commandments of God. If they do this, then their souls will be opened to the understanding of the Divine Mysteries, inasmuch as that understanding is necessary for the cleansing of their sins and passions, and for eternal salvation.
O Lord Jesus Christ, our Most-gracious and All-wise Teacher, help us to understand with our minds, and embrace with our hearts, as much of Thy wisdom as is necessary for our salvation. Help us to keep ourselves from undue curiosity.
To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.
From The Prologue From Ochrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich
© 1985 Lazarica Press, Birmingham UK