Wednesday, July 15, 2015

St Vladimir the Great

Today marks the 1000th anniversary of the death of St Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev, who is honored by the Byzantine churches as one of the most important figures in the Christianization of the Eastern Slavs. Along with his grandmother St Olga, he is given the liturgical title “Isapostolos – Equal to the Apostles”, in imitation of the titles of the Emperor Constantine and his mother St Helena.

St Olga, princess of Kiev, converted to Christianity and was baptized at Constantinople in 957, when she was close to 70 years old, during the reign of her son Sviatoslav. The traditional account is that she was the first person among the people then known as the Rus’ to be baptized. Her son did not convert, however; his death in 972 was followed by war between his three sons, at the end of which the youngest, Vladimir, whom he had begotten with his housekeeper, was left as the prince of Kiev. Although Vladimir’s path to the throne was certainly a bloody one, (much of the family history reads like the plot summaries of Game of Thrones), and despite his truly Solomonic appetite for women, it was he who ultimately brought about the first conversion of the East Slavs and the Baptism of Rus’.

A Russian icon of St Vladmir, and his sons, the Passion-Bearers Ss Boris and Gleb, who were later murdered by a third son, called Sviatoplok “the Accursed.” (ca. 1560.)
The ancient Slavic chronicles record a famous episode that, when investigating which religion he and his people ought to embrace, Vladimir judged Islam altogether undesirable because of the prohibition on drinking alcohol, saying “Drinking is the joy of all Rus’. We cannot exist without that pleasure.” The envoys sent by him to visit the temples of various neighboring peoples reported that the Bulgar Muslim “bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good.” Their report of the Latin Rite among the Germans was that “we beheld no glory there.” But they described the Divine Liturgy celebrated on a great feast in Constantinople in these terms: “(T)he Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty… If the Greek faith were evil, it would not have been adopted by your grandmother Olga, who was wiser than all other men.”

Shortly thereafter, Vladimir captured an important Greek city in the Crimea, and used his position to negotiate for the hand in marriage of the Emperor Basil II’s sister Anna, which would entail an alliance with Byzantium. At Basil’s insistence that his sister could not marry a pagan, Vladimir agreed to be baptized first; upon his triumphal return to Kiev he exhorted (and to some degree, it must be said, forced) the residents of the city to accept the new religion. A baptism en masse, the first of several, was held in the Dneiper river; this is now called “the Baptism of Kiev”, an episode whose 1000th anniversary was commemorated in 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the rest of his reign, more peaceable than the first part, Vladimir enthusiastically supported the evangelization of his people, and amended the irregularities of his earlier life.

The Baptism of Prince St Vladimir, by Victor Vasnetsov, 1890; made as preparatory image for a fresco in the Cathedral of St Vladimir in Kiev.
Let us take this occasion to pray for peace among the peoples converted by St Vladimir, especially for Ukraine, whose capital, Kiev, is the city where the Rus’ embraced the Christian faith.

The troparion of his feast: Holy Prince Vladimir, you were like a merchant in search of fine pearls. By sending servants to Constantinople for the orthodox Faith, you found Christ, the priceless pearl. He appointed you to be another Paul, washing away in baptism your physical and spiritual blindness. We celebrate your memory, asking you to pray for all orthodox Christians and for us, your spiritual children.

The kontakion: Most glorious Vladimir, in your old age you imitated the great apostle Paul: he abandoned childish things, while you forsook the idolatry of your youth. Together with him you reached the fullness of divine wisdom: You were adorned with the purity of holy baptism. Now as you stand before Christ our Savior, pray that all orthodox Christians may be saved.

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