Saturday, October 26, 2019

St Demetrius the Great-Martyr

On October 26, Byzantine Christians celebrate with great solemnity the feast of St Demetrius of Thessalonica, a soldier and martyr of the early 4th century, whose popularity is almost as great as that of another warrior, St George. The traditional story of his life is that he succeeded his father as military commander at Thessalonica, but was imprisoned by the Emperor Maximian (286-305) for not only refusing his orders to persecute the Christians, but openly preaching the Gospel.

Maximian had a favorite gladiator, a very large German named Lyaeus, who, at his behest, challenged any Christian to wrestle him on a platform surrounded by spears. A Christian named Nestor, brave, but very small of stature, visited Demetrius in prison and received his blessing, after which he wrestled and beat Lyaeus, hurling him down onto the spears. In his anger at losing his favorite gladiator, Maximian sent his soldiers to the prison, where they speared Demetrius though the chest, while Nestor was killed the following day.

This story forms the tropar of St Demetrius’ feast day.

The world has found you to be a great defense against tribulation, and a vanquisher of heathens, O Passion-bearer. As you bolstered the courage of Nestor, who then humbled the arrogance of Lyaios in battle, Holy Demetrius, entreat Christ God to grant us great mercy.
Kontakion God, who has given you invincible might, has tinged the Church with streams of your blood, Demetrius! He preserves your city from harm, for you are its foundation!

Devotion to St Demetrius has always been very strong among the Slavs, particularly as a patron of soldiers, as witnessed by the popularity of the name Dmitry. Attempts have even been made to claim him as a Slav, since he was supposed to be originally from the city of Sirmium, now called Mitrovica, in Serbia; this is in fact in the area of the Balkan peninsula where the Slavs first settled in Europe, but only in the 6th century. His patronage of soldiers was reaffirmed in modern times during the First Balkan War (Oct. 1912 – May 1913), when Thessalonica was liberated from Ottoman control and united to Greece on his feast day in 1912. He is also honored with the titles “Great-Martyr”, as one who suffered much for the Faith, “Myrrh-gusher” from the tradition that streams of scented oil came forth from his relics, and “Wonderworker” for the many miracles attributed to him.

Icon of St Demetrius by Andrei Rublev (and follower), ca. 1425, from the Trinity Cathedral in the Trinity-Sergius Lavra.
The Byzantine Synaxarion, the equivalent of the Martyrology, also still notes on this day a terrible earthquake which took place in Constantinople in the year 740, which killed thousands of people and did terrible damage to the city and its walls. This was the year before the death of the first iconoclast Emperor, Leo the Isaurian, and it was generally believed that the earthquake was a divine punishment for the iconoclast heresy. There are also a few liturgical texts of the day which refer to this event, which serve roughly as the equivalent of what we call a commemoration in the Roman Rite. As a matter of their deep respect for history and tradition, those who celebrate the Byzantine Rite may omit these texts, but they have never been removed from the liturgical books, a wise policy we would do well to emulate in the West.

Troparion Thou who lookest upon the earth, and cause it to tremble, deliver us from the fearful threat of the earthquake, and send upon us Thy rich mercies, by the prayers of the Mother of God, o Thou who lovest mankind.

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