The Holy GreatMartyr Demetrios of Soluneia
Commemorated on October 26
The Holy GreatMartyr Demetrios of Soluneia was the son of a Roman proconsul in Thessalonika (the present day Salonika, which in the Slavonic is termed Solun’, [anglicised as Soluneia]). Three centuries had then already elapsed, and Roman paganism, – spiritually shattered and defeated by the multitude of martyrs and confessors of the Crucified Saviour, – intensified its persecutions. Both the father and mother of saint Demetrios were clandestine Christians. In a secret house-church at the home of the proconsul, the child was baptised and raised in the Christian faith. When the father died, and the child had reached the age of maturity, the emperor Galerius Maximian – having ascended the throne in the year 305 – summoned him, and confident in his education and military-administrative abilities, appointed him to the position of his father as proconsul of the Thessalonika district. The chief task expected of this young commander consisted in the defence of the city from barbarians, and in the extermination of Christianity. It is interesting, that among the barbarians threatening the Romans our ancestral Slavs occupied an important place, in particular by intentionally settling upon the Thessalonikan peninsula. There exists even the opinion that the parents of Saint Demetrios were of Slavic descent. In regard to Christians the will of the emperor was expressed simply: “Put to death anyone who calls on the name of the Crucified”. The emperor did not suspect in appointing Demetrios, how wide a swath of confessors acts he had opened up for the clandestine ascetic.
Accepting the appointment, Demetrios returned to Thessalonika and in front of everyone immediately confessed and glorified our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead of persecuting and executing Christians, he openly began to teach the inhabitants of the city the Christian faith and to extirpate pagan customs and idol-worship. The compiler of his life, Metaphrastes, says that in his teaching zeal he became for Thessalonika “a second Apostle Paul”, particularly since “the Apostle to the Gentiles” once founded at this city the first community of believers (1 Thes., 2 Thes.). The Lord also destined Saint Demetrios to follow the holy Apostle Paul to a death by martyrdom.
When Maximian learned, that the proconsul newly appointed by him – was a Christian, and that he had converted to Christianity many Roman subjects who were influenced by his example – the rage of the emperor know no bounds. Returning from a campaign in the Black Sea region, the emperor decided to lead his army through Thessalonika, filled with the desire to make a massacre of the Soluneia Christians.
Learning of this, Saint Demetrios opportunely ordered his faithful servant Luppos to distribute his wealth to the poor with the words: “Give away the earthly riches amongst them, for we shalt seek for ourselves heavenly riches”. And he gave himself over to prayer and fasting, preparing himself for the accepting of a martyr’s crown.
When the emperor came into the city, he summoned Demetrios, who boldly confessed himself a Christian and denounced the falsehood and futility of Roman polytheism. Maximian gave orders to lock up the confessor in prison, and an Angel came to him in confinement, comforting and encouraging him for the act. The emperor meanwhile concerned himself with a foul gladiators spectacle, esteeming as his beloved champion a German by the name of Leo, who made a challenge for a Christian to struggle with him on the platform over the spears of the victorious soldiers. A brave youth from the Soluneia Christians, Nestor by name, went to the prison to his advisor Demetrios and requested to be given the blessing for single-combat with the barbarian. With the blessing of Demetrios and through his prayers, Nestor prevailed over the fierce German and hurled him from the dais-platform onto the spears of the soldiers, just as the murderous pagan would have done with the Christian. The enraged commander gave orders to immediately execute the holy Martyr Nestor (Comm. 27 October) and dispatched a guard to the prison – to run through with spears the one who had blessed this deed, Saint Demetrios.
At dawn on 26 October 306 soldiers appeared in the underground prison of the holy saint and ran him through with spears. His faithful servant, Saint Luppos, gathered up on a towel the bless of Saint Demetrios, and he took from his finger the imperial ring, – a symbol of his high status, and likewise dipped it also in the blood. With the ring and other holy things sanctified by the blood of Saint Demetrios, Saint Luppos began to heal the infirm. The emperor gave orders to arrest and kill him.
The body of the holy GreatMartyr Demetrios was cast out for devouring by wild animals, but the Soluneia Christians took it and secretly committed it to earth. During the reign of holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Constantine (306-337), a church was erected over the grave of Saint Demetrios. An hundred years later, during the construction of a majestic new church on the old spot, the incorrupt relics of the holy martyr were uncovered. From the time of the VII Century beneathe the crypt of the GreatMartyr Demetrios was found a miraculous flowing of fragrant myrh, in regard to which the GreatMartyr Demetrios receives the church title “Myrh-flowing”. Several times those venerating the Soluneia wonderworker made attempts at a transfer of his holy relics, or part of them, to Constantinople. But invariably Saint Demetrios secretly made apparent his will to remain the protector and defender of the people of Thessalonika.
Advancing towards the city, pagan Slavs were repeatedly turned by the apparition of a threatening radiant youth, going the round of the walls and inspiring terror in the enemy soldiers. It is therefore perhaps why the name of Saint Demetrios is particularly venerated among the Slavic nations after their enlightenment by the light of the Gospel truth. On the other hand, Greeks regard Saint Demetrios in terms of being a Slavic saint merely an arbitrary preference.
The very first pages of the Russian Primary Chronicle, as foreordained by God, is bound up with the name of the holy GreatMartyr Demetrios of Soluneia. Oleg the Wise threatened the Greeks at Constantinople (907), as the Chronicle relates: “The Greeks became terrified and said: this is not Oleg, but rather Saint Demetrios sent upon us from God”. Russian soldiers always believed that they were under the special protection of the holy GreatMartyr Demetrios. Moreover, in the old Russian barracks the GreatMartyr Demetrios was always depicted as Russian by descent – thus this image fused with the soul of the Russian nation.
Church veneration of the holy GreatMartyr Demetrios in Russia began with the time shortly after the Baptism of Rus’. Towards the beginning of the decade of the 70’s of the XI Century belongs the founding of the Dimitriev monastery at Kiev, known afterwards as the Mikhailov-Zlatoverkh monastery. The monastery was built by the son of Yaroslav the Wise, – GreatPrince Izyaslav, baptised Dimitrii (+ 1078). The mosaic icon of Saint Demetrios of Soluneia from the cathedral of the Dimitriev monastery has been preserved up to the present day, and is located in the State Tret’yakov gallery. In the years 1194-1197 the GreatPrince of Vladimir, Vsevolod III Bol’shoe Gnezdo (Great-Nest), – baptised Dimitrii, “built at his court a beautiful church of the holy martyr Dimitrii, and adorned it wondrously with icons and writing” (i.e. frescoes). The Dimitriev cathedral also reveals for the present the embellishment of ancient Vladimir. The wonderworking icon of Saint Demetrios of Soluneia from the cathedral iconostas is located even now in Moscow, at the Tret’yakov gallery. It was written upon a plank of wood from the grave of the holy GreatMartyr Demetrios, brought in 1197 from Soluneia to Vladimir. One of the most precious depictions of the saint – a fresco on a column of the Vladimir Uspenie cathedral, is from the brush of the Sainted Iconographer Andrei Rublev.
The veneration of Saint Demetrios continued also in the family of Saint Alexander Nevsky (Comm. 23 November). Saint Alexander named his eldest son in honour of the holy greatmartyr. And his younger son, holy Nobleborn Prince Daniel of Moscow (+ 1303, Comm. 4 March), raised up at Moscow a temple in the name of the holy GreatMartyr Demetrios in the 1280’s, which was the first stone church in the Moscow Kremlin. Later on in 1326, under Ivan Kalita, it was taken down and in its place was erected the Uspenie (Dormition) cathedral.
The memory of Saint Demetrios of Soluneia from of old was bound up in Rus’ with the military, patriotism and the defense of the Fatherland. The saint is depicted on icons in the guise of a soldier in plumed armour, with a spear and sword in hand. On a scroll (in later depictions) is written also a prayer, with which Saint Demetrios turned to God about the salvation of the people of Soluneia: “Lord, let not the city nor the people perish. If Thou do save the city and the people – with them I shalt be saved, if they perish – I too perish with them”.
In the spiritual experience of the Russian Church, veneration of the holy GreatMartyr Demetrios of Soluneia is closely bound up with the memory of the defense the Native-Land and Church by the GreatPrince of Moscow, Dimitrii Donskoi (+ 1389). “An Account of the Life and Repose Great Prince Dimitrii Ivanovich, Tsar of Russia”, written in the year 1393, already regards the GreatPrince as a saint, as also do other old Russian histories. GreatPrince Dimitrii was a spiritual son and pupil of the Sainted Metropolitan of Moscow Alexei (+ 1378, Comm. 12 February), and a disciple and associating also with other great figures of prayer in the Russian Land: – the Monk Sergei Radonezh (+ 1392, Comm. 25 September, Dimitrii of Prilutsk (+ 1392, Comm. 11 February), Sainted Theodore of Rostov (+ 1394, Comm. 28 November). GreatPrince Dimitrii “about the churches of God he worried much, and the territory of the Russian land he held by his bravery: many the enemy risen against us he conquered, and his glorious city Moscow he protected with wondrous walls”. From the time of the building of the white-walled Kremlin (1366) by GreatPrince Dimitrii, Moscow was called “Belokamenna” (“White-Stoned”). “The land of Russia prospered during the years of his reign”, – testifies the “Account”.
By the prayers of his Heavenly patron the holy warrior Demetrios of Soluneia, GreatPrince Dimitrii gained besides his brilliant military victories also the preordained further prominence of Russia: he repelled the onslaught against Russia by the Lithuanian armies of Ol’gerd (1368, 1373), he routed at the River Vozha the Tatar army of Begich (1378), and he smashed the military might of all the Golden Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo Pole (Kulikovo Field) (8 September 1380, on the day of celebration of the Nativity of the MostHoly Mother of God), set between the Rivers Don and Nepryadva. The Kulikovo Battle, for which the nation calls him Dimitrii Donskoi, became the first all-Russian national deed, rallying round Moscow the spiritual power of the Russian nation. To this auspicious event of Russian history is dedicated the “Zadonschina”, an inspiring historic poem, written by the priest Sophronii of Ryazem (1381).
Prince Dimitrii Donskoi was greatly devoted to the holy GreatMartyr Demetrios. In 1380, on the eve of the Kulikovo Battle, he solemnly transferred from Vladimir to Moscow the most holy effect of the Vladimir Dimitriev cathedral – the icon of the GreatMartyr Demetrios of Soluneia, written on the plank from the grave of the saint. At the Moscow Uspenie Cathedral was built a chapel in the name of the GreatMartyr Demetrios. In memory of the soldiers, fallen in the Kulikovo Battle, was established for all-church remembrance the Demetrios Parental-Ancestors Saturday. The first time this panikhida was held was at the Trinity-Sergiev monastery on 20 October 1380 by the Monk Sergei, Hegumen of Radonezh, in the presence of GreatPrince Dimitrii Donskoi. From that time it is served annually with a solemn remembrance of the heroes of the Kulikovo Battle, in which number are the Schema-monks Alexander (Peresvet) and Andrei (Oslyab).
© 1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.