Alexander S Karcher
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church.
This is a saying attributed originally to the early Christian writer Tertullian in the 2nd century AD, not even two hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Tertullian spoke of what he knew and saw with his own eyes. Christians were martyred regularly by an empire which was unable or as yet unwilling to tolerate such a radical difference in lifestyle…yes, not so much a religion per se, the empire knew how to incorporate all manner of religions into the pervading culture, but a radically different lifestyle which promoted among its devoted adherents an unquenchable love for God and neighbor, a burning love which remained unquenched even in the face of persecution and torture and execution.
The only love which the Roman empire recognized was that patriotic fervor for empire and the civic religion which helped ensure the supposed integrity and unity of the empire. Put simply, worship the emperor and the machine of state as expressed the pagan deities and live in relative peace. For a person devoted to Jesus Christ, the peace offered by Rome and her emperors was obviously transient, the kingdom to which he or she belonged not of this world.
And so they died upon the sands of arenas across the empire, as bloody spectacles, entertainment for the masses, crushed beneath the machine of empire…but their blood soaking the dry earth was watering a burgeoning new spiritual reality that would shake and continues to shake the very foundations of the world.
The term “Martyr” has been in use for thousands of years by now, and many of us have forgotten its original meaning. When we hear the word martyr we think of someone dying for a noble cause and becoming essentially a symbol for that cause. We associate death and higher callings with the word, associations which ring true but they do not grasp the basic definition of the term.
The word in Greek, μάρτυρας from which we derive the word martyr by way of Latin, literally means “a witness”. These men and women and children who were martyred for their faith, were not
simply dying for a good and noble cause, they were witnessing a new reality, a reality where human beings were no longer afraid of death for the strength of their hope in Jesus Christ the conqueror of death. That is, fear of death no longer pulled the strings of human motivation and behavior for a sizable portion of the population, rather the nobler truths of faith and hope
and love stirred the hearts of so many to a God-given courage that would see them step beyond the boundaries of corruptible mortality into the Kingdom itself, the realm of immortality of grace and love, in light of which all earthly fear is banished.
And the Church, my dear brothers and sisters is this kingdom in its becoming. We are able to see it in glimpses during the divine liturgy, but very few of us as yet see it in its fullness, the in-breaking of the Heavenly Kingdom into our fallen world, the casting off of this present darkness for the light of Christ. And so we look to the martyrs as witnesses of this reality, and today, on October the 26th, we look to one in particular, Saint Demetrios the Great Martyr, the Myrrh Streamer, the Wonder-Worker of Thessaloniki and indeed, as the toparion says, the whole world.
About 1700 years ago, during the tumultuous period of the roman tetrarchy, a virtuous young man rose to prominence in the city of Thessaloniki. Born of the senatorial class, this young man established his reputation in the military and by the age of 23, according to sources, was made the proconsul or duke of the region, a high honor in the eyes of men. This young man was Demetrius, and he was a Christian at a time when Christians living openly as such were condemned to death. As a follower of Christ, the Risen Lord, Demetrios had no fear of death, and though he served the empire faithfully as a soldier and administrator, the empire had no lasting claim on his soul. When Galerius Maximianus, Caesar at the time with an axe to grind against Christians, began his persecutions in earnest, Demetrios took this as a sign.
Whereas before he was known for his virtuous living and his charity, now he professed his Christian faith publicly and what is more, began to teach and preach Jesus Christ in the public square, and the eloquence of the grace of the Holy Spirit was with him. Another great saint of Thessaloniki, Gregory Palamas, speaking of this soldier of Christ a thousand years later said, St. Demetrios was graced with splendid prophetic power and was counted worthy of “the apostolic and teaching diaconate and a high position”.
We do not have exact records of what Demetrios said, but whatever it was sufficiently enraged Galerius, the emperor, who left his military campaign in the north against the Sarmatian peoples and descended to the city of Thessaloniki, and had Demetrios imprisoned in an old roman bath, locked away from his beloved people, and then to distract the confused populace he ordered that games be held in the arena, gladiator games…and he named his own champion, Lyaios, a hulking and blood-thirsty barbarian from Germania who was undefeated on the sands, and who, at the emperor’s
request, openly mocked the God of the Christians as he slew his opponents.
We know God raises up his own champions. It wasn’t long before a disciple of Demetrios, a young soldier and Christian named Nestor, with the saint’s blessing, challenged the blood-crazed gladiator, and by proxy, the emperor himself. The two fought, according to sources, on a platform raised up on a thicket of spears, so that anyone who fell off would meet their end on the spear-points. Before combat Nestor prayed out loud for victory “from the God of Demetrios” ensuring that the emperor, but particularly the people of the city, understood why he fought and for whom.
By the grace of God and the prayers of Demetrios, Nestor would throw his enormous opponent from the platform. The emperor’s chosen was suddenly and surprisingly dead, the god-mocker humbled in a very public manner. Galerius flew into a rage and ordered Nestor be taken out of the city and beheaded, the martyr’s laurel crown would be his trophy. The emperor then sent soldiers down to the baths, where in the darkness of the makeshift prison, away from the eyes of the people, they slew the long-suffering saint with spears. Clearly, Galerius did not want either soldier of Christ to become martyr, a witness to the power of Christ and the weakness of tyrants. His intent was to obliterate their witness, to nullify the power of their shed blood by killing them in secret.
Before the providence of God however, the machinations of knifing men are all in vain. Scripture says through the mouth of the patriarch Joseph, “Fear not, for I am God’s. You took counsel against me for evil but God took counsel for me for good.” And so it was, God’s counsel survives even death. Demetrios had a servant, Lupus, who buried the body and took the saint’s signet ring and blood-stained cloak, and for the next few days worked amazing miracles of healing with these tokens of martyric power before being slain himself. Despite the emperor’s attempts, Demetrios’ blood would cry out from the earth, a witness to the power of God, and like a seed planted would grow into a mighty testament of the presence of the Kingdom among us.
He is called the Myrrh-Streamer, or Myrrh-Gusher for good reason, his sanctified body has been producing a powerfully fragrant myrrh for centuries, that is a beautifully aromatic substance that literally streams from him, which cannot be explained away. There is no scientific answer as to where it comes from and how. Ask anyone who has been, and they will tell you, the church where his relics are kept is absolutely enveloped in the holy scent.
A spectacular thing occurred sometime in the 1980’s on his feast-day, when every single icon and mosaic, the very walls of the ancient church began to gush myrrh as his relics had been doing for so long, while the case in which his sanctified bones were kept filled with the myrrh so that the clergy present were overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of the stuff. And this gushing myrrh heals countless people every year, it is a source of many miracles, a conduit of the grace given to Demetrios by God.
The God-Man Jesus Christ conquered death, and death could inspire no fear in his champions while they lived, and since their martyrdoms they are still capable of witnessing to the fact that death is not the end, God’s Kingdom extends beyond the gates of death, God’s life permeates all. Demetrios is also called the wonder-worker for good reason as well. Since his martyrdom 1700 years ago, the city of Thessaloniki has experienced invasions, fires, earthquakes, all manner of cataclysm, and accounts of the saint’s intervention abound. People have witnessed him upon the walls of the city, riding a [brown] steed, or elsewhere standing upon the roof of his church. Invading enemies have experienced him sallying out of the city, leading a regiment of riders in white. In fact the Byzantines had records of captured enemies claiming the fiery-haired warrior clad in white had seemed impervious to their weapons and spewed fire at them. There have been instances of women abducted by brigands retrieved miraculously by the saint as well as merchants and traders redirected in dreams and visions to the city, saving it from starvation. The city gratefully celebrates
his memory and patronage for an entire week surrounding October 26th.
His wonder-working activity does not stop at the walls of Thessaloniki however. Slavic peoples hold him in great honor. The Russians attribute the victory at the battle of Kulikov against the overwhelming Mongol hordes to Demetrius, and they have dedicated the entire expanse of Siberia to his protection. Every Saturday before his feast-day they celebrate “Demetrios Saturday” and remember the souls of those who have died nobly in battle. My own patron Saint, the Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky considered Saint Demetrios to be the patron of his family. We are all
connected. All Orthodox Christians of whatever ethnicity or nationality, pray to St Demetrios at the sacrament of Holy Unction usually during Holy Week, calling upon the grace of healing which he is known for. It seems that people the world over have been humbled by this valiant soldier of Christ, this constant and steadfast aid and protection, this mighty intercessor before the glorious throne of God. His short life was marked by virtue and boldness and yet his earthly accomplishments pale in comparison to the unimaginable grace manifest in his markedly active afterlife.
This, my brothers and sister, this is the reality of the Kingdom of God, this divine super-reality that is the Kingdom in-breaking into our fallen world, the grace of our Lord permeating this earthly materiality, so that the very air we breathe is fragrant with his grace, and catastrophes and all sort of evil is overcome and suddenly turned back, and death itself seems to have no effect. This is what the martyrs witness to, this is what they proclaim. This is what the devil and all petty tyrants fear trembling, the perfect love of Christ and his Saints that casts out all fear. This is the transformed world the Church presents to us, if we have the eyes to see.
My brothers and sisters, on this day, make our beloved saint Demetrios your friend and by his prayer we will all grow closer to Christ, and become ourselves in so many ways witnesses to and God willing, even conduits of his blessed Kingdom. God is truly wonderful among his saints! Now and forever and to the ages. Amen.