The Intercession of the Saints - A Homily on the Feast of the Great-martyr Demetrios of Thessalonika

November 08, 2020

The Intercession of the Saints - A Homily on the Feast of the Great-martyr Demetrios of Thessalonika - Holy Cross Monastery

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.

Introduction

It is regrettable if we are unfamiliar with the saints who are significant to various peoples and places, but even doubly so if we are unfamiliar with that whole genre of writing dedicated to heralding the life and teaching of the saints of the Church, called hagiography. In these works, the saints form a parade of grace-filled lives, a pageant of Christian living that displays the virtues attained with much toil and given by the Holy Spirit. Hagiography illustrates how the saints assist us, pray for us, mediate for us, and implore God for us, for our family, our city, our nation, the whole world. It confirms that God has not left us alone in a barren world, a cold machine, isolated and adrift on the sea of life with no assistance, no help, or no spiritual friends. It demonstrates how God is with us, and so are His friends, the saints, who seek to do His will for us. It is up to us to call on these friends when we need assistance, answers, or companionship.

The fifth-century author of the Miracles of St. Thecla describes the role of the saints in the following way:

Because God is the lover of mankind, the most compassionate and generous, he sowed the saints over all the earth, as if he divided the earth among excellent physicians. Thus, on the one hand, the saints can easily perform miracles, for they are in a way closer to those in need [than we are] and able to act immediately, bringing healing. On the other hand, through the agency of God’s grace and power, they can perform great deeds which demand His help in the highest degree, acting as ambassadors, intercessors, and persuaders for the sake of nations, cities, races, and people, against pestilences, wars, hungers, droughts, earthquakes, and against all things that only the hand of God can control and master.[1]

One such saint amongst this panoply of Christian friends is Demetrios, the Great-martyr and Myrrh-gusher. Twenty minutes from the waterfront in the ancient city of Thessalonika stands the Basilica dedicated to St. Demetrius, the patron saint of that city. The church was built over the remains of his original burial site and now stands as a beacon broadcasting St. Demetrios’s feats and his constant intercessions not only for the inhabitants of Thessalonika but for all those who call upon him, be they Greeks, Slavs, or Americans.[2]

Narration

St. Demetrios[3] was born in Thessalonica at the end of the third century during the reign of the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. Throughout this time, the persecution of Christians waxed and waned. His pious parents, who prayed for many years to have a child, in due time gave birth to Demetrios. Though living as secret Christians amidst the persecutions, they taught him in the Christian faith.

Demetrios’s father was the military commander of the emperor’s troops in Thessalonica, and Demetrios grew up and succeeded his father in this position. As Commander, Demetrios was ordered by Emperor Maximian to rid Thessalonica of all the Christians.

Far from obeying the Emperor, Demetrios instead proclaimed himself a Christian and spoke openly about the Christian faith converting his fellow citizens. Upon learning of this insolence to the throne, Emperor Maximian had him imprisoned near the arena where gladiatorial games were frequently fought and where Christians were pitted against experienced gladiators.

A friend of Demetrios named Nestor, who considered Demetrios his spiritual guide, desired to challenge the current gladiatorial champion and favorite of the Emperor, Lyiaos. He had defeated Pagans and Christians by throwing them off the raised arena platform onto upturned spears. Demetrios prophesied to Nestor that he would win but then would suffer for Christ’s sake.

On the day of battle, as Nestor confronted Lyaios, he prayed aloud, “God of Demetrios, help me!” and grappled onto his opponent. After a long struggle, he was able to throw Lyaios off the platform to his death onto the spears. The crowds roared, yelling, “Great is the God of Demetrios!” and the Emperor was enraged. Following this victory, Emperor Maximian had Nestor beheaded, and when he heard that Demetrios had counseled Nestor, he also was killed - on the morning of October 26, 306. Before his death, an angel came to Demetrios and said, “Peace be unto thee, sufferer for Christ. Be strong and courageous!” Not long after, guards came while Demetrios was at prayer and stabbed him with spears until he died. Christians secretly retrieved his body and gave it an honorable burial. Many miracles were performed at his grave, miracles without number and a significant one being the constant flow of myrrh from his body, which healed the sick. Because of this miracle, St. Demetrios is also called the “Myrrh-gusher.”

CONFIRMATIO

Self-denial

  1. “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?” asks the Psalmist (Ps. 116.12). The answer is, “My whole self,” which may even end in death, if not at least the death of our old man, for whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it, says the Lord (Matt. 16.25). There is no way to repay the Lord, no equal transaction to reimburse God’s goodness because if we offer all that we are and have, at the end of the day, our sacrifice is only considered filthy rags because we cannot match or equal the love of God for us.

On Thoughts

  1. St. Demetrios was ordered to persecute Christians but did not listen to the Emperor. Every day we are enticed to lesser temptations that test our resolve. So often do we hear: sleep a little longer, eat and drink a little bit more, go to the service late, follow this or that thought wherever it leads, excuse yourself from your prayer rule due to tiredness, do not sacrifice yourself for others – do we obey? If we are not conscientious of the little ways in which we need to put to death the desires of the flesh and give life to the Spirit, how will we overcome when the greater trials come, when we are asked to give blood to attain the spirit? Little by little, the demons seek to draw us away from God, from a life lived for Him in every aspect, luring us by forgetfulness, laziness, and ignorance (says St. Mark the Ascetic) until we succumb to the pleasures of the flesh that lead us to despondency, complacency, and spiritual blindness.

Capability vs. Prayer

III. Being a Christian man, St. Demetrius loved God and his neighbor. He grew up in a secret Christian household, and he knew the Gospel, and he loved the Lord. When the time came for him to render unto the Lord, he proclaimed himself a Christian and taught the peoples of Thessalonika the same until he was imprisoned. However, imprisonment did not keep people from hearing his message, it did not silence the Holy Spirit, and it does not keep God from hearing us, or answering us.

How many of us possess any eloquence at all, to the degree that we are able to convince others, whether it be of the truth of Christianity or any other subject. Perhaps, though not eloquent, we quietly go about our business, attempting to live in a Christian manner – praying, living in peace, trying to love God and our neighbor – and yet how often do we wonder (with hope) if those whom we love – whether they be Father or mother, sister or brother, spouse or friend – if they will become Christians?

On Prayer

Despite any inability on our part, or in isolating circumstances, prayer is always available. Can we hope that those we love will become Christians? Yes, because God hears the petitions of all of his children, especially and even more so, those (monks) who have left father, mother, home, and country for him. Moreover, every person who has had a stroke and cannot speak, anyone who is house-bound for one reason or another, anyone with any mental incapacity or physical incapacity, all can be heard by God and especially when we lack any ability if only we would pray and live as Christians in the situation where we are.

St. Mary of Egypt lived not amongst people, but her life was revealed to all the world through St. Zosimas and is read during the first and fifth weeks of Lent. We read in the Desert Fathers of how one Father ran from people though they pleaded, “For the sake of God, stop, and give me a word for my salvation,” to which he responded, “It is for the sake of God, I run from you.” St. Matrona of Moscow, though blind, had the gifts of prophecy, clairvoyance, and healing even from childhood, and people came to her from all over. We hear the same of Eldress Schemanun Theodosia, who was paralyzed from the neck down and had been in a coma for twenty years, but she accepted that heavy cross, and she brought joy to all who visited her.[4]

God hears our prayers, He knows our love for our family and friends, and He takes care of them as the man-loving and compassionate God that He is, even, and especially, when we cannot see it.

The lives of the saints of the Church are not only exemplary in their expression of the Christian life and the attainment of its virtues throughout all time and place, peoples and cultures. What these lives reveal is that the spiritual world that encompasses and surrounds all things is open to us. The lives are not legends or fables which have a moral purpose. Instead, they reveal historical people whose life illustrates how they interact with God and with us. What is more, they are not segregated to the halls of history but are alive today, existing in the spiritual world and interacting with our world. We see this illustrated in the Divine Services also.

Interpreting his life, the Old Testament reading for St. Demetrios, read last night, saspeaks of how his life pleased the Lord:

He, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time: for his soul pleased the Lord: therefore hasted he to take him away from among the wicked. This the people saw, and understood it not, neither laid they up this in their minds, That [God’s] grace and mercy is with his saints, and that he hath respect unto his chosen. (Wisdom of Solomon 4.13-15)

The Church hymnography bears record to the aid which St. Demetrius offers. Last evening, we chanted:

O Demetrius, thou open wellspring of fragrant and precious myrrh, who washest my heart clean of the filth of the passions, having shown me to be the fragrance of Christ through the exercise of the virtues, fill my mind with grace, that I may hymn thy divine graces. (Ode I, Canon 2, Tone VIII).

Conclusion

The saints are our friends and intercessors. “Through the agency of God’s grace and power, they can perform great deeds.” Only when we become more familiar with the Lives of the Saints and learn to call on them more frequently will we know the help that comes from them.

THROUGH THE  PRAYERS OF ST. DEMETRIUS THE GREAT-MARTYR AND MYRRH-GUSHER, LORD JESUS CHRIST, OUR GOD, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.

 

[1] Cited in Wiśniewski, Robert, The Beginnings of the Cult of Relics (Oxford: OUP, 2019), 54.

[2] Early accounts of his miracles are found at https://www.ucc.ie/archive/milmart/BHL2122.html. The Miracles of St. Demetrius, Vol. II, which recounts St. Demetrius’ protection of Thessalonika against invading Slavs, is found at https://www.jassa.org/?p=11361

[3] A translation of St. Demetirus’s life from the Patrologia Latina is at https://www.ucc.ie/archive/milmart/BHL2122.html.

[4] Cf, The Orthodox Word, No. 320, 2018.




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