Prologue of Ohrid

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September 5

1. THE HOLY PROPHET ZACHARIAS

He was the father of St. John the Forerunner. Zacharias was the son of Barachias, from the lineage of Abia, of the sons of Aaron. Zacharias was a high priest who held the eighth degree of service in the Temple at Jerusalem. His wife Elizabeth was the daughter of Sophia and sister of St. Anna, who was the mother of the Holy Theotokos. During the reign of King Herod the child-slayer, Zacharias was serving one day at the Temple of Jerusalem according to his turn. An angel of God appeared to him in the sanctuary, and Zacharias had great fear. The angel said to him: Fear not, Zacharias (Luke 1:13), and announced that Elizabeth would bear a son, in answer to their prayers. But both Zacharias and Elizabeth were old. When Zacharias doubted the words of the heavenly herald, the angel said: I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God (Luke 1:19). Zacharias was struck dumb from that hour, and could not speak until his son was born and he had written on a tablet: His name is John (Luke 1:63). Then his speech returned, and he magnified God. Some time later, when the Lord Jesus had been born and Herod began to slaughter the children of Bethlehem, he sent men to find and kill the son of Zacharias-for Herod had heard all that had happened to Zacharias, and how John had been born. Upon seeing the soldiers coming, Elizabeth took John into her arms-he was a year and a half old at that time-fled from the house with him, and ran to a rocky and desolate place. When she saw the soldiers following her, she cried out to the mountain: "O mountain of God, receive a mother with her child!'' and the rock opened and hid the mother and child. Then Herod, enraged that the child John had not been slain, ordered that Zacharias be slain before the altar. The blood of Zacharias was spilled on the marble and dried solid as stone, and remained as a witness to Herod's evil deed. In the place where Elizabeth hid with John a cave opened, water flowed out of it, and a fruit-bearing palm grew, all by the power of God. Forty days after the death of Zacharias, the blessed Elizabeth died. The child John remained in the wilderness, fed by an angel and protected by God's providence, until the day he appeared at the Jordan.

2. THE HOLY MARTYRS JUVENTIUS AND MAXIMINUS

Little is known about the life of these two holy men, but their suffering for Christ is known from a sermon by St. John Chrysostom praising them. They were soldiers during the rule of Emperor Julian the Apostate. In conversation with others during a military feast, they condemned the emperor for his persecution of Christians. Someone told the emperor of this, and he had them thrown into prison. Some of the emperor's men visited them with the intention of turning them away from the true Faith. They told Juventius and Maximinus that many of their companions had denied Christ. To this, the two nobly replied: "Then we must stand bravely, and offer ourselves as a sacrifice for their apostasy.'' They were beheaded with the sword in the dark of night, but their relics were found and were revealed to be miracle-working.

3. SEVENTY HOLY MARTYRS

Headed by Urban, Theodore and Medimnus, these men were chosen from among the Christians of Constantinople during the Emperor Valens's persecution of Orthodoxy, as the most respected and distinguished citizens of the capital, to go to Nicomedia to implore the heretical emperor (an Arian) to at least spare the lives of Orthodox Christians. The emperor became enraged and told them to go back, but secretly ordered his sailors to set the boat on fire when they were at sea, and to save themselves in a dinghy. The wicked servants of the even more wicked master did this. The bodies of these glorious seventy martyrs were burned and drowned in the sea, but their souls swam on to the haven of eternal blessedness.

4. THE VENERABLE ATHANASIUS

He labored in asceticism in Vilnius, and was later the abbot of a monastery in Brest. Because of his unwavering faith in Orthodoxy, he was beheaded by the Roman Catholics on September 5, 1648. His miracle-working relics repose in Brest.

HYMN OF PRASE

 THE SEVENTY HOLY MARTYRS

Why is the midnight sea so bright?
What manner of terrible flame springs from the water?
It is the tongue of malice, which speaks with fire,
And burns a ship at sea.
The heretical emperor mocks Orthodoxy,
And burns seventy friends with fire.
It is the feast of Valens, a bestial emperor-
A heretic is often more cruel than an unbeliever.
Seventy deaths! For what crime?
For having stood before the emperor's face with an appeal,
Imploring that he spare the innocent-
For this, he burned them with fire.

The dry boat burned like straw in a stack,
The flame ascended to heaven like an accusation:
The men all knelt in the flames
And raised up a prayer to God and the saints:
"Accept our sacrifice, O All-seeing God!
Help us to sail to the Heavenly Kingdom!''
In the raging flames, the bodies gave off a fragrance,
Like pure incense before the holy altar.
These are the pure sacrifices of Holy Orthodoxy
Strengthened by torture, and glorifying God.
The sea cools the seventy bodies,
And seventy souls take delight in Paradise!
In the Church, their glory is proclaimed,
But the disgraced Valens faces God's punishment.

REFLECTION

Men strive in vain to discover those things that God intentionally conceals from them. If God had not permitted, men would never have found gold and silver beneath the earth, or the power of steam or the glow of electrical light. In vain, Herod slaughtered countless children in Bethlehem in order to slay One. That One was hidden from the sight and sword of Herod. In vain did Herod seek John. Behold the wonder: soldiers pursued the aged Elizabeth, who was fleeing with John in her arms-and could not catch up with her! The enraged Herod summoned Zacharias and demanded: "Give me your son John!'' The aged priest meekly replied: "I am now serving the Lord God of Israel. I know not where my son is.'' Insane with rage, Herod ordered Zacharias slain in place of John. The servants of the king entered the Temple and asked Zacharias: "Where have you hidden your son? Give him to us, for the king has so ordered. If you do not give him to us, you yourself will die.'' Zacharias replied: "You will kill my body but the Lord will receive my soul.'' Thus Zacharias was slain, but Herod was not content with that. The wicked king had no peace, day or night, for he was tormented by a foreboding that John could be that newborn king proclaimed by the Magi from the East. Herod tried to find him, but in vain, for God had intentionally hidden him.

CONTEMPLATION

Contemplate God's punishment of David for his sins (II Samuel 17):

1. How Absalom warred with his father and how many people died in that war;

2. How Absalom perished;

3. How David wept bitterly.

HOMILY

on the necessity of a second or spiritual birth

Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3).

Thus the Lord Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, and Nicodemus asked in amazement: "How can this be?'' That is, how can a man be born again? Even to this day, many ask: "How can a sensual man become a spiritual man?'' "How can a sinner become a righteous one?'' "How can the grace of God enter a man and replace his sensual thoughts and will?'' "How can the Holy Spirit illuminate the heart of man?'' "How can water be changed into wine?'' We know that when the Spirit of God descended upon the apostles, they became different men-new men, reborn men. We also know, from thousands of examples, how men of sensual thoughts and sensual life became spiritual men, regenerated men. Therefore, we know that it happened then and happens now, by the action of the grace of God the Holy Spirit. It is not necessary for us to ask how this happens. It is enough for us to know that it does happen, and to strive that it happen in us, for the grace of the Spirit is given to everyone who seeks it and prepares himself to be able to receive it. There is no more difficult task than to explain spiritual things to men who think and judge only sensually. St. John Chrysostom says: "A soul which is given over to passions cannot achieve anything great and noble, for it suffers from a grievous blindness, like that of eyes darkened by the flow of pus.'' Usually the most sensual men inquire about the greatest divine mysteries. They do not inquire about that in order to know how they can be saved, but rather to confuse the faithful and to ridicule the Faith, and to justify their own sinful and passionate life. Unable to raise themselves to the first rung of the heavenly ladder, they fantasize about the last rung. Brethren, when such as these inquire about the profoundest mysteries of the regeneration of the soul and the Kingdom of Heaven, ask them, first of all, to fulfill the ten basic commandments of God. If they do this, then their souls will be opened to the understanding of the Divine Mysteries, inasmuch as that understanding is necessary for the cleansing of their sins and passions, and for eternal salvation.

O Lord Jesus Christ, our Most-gracious and All-wise Teacher, help us to understand with our minds, and embrace with our hearts, as much of Thy wisdom as is necessary for our salvation. Help us to keep ourselves from undue curiosity.

To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.

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