March 9th (III - 22)
Icon of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste
Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebasteia: Kyrion, Candidus, Domnus, Hesykhios, Heraklios, Smaragdes, Eunoikos, Ualentos (Valentus), Bibianus, Claudius, Priscus, Theodoulos, Eutykhios, John, Xanthios, Ilianus, Sisinios, Angus, Flavian, Aetius, Akakios, Ekdikios (Hecditus), Lysimakhos, Alexander, Ilias, Gorgonios, Theophilos, Dometian, Caius, Leontius, Athanasias, Cyril, Sacerdonus, Nicholas, Ualerios (Valerius), Philoktimos, Severian, Khudion, Meliton and Aglaios (+ c. 320). Martyr Urpasian (+ c. 295). Saint Caesarias, Brother of Saint Gregory the Theologian (+ c. 369). Righteous Tarasias. Albazinsk Icon of the Mother of God, named "the Word made Flesh" (1666).
The Holy 40 Martyrs martyred at Sebasteia Lake: In the year 313 Saint Constantine the Great issued an edict, from which the christians were permitted freedom of belief and made equal with pagans under the law. But his co-ruler Licinius was prevailed upon by pagans, and in his part of the empire he decided to eradicate Christianity, which had become considerably widespread there. Licinius prepared his soldiery to fight against Constantine and, fearing mutiny, he decided to rid christians from his army.
One of the military-commanders of that time in the Armenian city of Sebasteia was Agricolaus, a zealous proponent of paganism. Under his command was a company of forty Cappadocians -- brave soldiers -- who emerged victorious from many a battle. All of them were christians. When these soldiers refused to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, Agricolaus locked them up in prison. The soldiers immersed themselves in diligent prayer, and at one point during the night they heard a voice: "Persevere until the end, then shalt ye be saved".
On the following morning the soldiers were again taken to Agricolaus. This time the pagan tried the method of flattery. He began to praise their valour, their youthfulness and strength; and again he urged them to renounce Christ and thereby win themselves the respect and favour of their emperor. And again hearing their refusal, Agricolaus gave orders to shackle the soldiers. But the eldest of them, Kyrion, said: "The emperor has not given thee the right to put shackles upon us". Agricolaus became embarrassed and gave an order to take the soldiers back to prison without shackles.
Seven days later, the reknown judge Licius arrived at Sebasteia and held trial over the soldiers. The saints steadfastly answered: "Take not only our military insignia, but also our lives, since nothing is more precious to us than Christ God". Licius thereupon ordered the holy martyrs to be beaten with stones. But the stones flew past them entirely; and the stone thrown by Licius, hit Agricolaus in the face. The torturers realised that the saints were guarded by some invisible force. In prison, the soldiers spent the night at prayer and again they heard the voice of the Lord comforting them: "Believing in Me, if anyone shalt die he shalt live. Be brave and fear not, since ye shall obtain crowns imperishable".
On the following day also the judge repeated the interrogation in front of the torturer, but the soldiers remained unyielding.
It was winter, and there was a strong frost. They lined up the holy soldiers, led them to a lake located not far from the city, and placed them under guard on the ice all night. In order to break the will of the martyrs, a warm bath-house was set up not far away on the shore. During the first hour of the night, when the cold had become unbearable, one of the soldiers could not hold out and made a dash for the bath-house, but barely had he stepped over the threshold, that he fell down dead. During the third hour of the night the Lord sent consolation to the martyrs: suddenly there was light, the ice melted away, and the water in the lake became warm. All the guards were asleep, except for one who kept watch by the name of Aglaios. Looking at the lake he saw, that over the head of each martyr there had appeared a radiant crown. Aglaios counted thirty-nine crowns and realised, that the soldier who fled had lost his crown. Aglaios thereupon woke up the other guards, discarded his uniform and said to them: "I too -- am a Christian" -- and he joined the martyrs. Standing in the water he prayed: "Lord God, I believe in Thee, in Whom these soldiers do believe. To them add me also, and esteem me worthy to suffer with Thy servants".
In the morning the torturers beheld with surprise that the martyrs were alive, and their guard Aglaios was glorifying Christ together with them. They then led the soldiers out of the water and broke their legs. At the time of this horrible execution the mother of the youngest of the soldiers, Meliton, pleaded with her son not to endure and suffer everything all the way to death. They put the bodies of the martyrs on a cart and committed them to fire. Young Meliton was still breathing, and they left him to lay on the ground. His mother then pulled up her son, and on her own shoulders she carried him behind the cart. When Meliton gasped out his last breath, his mother put him on the cart amidst the bodies of his fellow sufferers. The bodies of the saints were committed to fire, and they then threw the charred bones into the water, so that christians would not gather them up.
Three days later the martyrs appeared in a dream to Blessed Peter, bishop of Sebasteia, and commanded him to give their remains over to burial. The bishop together with several clergy gathered up the remains of the glorious martyrs by night and buried them with honour.
The Holy Martyr Urpasian suffered in the city of Nicomedia. The emperor Maximian Gallerius (305-311) cruelly persecuted christians serving in his army and at his court. Some of the timid of soul began to waver and began to worship the pagan gods, but the strong of soul held out firmly until the very end. Thus too, the dignitary Urpasian threw down his cloak and sash at the feet of the ruler and said: "Henceforth -- I am a warrior of the Heavenly King, the Lord Jesus Christ. Take back the insignia given me". Maximian gave orders to tie Urpasian to a tree and whip him with ox thongs. Later on they bound the saint to the lattice top of an iron grate, and beneathe they built a fire. Saint Urpasian with incessant prayer endured the intolerable suffering. The glorious martyr was burned alive, and his ashes thrown into the sea. His tormentors were astonished that they had been unable to break his spirit.
Saint Caesarias lived for a long time at the court of the emperor Constantius (337-361), and was his friend and chief court physician. In the year 368 during the time of an earthquake he miraculously remained alive and was dug out from under the rubble. The saint with all his heart perceived, how the Lord watches over His servants, and how without His will not one hair doth fall from the head of a man. Saint Caesarias left the world and gave himself over completely into the service of God.
The Albazinsk Icon of the Mother of God "Word made Flesh" -- is of great religious significance in the Amur River region. It received its name from the Russian fortress of Albazin (now the village of Albazino) along the Amur river, founded in the year 1650 by the famous Russian frontier ataman Erofei Khabarov on the site of a settlement of the Daurian prince Albaza.
The hue arising over the Amur Albazinsk fortress became an object of enmity for the Chinese emperor and his generals, who then already dreamed of expanding their influence over all of Russian Siberia.
On the eve of the feast of the Annunciation / Blagoveschenie, on 24 March 1652, there occurred the first military clash of the Russians with the Chinese at the Amur. Through the prayers of the MostHoly Mother of God the pagans were scattered and fled to their own territory. This victory appeared as a blessed portent for the Russians. But the struggle had only just begun. Still many a son of Holy Rus' went on to drain the cup of death in the struggle for the Amur -- for the triumph of Orthodoxy in the Far East.
In June of 1658 an Albazinsk military detachment, 270 Cossacks under the leadership of Onufrei Stepanov, fell into an ambush and in an heroic fight they were completely annihilated by the Chinese.
The enemy burned Albazin, overran Russian lands, and carried off into China the local population. They wanted to turn the fertile cultivated area back into wilderness.
During these difficult years the MostHoly Mother of God shew particular signs of Her mercy unto the Amur land. In 1665, when Russians returned and rebuilt Albazin, together with a priest there came to the Amur the starets/elder Ermogen from the Kirensk Holy Trinity monastery; he carried with him a blessing to regenerate the region, -- a wonderworking icon of the Mother of God "the Word made Flesh", called since that time the Albazinsk Icon. In 1671 the blessed elder built on the boundary mark of the Brusyan Stone (one and an half kilometers from Albazin nearby along the Amur) a small monastery, where also was kept the holy icon during the following years.
Albazin was built up. At two churches in the city -- the Ascension of the Lord and Sainted Nicholas the Wonderworker -- Albazinsk priests raised up the Bloodless Sacrifice. Not far from the city (up along the Amur) was built still another monastery, -- the Spassky. The fertile soil produced bread for all Eastern Siberia. The local populace adapted itself to Russian Orthodox culture, peacefully entering into the assemblage of the multi-national Russian state, and found Russian protection from the plundering raids of Chinese feudal war-lords.
At Moscow they did not forget the needs of the far-away Amur frontier: they strengthened military defenses and improved regional governance. In 1682 was formed the Albazinsk Military-Provincial Government. They concerned themselves about the spiritual nourishment of the Amur region peoples. A local Sobor / Council of the Russian Church in 1681 adopted a resolution about the sending to the far-off city on the Lena and Amur, "to the Daurian people", "religious -- archimandrites, hegumens or priests, both learned and good, for the enlightening of unbelievers with the law of Christ". The Daurian and Tungusian peoples as a whole accepted Holy Baptism; of great significance was the conversion to Orthodoxy of the Daurian prince Hantimur, -- christened Peter, and his eldest son Katana, -- christened Paul.
The servants of the Chinese emperor planned among themselves for a new attack. After several unsuccessful forays, on 10 July 1685, they marched against Albazin with an army numbering 15 thousand and encircled the fortress. In it were 450 Russian soldiers and 3 cannon. The first assault was repulsed. The Chinese then from all sides piled up firewood and kindling against the wooden walls of the fortress and set it afire. Further resistance proved impossible. With its military standards and holy things, among which was the wonderworking Albazinsk Icon, the garrison in military array abandoned the fortress.
But the Mother of God did not withhold Her intercession from Her chosen city. Scouts soon reported, that the Chinese suddenly "hurriedly both day and night" began to withdraw from Albazin, not even being able to fulfill the Chinese emperor's command to destroy the sown crops of the Russian fields. The miraculous interference of the Heavenly Protectress not only expelled the enemy from Russian territories, -- it even preserved the bread, which then sufficed the restored city for the winter months. On 20 August 1685 Russians were again already in Albazin.
A year went by, and the fortress was again besieged by Chinese. There began an heroic five-month defense of Albazin, -- "the Albazinsk sitting-tight", which occupies a most honoured place in the history of Russian military glory. Thrice -- in July, in September and in October, -- the forces of the Chinese emperor made an assault on the wooden fortifications. An hail of fiery arrows and red-hot cannon balls fell on the town. The battle was such, that neither the city nor its defenders could be seen in the smoke and fire. And all three times the Invisible Protectress, the Mother of God, defended the Albazinsk inhabitants from their fierce enemy.
Until December 1686, when the Chinese, -- having acknowledged their inability to succeed -- lifted the siege of Albazin, in the city of its 826 defenders only 150 men remained alive.
These forces were inadequate to continue the war against the Chinese emperor. In August 1690 the last of the Cossacks, under the leadership of Vasilii Smirenikov -- one of the heroes of the defense of Albazin, departed from Albazin. Neither the fortress, nor its holy things, fell into the hands of the enemy: the fortifications were razed and leveled by the Cossacks, and the Albazinsk Icon of the Mother of God was taken to Sretensk, a city on the river Shilka, which flows into the Amur.
But even after the destruction of Albazin, God destined its inhabitants to fulfill yet another service for the good of the Church. By Divine Providence the cessation of the military effort contributed to the increase of the influence of the grace of Orthodoxy among the peoples of the Far East. During the years of war, a company of about an hundred Russian cossacks and peasants from Albazin and its environs were taken captive and dispatched to Peking. The Chinese emperor even gave orders to give over one of the Buddhist temples for establishing in the Chinese capital an Orthodox church in the name of Sophia, the Wisdom of God. In 1695 the metropolitan of Tobol'sk, Ignatii, sent off to the Sophia church -- antimins, chrism, Divine-service books and church vessels. In a missive to the captive priest Maksim, "the Preacher of the Holy Gospel to the Chinese Empire", Metropolitan Ignatii wrote: "Be thou not troubled, nor hereafter troubled of soul for thyself and all captive with thee, -- since who is able to oppose the Will of God? And captivity for you is not without purpose to the Chinese people, such that the light of Christ's Orthodox Faith may be revealed to them by you".
The preaching of the Gospel in the Chinese empire soon bore fruit -- and resulted in the first baptisms of Chinese. The Russian Church zealously concerned itself over the new flock. The metropolitan of Tobol'sk, Sainted Philothei -- "the Apostle to Siberia" (+1727), in 1715 wrote a grammota to the Peking clergy and the faithful living under the Peking Spiritual Mission, having uninterruptedly continued with the Christian work of enlightening pagans up through the then present time.
The years went by, and the new epoch brought with it the Russian deliverance of the Amur. In the year 1850 on 1 August, on the feast of the All-Merciful Saviour, captain G. I. Nevel'sky raised up the Russian Andreev flag at the mouth of the Amur River and founded the city of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur. Through the efforts of the Governor-General of Eastern Siberia, N. N. Murav'ev-Amursky (+ 1881), and the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Innokentii, ArchBishop of Kamchatka (+ 1879, Comm. 31 March), and through the spiritual nourishment which obtained in the Amur and Sea-coast regions, -- in several years all the left bank of the Amur was built up with Russian cities, villages and cossack settlements. Each year brought important advances in the development of the liberated territory, its Christian enlightenment and welfare. In the year 1857 on the bank of the Amur were established fifteen way-stations and settlements (among which number the larger, -- the Albazinsk on the site of the old fortress and the Innokentiev, named in honour of Sainted Innokentii). So too for the single year 1858 were more than thirty settlements, among which were three cities, -- Khabarovsk, Blagoveschensk and Sophiisk.
In May 1858, on the day of holy Sainted Nicholas the God-Pleasing, N. N. Murav'ev-Amursky and ArchBishop Innokentii of Kamchatka arrived in the cossack post at Ust'-Zeisk. Sainted Innokentii was here to dedicate a temple in honour of the Annunciation / Blagoveschenie of the Mother of God, -- the first building in the new city. Because of the name of the temple, the city was also called Blagoveschensk, -- in memory of the first victory over the Chinese on the feast of the Annunciation in 1652, and in memory of the Blagoveschenie church at Irkutsk, -- in which Sainted Innokentii began his own priestly service; but it was also as a symbol, that "from hence hath proceeded the blessed news of the re-integration of the Amur region territory under Russian sovereignty". New settlers on the way to the Amur, journeying through Sretensk, fervently offered up their prayers to the Holy Protectress of the Amur region in front of her Wonderworking Albazinsk Icon. Their prayers were heard: the Aigunsk (1858) and Peking (1860) treaties decisively secured for Russia the left-bank of the Amur and Sea-coast regions.
In 1868 the bishop of Kamchatka, Benjamin Blagonravov -- the successor to Sainted Innokentii, transferred the holy icon from Sretensk to Blagoveschensk, thereby returning to the Amur territory its famous holy icon. A new period in the veneration of the Albazinsk Icon of the Mother of God began with the year 1885 and is associated with the name of the Kamchatka bishop Gurii, who established an annual commemoration on 9 March and a weekly reading of an akathist with prayerful song.
... In the summer of 1900, during the time of the "Boxer Rebellion" in China, the waves of insurrection reached all the way to the Russian border. Chinese troops suddenly appeared on the banks of the Amur in front of peaceful Blagoveschensk. For nineteen days the enemy stood before the undefended city, raining artillery fire down upon it, and menacing the Russian bank with invasion. The shallows of the Amur afforded passage to the adversary. But in the Blagoveschensk church the services were incessant, and akathists were read before the Wonderworking Albazinsk Icon. And the Protection of the Mother of God, just like in earlier times of battles over Albazin, was again extended over the city: not daring to cross over the Amur, the enemy departed from Blagoveschensk. Through the accounts of the Chinese themselves, they often saw by day over the bank of the Amur a Radiant Woman, inspiring them with insuppressible fear and depriving their projectiles of destructive power.
For more than 300 years the Wonderworking Albazinsk Icon of the Mother of God watched over the Amur frontier of Russia. Orthodox people venerate it not only as Protectress of Russian soldiers, but also as a Patroness of mothers. Believers pray before the icon for mothers during the time of their pregnancy and at childbirth, -- "so that the Mother of God might give the true gift of abundant health from the inexhaustible well-spring of holiness of the Albazinsk Icon".
Copyright 1997 by translator Fr. S. Janos.