SYNAXIS OF THE HOLY THEOTOKOS
Synaxis of the Holy Theotokos, Afterfeast of the Nativity, Euthemios the Confessor, Bishop of Sardis, Holy New Hieromartyr Constantine of Russia, Who Struggled in Constantinople (1743), Constantius the Holy Martyr, Barlaam the Righteous of Valaam
ST. PAUL’S LETTER TO THE HEBREWS 2:11-18
BRETHREN, he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, ‘I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.’ And again, ‘I will put my trust in him.’ And again, ‘Here am I, and the children God has given me. Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
When the wise men departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my son.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more." But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead." And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaos reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a Nazarene.
The Holy Prophet-King David, Saint Joseph the Betrothed, and Saint James the Brother of the Lord are commemorated on the Sunday after the Nativity. If there is no Sunday between December 25 and January 1, their commemoration is moved to December 26.
At an early date, some churches in the East began to commemorate certain important figures of the New Testament at the time of Theophany, and later during the Nativity season. In Syria, for example, Saint Stephen (December 27), Saints James (April 30) and John (September 26), and Saints Peter and Paul (June 29) were commemorated near the end of December.
In Jerusalem, the saints mentioned above were combined with a feast that the Jews of Hebron celebrated on December 25 or 26 in honor of the Old Testament Patriarch Jacob. Later on, the Christians substituted Saint James (October 23) for Jacob, and then the commemoration of the Brother of the Lord became associated with his ancestor King David. In time, Saint Joseph was linked with Saints David and James.
Saint Joseph had four sons from his previous marriage: James, Judah, Joses, and Simon (or Symeon), and three daughters: Esther, Martha, and Salome, who was the mother of Saint John the Theologian.
Saint Joseph the Betrothed was of the lineage of King David. He had four sons from his previous marriage: James, Judah, Joses, and Simon (or Symeon), and three daughters: Esther, Martha, and Salome, who was the mother of Saint John the Theologian. After he became a widower, Saint Joseph led a life of strict temperance. He was chosen to be the husband and guardian of the Most Holy Theotokos, who had taken a vow of virginity.
An angel told him of the Incarnation of the Son of God through her. Saint Joseph was present when the shepherds and the Magi worshiped the new-born divine Infant. On the orders of the angel, he fled into Egypt with the Mother of God and the Infant Jesus, saving them from the wrath of King Herod. He lived in Egypt with the Virgin Mary and the divine Child, working as a carpenter. Saint Joseph reputedly died at the age of one hundred.
Saint Joseph is commemorated on the Sunday after the Nativity. If there is no Sunday between December 25 and January 1, his Feast is moved to December 26. The Righteous Joseph is also commemorated on the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers.
The Holy Prophet-King David was a forefather of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. The youngest son of Jesse, David shepherded a flock of sheep belonging to his father. He was distinguished by his deep faith, and he zealously fulfilled the will of God.
During a battle with the Philistines, he vanquished the giant Goliath in single combat, which decided the outcome of the war in favor of the Israelites. He endured many things from King Saul, who saw him as a favorite of the people and his rival. David, however, showed his own decency and magnanimity. Twice, when he had the possibility of killing Saul, he did not do so.
After Saul and his son perished, David was proclaimed king of the southern part of Israel, and after Saul’s second son was killed, he became king of all Israel. He built a new capital, Jerusalem (“the City of Peace”), and a new tabernacle. His great wish to build a Temple was not realized. It was foretold to him that his son would build the Temple.
The life of the Prophet David was darkened by a grievous falling: he took Uriah’s wife for himself, and sent Uriah to his death in battle. He was also an example of great repentance, humbly and with faith bearing the sorrows sent in punishment for his sins. Saint David gave a model for repentance in Psalm 50/51. King David died in great old age with steadfast faith in the coming of the promised Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. His divinely-inspired Psalter is widely used in the divine services and in personal prayers. (See the Books of Kings and Chronicles).
The holy Prophet-King David is invoked by those facing a difficult situation, such as an interview, etc.
The Holy Apostle James, Brother of the Lord, was the eldest son of Joseph the Betrothed from his first marriage with Solomonia. The Apostle James is remembered after the Feast of the Nativity of Christ together with his father Joseph and the Prophet-King David, since he accompanied his family on the Flight into Egypt and lived there with the Infant Jesus, the Mother of God and Joseph. Later, he returned to Israel with them.
After the Ascension of the Lord, Saint James was the first Bishop of Jerusalem, gaining the great esteem not only of Christians, but also of Jews. He was thrown from the roof of the Jerusalem Temple because he had publicly preached to the people about the God-Manhood of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Apostle James is also commemorated on October 23.
On the day after the Nativity of Christ we celebrate the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos, and come together to give her glory and praise. This is the second day of the three-day Winter Pascha.
Combining the hymns of the Nativity with those celebrating the Mother of God, the Church points to Mary as the one through whom the Incarnation was made possible. His humanity—concretely and historically—is the humanity He received from Mary. His body is, first of all, her body. His life is her life. This feast, the assembly in honor of the Theotokos, is probably the most ancient feast of Mary in the Christian tradition, the very beginning of her veneration by the Church.
Six days of post-feast bring the Christmas season to a close on December 31. At the services of all these days, the Church repeats the hymns and songs glorifying Christ’s Incarnation, reminding us that the source and foundation of our salvation is only to be found in the One who, as God before the ages, came into this world and for our sake was “born as a little Child.”
Father Alexander Schmemann, The Services of Christmas (1981)
On the second day of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Church has established the celebration of the Synaxis of the Most Holy Mother of God. The name of today's festival signifies the gathering of the faithful in order to praise and glorify the All-Holy Virgin, who gave birth to our Savior.
On the first day of the Nativity of the Lord, the Church glorifies the Redeemer of the human race, and the blessed deliverance which freed the sinful world from the snares of the Enemy. On the second day of the Nativity of the Lord, which was such a great event for our salvation, the Church calls upon us to honor the Ever-Virgin Mary, the Mother of our Lord, in an appropriate manner.
The day after many of the Church's Feast Days is called the Synaxis – such as the day after the Nativity of the Theotokos, when the righteous Joachim and Anna are commemorated; or the day following the Feast of Theophany, when we honor Saint John the Baptist, etc.
The Feast of the Synaxis of the Mother of God dates back to very ancient times. In the IV century, some Holy Fathers, such as Saint Epiphanios of Cyprus (May 12), were already preaching about it.
In the ancient Menaia, the Feast of the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos was called "the Nativity Gifts." This refers to the gifts which the Magi from the East brought to the newborn King of the Jews – the Divine Child Jesus. The Feast of the Synaxis of the Mother of God was also called "the Flight into Egypt."
On December 26, the early Church commemorated the Wise Men who came to worship the Savior, and the flight into Egypt, as well as the Synaxis of the Mother of God. That is why some icons of the Nativity of the Lord depict His Birth, the worship of the shepherds and the Magi, as well as the Flight into Egypt. Sometimes the inscription reads "The Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos."
Now, however, we commemorate "the Adoration of the Magi: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, and also the shepherds in Bethlehem who were watching their flocks and came to see the Lord" on the first day of the Nativity (December 25), but the Flight into Egypt is commemorated separately on December 26, the second day of the Nativity.
Before the massacre of the 14,000 Holy Innocents (December 29), an Angel warned Saint Joseph to take the Child and His Mother and flee to Egypt and to remain there until the Angel brought him word that it was safe for him to return to Nazareth, "for Herod will seek the child to destroy him" (Matthew 2:13).
In the icon of the Flight into Egypt there are mountains. The Virgin sits on a donkey with her Child, looking back at Joseph. He holds a staff, and his cloak is thrown over his shoulder. A young man (Tradition says this was Saint Joseph's son James, the Brother of the Lord) leads the donkey carrying a rush basket, and looks back at the Virgin. Behind them is a fortified town with idols toppling from the walls. This event was prophesied by Isaiah: "Behold, the Lord sits on a swift cloud,1 and shall come to Egypt, and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at His presence, and their heart shall faint within them" (Isaiah 19:1); and the Prophet Hosea alludes to it: "Out of Egypt have I called my Son" (Hosea 11:1). This is also mentioned in the Church's hymns.
1 On the Great Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord (Sticheron 4 on the Praises), that cloud is seen as an image, or type, of the Virgin.
The Hieromartyr Euthymius, Bishop of Sardis, during the period of the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos (780-797) and the empress Irene (797-802), was chosen Bishop of Sardis because of his virtuous life. He was also present at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), at which he denounced the Iconoclast heresy.
When the Iconoclast emperor Nikēphóros I (802-811) came to rule, Saint Euthymius and other Orthodox hierarchs were banished to the island of Patalareia, where they languished for a long time. Recalled from exile by the emperor Leo V (813-820), the bishop boldly denounced the Iconoclast heresy, and they sent him into exile to the city of Assia. The next emperor, Michael II the Stammerer (820-829), attempted to make him renounce icon-veneration, but without success.
Then the holy martyr was flogged and banished to the island of Crete. Michael was succeeded on the throne by the Iconoclast emperor Theophilus (829-842), on whose order Saint Euthymius was subjected to cruel tortures: they stretched him on four poles and beat him with ox thongs. Saint Euthymius fell asleep in the Lord several days after the torture.
Saint Euthymius is also commemorated on March 8.
Saint Constantine was a native of the city of Synnada and of Jewish descent. From his youth he was drawn to the Christian Faith. Careful study of the teachings of Christ set his heart aflame, and he left his parents to become a monk. He was baptized with the name Constantine and received monastic tonsure.
When they brought him the Holy Cross, he kissed it with love and touched it to his head. The image of the Holy Cross impressed itself upon him throughout all his life. Having spent his God-pleasing life in strict asceticism, Saint Constantine departed peacefully to the Lord.
Saint Evarestus, a native of Galatia, was the son of illustrious parents. From his youth he longed for the monastic life, and in particular he loved to read the books of Saint Ephraim the Syrian. He went to the Studion monastery, pursuing asceticism in strict fasting, vigil and prayer, and wearing iron chains. He departed to the Lord at age 75 in the year 825.
Our most holy and venerable Father Νικόdēmos the Sanctified was from Prilep, in southern Serbia. He was born in 1320, and his parents raised him in the Orthodox Faith. After receiving the holy and angelic monastic Schema and the grace of the priesthood, he wandered through many places, including Mount Athos and Constantinople, acquiring virtues through his love of labor.
Eventually, he came to the Romanian Principalities (Țara Românească, or Valakhia), enduring many trials and spiritual struggles, praying unceasingly in the mountains. Saint Νικόdēmos founded several monasteries; first by the water of Motru, then the Monastery of Vodiţa, which is dedicated to Saint Anthony the Great (January 17). There he established the cenobitic Rule for the many Fathers and brethren, and he lived in that monastery for a long time.
Later, prompted by divine revelation, he settled in a place called Tismana. By God’s will, he founded a monastery and dedicated it to the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos. Later, a great multitude of monks gathered where Saint Νικόdēmos lived with his brothers in Christ. He himself was an example of good works as he led them on the path of salvation. Receiving grace from God to perform miracles, and to have power over unclean spirits, he worked many miracles during his lifetime. He cast out demons and healed all manner of sicknesses and infirmities. It is said that he even walked into a fire and remained unharmed. The fire touched neither his clothing nor the hairs of his head.
Saint Νικόdēmos also performed other miracles by the power of Christ. After a life of holiness, he reached an advanced age, passing from this temporal life to the heavenly and immortal life on December 26, 1406. His relics and other holy objects were buried at Tismana Monastery, where he had performed the services.
After God had glorified his relics with the fragrance of myrrh, and the grace of working miracles, they were removed from the tomb and placed in the church, along with the relics of Saint Gregory the Decapolite (November 20) in the holy Monastery of Bistriţa. After many years, a certain ruler of the country wanted to take the relics of Saint Νικόdēmos from Tismana Monastery and keep them in Bucharest. It was not the Saint's will, however, that his relics should be removed from his monastery. It was a miracle that the man gave up his idea. Saint Νικόdēmos appeared in a vision to one of the monks, commanding him to tell the Igoumen to hide his relics, and to take only a finger from his hand, and to prevent the man from carrying out his intention. Saint Νικόdēmos also appeared in the same way to the Igoumen and told him the same things. A finger was taken from the Saint's hand and some myrrh from his relics, which were entrusted to the care of the Igoumen.
The finger and the holy myrrh were placed in a tin vessel, together with a cross made of lead which the Saint had worn around his neck, and they are kept in the holy monastery to this day as precious spiritual treasures. No one is permitted to take any of the holy myrrh. It is permissible to kiss the vessel, however, which fills everything with an indescribable spiritual fragrance. The Saint's relics were hidden to prevent them from being removed from the monastery, and that place is known only to the Igoumen and one other monk.
The aforementioned sacred items suffice for the consolation of the monks and the other Christian inhabitants. They still perform countless miracles. Unclean spirits are cast out by calling on the name of the Saint; healing of many kinds of illnesses is given to those who have recourse to the Saint with faith. The world and the country are protected by the prayers of Saint Νικόdēmos; and the holy Tismana Monastery, which preserves these treasures, is always defended from the attacks of visible and invisible enemies.
Following the decision of the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church, the first Service in honor of Saint Νικόdēmos took place in the Metropolitan cathedral of Oltenia in Craiova on October 28, 1955. His annual Feast Day is December 26.
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Within the magnificent Basilica of Christ’s Nativity in Bethlehem, the wonderworking icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, known as Bethlehemitissa, stands out. It is located in a prominent proskynitarion on the right side of the southern entrance of the Holy Cave of the Nativity.
The infinite affection which emanates from the eyes of the Panagia’s icon, and her serene gaze, sweetens and exalts the hearts of the faithful. The clothing on the Icon of the Theotokos is covered with luxurious fabrics and precious gems, and makes a distinct impression.
There is no clear historical data concerning the origin of the icon. There is speculation that it came from Russia, and pious tradition particularly links it to the Russian Empress Catherine, who visited the Holy Land and Bethlehem after a miracle performed by the Virgin. She donated her imperial garments in order to clothe the “Mistress of the World” with them. According to tradition, she also gave her jewelry to be placed on the sacred icon, forcing empresses not to wear rubies (or diamonds, according to others) any longer, for this was the exclusive privilege of the “Queen of the Angels.”
Undoubtedly, the Bethlehem Icon has a special place in the hearts of all the Orthodox. The Virgin Mary, the Lady of the Holy Land, is the tender mother who obeyed God’s command and brought our Savior and Redeemer into the world; and at the same time she is the mother of us all and an intercessor before her Son in all our appeals. She is our guardian angel. In our moments of difficulty, we turn spontaneously to face her icon and her grace, always invoking her as “our fervent protector and helper.”
There are at least four distinct types of the “Blessed Womb” Icon. The Barlov Icon is a variant of the Hodēgḗtria Icon. It appeared on December 26, 1392, and it is in the Annunciation Cathedral in Moscow.
The second example is similar to the “Milk-Giver” Icon (January 12), which itself is derived from the Greek “Galaktotrophousa” type. This “Blessed Womb” Icon does not have the angels crowning the Mother of God which are found in the Greek icon, and the Virgin is facing in the opposite direction from the “Milk-Giver” Icon. This variant sometimes has an inscription: “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the breasts which Thou hast suckled” (Luke 11:27). The sun and moon appear at the top of the icon, and there are leafy plants in the background.
There is a third type which depicts Christ resting on His Mother’s right arm. Two angels crown her, and place a chain around her neck.
The fourth example shows the Mother of God with her hands folded above Christ, who is shown in half-length.
Saint Isaac II (Bobrikov) died as a martyr on December 26, 1938.
The Moscow Patriarchate authorized local veneration of the Optina Elders on June 13, 1996, glorifying them for universal veneration on August 7, 2000.