“GREAT ARE THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS of faith!” This exclamation is heard several times each year as we remember the exploits of spiritual giants like the three young Hebrews who survived the fiery furnace in Babylon (Dan 🙂 or the Great-martyr Theodore the Recruit who suffered in Asia Minor in the early fourth century. The latter’s namesake, Theodore the General is described as fighting courageously “with the weapons of faith” (troparion) and “the Word of God as a spear” (kondakion).
These references and others like them allude to the imagery employed by St Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians. While he affirms that we are saved through faith in Christ’s work, not our own, he encourages us to actively don the “whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). St Paul goes on to expand on this image telling us to “Stand, therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one and take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit , which us the word of God” (Ephesians 6:14-17).
This martial theme is echoed again and again in the stories of martyrs and confessors who stood firm to profess their faith before those who opposed it. It is shown for in a particularly graphic way in the story of the Great Martyr Demetrius of Thessalonika and his companion, the martyr Nestor, commemorated respectively on October 26 and 27.
According to the earliest existing sources, St Demitrius was born in Thessalonika to a senatorial family in AD 270. Our earliest source, a fourth-century Syriac translation of the horologion, describes Demetrius as stabbed to death with a spear in the year 306.
According to an early account of his death, Loupos, a servant of St. Demetrius, after taking proper care of the body, took the saint’s neckscarf, having collected the soil soaked with his blood in it. Taking also the royal ring, which the saint was wearing on his hand, and dipping it in his holy blood, Loupos was able to accomplish many miracles of healing through it.
An oratory was established on the site of the saint’s martyrdom and a memorial erected in it. The saint’s relics were concealed beneath it lest they be taken and the city lose its protector. When they began exuding fragrant myrrh in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the tomb was unearthed and the saint came to be called Demetrius the Myrobelite (myrrh-gusher).
Demetrius the Prayer-Warrior
Originally depicted holding a cross or the spear by which he was martyred, St Demetrius is now often shown astride a horse, clad in the “armor of God,” either defending the city of Thessalonika from invaders or slaying the gladiator whom Nestor killed, symbolizing the power of Demetrius’ prayers for Nestor as he entered combat.
The power of Demetrius’ faith is told in the traditional story of his vicarious defeat of the gladiator Lyaeus, recorded in the ninth-century version of the saint’s life by Anastasius the Librarian. Demetrius, a young but dynamic Christian, had won the enmity of some leading pagans in the city for converting a number of young people to Christ. He was denounced for his faith during a celebration in honor of the Eastern Roman emperor, Maximian, and imprisoned in the baths near the palace and the arena where games and sacrifices were to be held in homage to the emperor.
As part of the festivities, Maximian offered a rich reward to any Thessalonian who would battle one-on-one with his prize gladiator, Lyaeus. Another young Christian, Nestor, visited Demetrius in prison and asked for his spiritual support in accepting the challenge to fight Lyaeus.
At first the emperor was reluctant to pit the gladiator against the youth. “Out to pity for your youth I will reward you just for your daring,” the emperor is said to have told Nestor. “Take my gift and keep your life, but do not hurl yourself against Lyaeus who had defeated many more powerful than you.”
Relying on Demetrius’ prayers, Nestor fought and defeated Lyaeus. The emperor, hearing Nestor invoke Christ, was enraged. Rather than reward him, the emperor had both Nestor and Demetrius slain.
Demetrius’ aid was often invoked over the years as the defender of Thessalonika. Beginning in the sixth century the city was frequently attacked by neighboring Slavic tribes. The city’s Christians credited its survival from both invaders and natural disasters to his prayers and he is considered the patron of Thessalonika to this day.
The Basilica of St Demetrios
The first shrine honoring the saint was a small oratory, built shortly after the liberation of Christians in AD 313 on the ruins of the Roman baths where Demetrius had been held captive. In the fifth century, the eparch Leontios constructed a large, three-aisled basilica on the same site; this church burned down in the seventh century. Shortly thereafter, a five-aisled basilica was erected. Converted into a mosque in 1493, it was restored to Christian worship in 1912 but was again destroyed in the great fire of 1917. It was rebuilt and rededicated in 1949.
During the twentieth century reconstruction of the basilica workers found beneath the altar the remains of the original oratory and the Roman baths where Demetrios was killed. An earthen vessel containing soil and human blood as well as a marble basin used for gathering the myrrh from his grave were discovered there as well. Some seventh and eighth century frescoes also survived the fire and are now housed in the church’s crypt-museum.
Troparion, October 26
Streaming with your own blood, O Demetrios, you were offered to the life-giving Christ, who had poured out His own precious blood for you. He gave you a share in His glory, making you an heir of His Kingdom, for you triumphed in your combat with the evil one and frustrated all his terrible temptations.
Rejoice in the Lord, O city of Thessalonica! Exult and dance with joy, O you who were the home of the glorious athlete Demetrios, that witness to the truth, whom you possess as a treasure in your midst. Rejoice in his miracles, at the sight of his healings! Behold him who repels the assaults of the pagans; and in thanksgiving, say to the Savior, “O Lord, glory to You!”
Stikhera at Vespers, October 26
Let us venerate Demetrios, who by a lance inherited the saving grace of Christ’s side, which was pierced by a lance, from which the Savior caused to flow for us the waters of life and immortality. Crowned by most wise teachings, this martyr ran the perfect race of his passion by his blood, and he shines with miracles throughout the whole world. He is the imitator of the Master, the friend to the poor, the defender of Thessalonica from all dangers. Celebrating his annual memorial, we glorify Christ our God who works healing for all through him.
Stikhos at Orthros, October 26