(Image source: Sfantul Dumitru by Romanian painter Gheorghe Tattarescu) Today, Orthodox Christians observing the Gregorian calendar celebrate the feast day of St Demetrius (see HERE for procession in Thessaloniki). One of the most important military saints often paired with Saint George, Demetrius is regarded as a protector of the young, the patron saint of crusades, is invoked by those struggling with lustful temptations and is also known for an impressive number of miracles.
Our spelling of Demetrius (or less commonly Demetrios) is a romanisation of the ancient Greek pronunciation; in Romanian, he is Dumitru.
Demetrius of Thessaloniki is one of my personal favourites along with St Seraphim of Sarov, and anyone who has ever been to an Orthodox country will have heard of him. But who was he, and why is he so beloved?
THIS site gives the story of his life:
'The Great Martyr Demetrius the 'Myrrh-gusher' of Thessaloniki was born into one of the most noble and distinguished families in the province of Macedonia (Thessaloniki, Illyricum) in the year 270AD. Roman paganism, spiritually shattered and defeated by the multitude of martyrs and confessors of Christianity, was intensifying its persecutions. The parents of St Demetrius were secretly Christians, and he was baptised and raised in the Faith in a secret church in his father’s home.
(Image source: XIIc mosaic icon of St. Demetrius the Great Martyr, Xenophontos Monastery)
By the time Demetrius had reached maturity and his father had died, the emperor Galerius Maximian had ascended the throne (305). Maximian, confident in Demetrius’ education as well as his administrative and military abilities, appointed him to his father’s position as proconsul of the Thessaloniki district. The main tasks of this young commander were to defend the city from barbarians and to eradicate Christianity. The emperor’s policy regarding Christians was expressed simply: "Put to death anyone who calls on the name of Christ." The emperor did not suspect that by appointing Demetrius, he had provided a way for him to lead many people in the opposite direction.
On accepting the appointment, Demetrius immediately began to teach the Faith openly and overthrow pagan customs and idolatry.
When Maximian learned that the newly-appointed proconsul was not only a Christian, but had also converted many Roman subjects, his rage knew no bounds. Returning from a campaign in the Black Sea region, the emperor decided to lead his army through Thessaloniki, on a mission to massacre the Christians.
When the news of the emperor's plan reached Demetrius, he ordered his faithful servant Lupus to distribute his wealth to the poor and began to prepare himself for martyrdom through prayer and fasting.
(Image source: Fresco of St. Demetrius by M. Panselinos in the Church of Protaton on Mount Athos, circa 1290)
When the emperor arrived in the city, he summoned Demetrius who boldly confessed his faith and denounced the falsehood and futility of Roman polytheism. Maximian threw him in prison, where he was visited by an angel who comforted and encouraged him.
Meanwhile, the emperor was busy amusing himself with 'games' in the arena. His champion was a German named Lyaeos. He challenged Christians to wrestle with him on a platform built over the upturned spears of victorious soldiers. A brave Christian named Nestor went to see Demetrius and requested a blessing to fight the barbarian. Thus granted, Nestor prevailed over the fierce German and hurled him from the platform onto the awaiting spears. The enraged Maximian ordered the execution of the holy Martyr Nestor (October 27th) and sent a guard to the prison to kill Demetrius, too.
At dawn on October 26th, 306 soldiers appeared in the saint’s underground prison and ran him through with lances. His faithful servant, St Lupus, gathered up the blood-soaked garments, took the imperial ring from his finger (a symbol of high status) and dipped it in the blood. Once all had been sanctified by the saint's blood, St Lupus began to heal the infirm. The emperor ordered his subsequent arrest and death.
The body of St Demetrius was cast out for wild animals to devour, but the Christians took it and secretly buried it.
During the reign of St Constantine (306-337), a church was built over St Demetrius's grave. A century later, the relics of the holy martyr were discovered during the construction of a new church on this spot. Ever since the seventh century, a miraculous stream of fragrant myrrh is said to flow continually beneath the crypt from the sarcophagus, giving St Demetrius the name 'Myrrh-gusher.'
Followers of St Demetrius tried to bring his holy relics, or some of them, to Constantinople on numerous occasions. Invariably, the saint made it clear that he did not want them taken from Thessaloniki.'
(Photo source: The relics of St Demetrius at the temple in Thessaloniki)
The most ancient icons of St Demetrius may be found in the church of Thessaloniki of which he is patron saint. This is not just because he was born and died there, but because the people believe it was through his actions that the city was saved from the many attacks by Slavic nations, the Bulgarians, Arabs, Saracens and many others besides. Even the liberation of Thessaloniki during the Balkan wars of 1912 coincide with the feast day of St Demetrius on October 26th.
"The world has found in you a great champion in time of peril, as you emerged the victor in routing the barbarians. For as you brought to naught the boasts of Lyaios, imparting courage to Nestor in the stadium, in like manner, holy one, great Martyr Demetrios, invoke Christ God for us, that He may grant us His great mercy."
Apolytikion (Third Tone)
HERE is a recording of excerpts from an oratorio written for St Demetrius by the Romanian-born composer of Greek origin Nicolas Astrinidis (1921-2010) in 1962. Three parts premiered at the first Demetria Festival in Thessaloniki fifty-two years ago today, and the entire work was first heard in 1966 with subsequent performances in 1985 (Thessaloniki) and 1993 (Bucharest).
La multi ani frumosi cu sanatate si noroc tuturor care poarta numele de Dumitru!
This post is dedicated to Mitu with love.