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.
The Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos: On the second day of the feast, the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos is celebrated. 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)
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 Nicephorus 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.
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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. The sacred Bethlehem Icon of the Panagia is the outstanding icon in the Basilica of the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem and 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 Hodigitria Icon. It appeared on December 26, 1392, and it is in the Annunciation Catherdral 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.