|Select magazine number|
St Varvara — history and tradition
Ukrainian Orthodox priest Andriy VLASENKO relates a story of St Varvara and reflects on the 1,700 anniversary (marked in 2006) of her martyrdom.
Once upon a time there lived a girl, good-looking, inquisitive, considerate, self-denying and gentle. Many rich, clever, and noble men tried to court her but she chose to be the bride of a poor maverick who was crucified alongside two robbers…
St Varvara (or Barbara) is seventeen again — and never mind those zeros in the years of her anniversary. The saints are not subject to time and their age does not change. The Orthodox Church marks the feast day of St Varvara the Martyr on the 17th of December because it was on that date she suffered and died for her Heavenly Bridegroom — Our Lord Jesus Christ.
St Varvara’s life on earth was short but dramatic and glorious. She was born in the town of Heliopolis of Phoenicia (now Baalbek in Lebanon) at the end of the third century AD. At that time the Eastern Roman Empire was ruled by Galerius (Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus; ruled as Augustus 305– 311). This emperor was one of the most unrelenting persecutors and harshest heathen enemies of Christianity. A ruthless ruler, Galerius imposed the poll tax on the urban population and maintained the persecution of the Christians. He kept issuing decrees which demanded that Christians be searched for and exposed, and then made to make sacrifices to the ancient gods, emperor included. In case, they refused to do so, Christians were to be tortured and executed. Many of the local governors were only too glad to follow the orders, but some were rather lenient. In the winter of 310–311, however, he became incapacitated with a painful disease. Fearing, perhaps, that his illness was the vengeance of the Christian God, he issued on April 30, 311, an edict grudgingly granting toleration. Shortly afterward he died.
Varvara was one of those who were happy to come to know God and embrace Christianity. Dioscor, her father, kept the beautiful girl locked most of the time in a tower — in this manner he thought she would be in safety both from the unwanted courtship and pernicious influences, of which, he thought, Christianity was the most dangerous. But he could not keep the girl locked in the tower all the time. The girl kept asking all kinds of questions about God and true religion but neither her father nor anyone else in the household were able to provide answers that would satisfy the girl. When he found a suitable fiance’ for his daughter, Dioscor, hoping that she would now be safe both from other suitors and Christian influences, went away on a long business trip.
But Varvara used her newly-found freedom in a way very much different from what Dioscor had expected she would — instead of venerating the old traditions and worshiping pagan gods, Varvara found the True Faith of Christianity. She preferred to spend most of her time with her new friends, the Christians, in prayer rather than in revelry with her age peers. An itinerant Christian priest baptized the girl, and when her father returned, Varvara did not conceal her new faith from him. Dioscor tried to talk the girl out of it, but neither his threats nor his pleas could shake her faith. Then the angered and frightened man — he was afraid of persecution — repudiated his daughter. She was arrested and brought before the local governor who was captivated by the girl’s beauty. He even tried to seduce the girl; he offered her money, he threatened torture in attempts to make her abandon her faith but she remained firm in her convictions. She was thrown into prison and tortured. In the prison cell, where she was incarcerated, a miracle happened — her wounds were healed and she was promised a great reward in heaven — at least, it is what the hagiography says. On discovering Varvara’s wounds healed, the jailers decided to execute the girl, and according to tradition, it was her father who chopped off her head.
The retribution was swift — both Dioscor and the governor were killed later on the same day by a bolt of lightning. Varvara was buried like a Christian thanks to the ministrations of a pious man. Later, she was canonized and in the 6th century, St Varvara’s remains were moved to Constantinople where churches were built in her honour, and a district of the city was named after her.
For a person who has not made the Orthodox Church part of his or her existence, and particularly for those who are atheistic, it is difficult to read hagiographic stories. There are a lot of things in these stories that may seem to them illogical, unbelievable or even preposterous. In stories about saints, the reader will find characters who want to depart from this life and unite with God rather than fear death; instead of demagogic proclamations, one finds profound reflections about the meaning of life and death, moral teaching and words of forgiveness addressed to the torturers. The tortures themselves, surprisingly enough, are described in great detail and in rather naturalistic terms, but in a somewhat detached even “monotonous” manner.
Even more difficult to atheists and those who are not quite firm in their faith is to understand the idea of worshipping the sacred relics. But this worship is very important for a true Christian. Icons, which are also worshipped, are regarded by atheists, at best, to be works of art, and at worst, no more than just crudely painted pictures, and the worshipping of the sacred relics of saints is dismissed as silly superstition.
And yet, I am sure that there is a spark in every human soul that can be fanned into a life-giving fire of Divine Love. The fire burning in the souls of saints and religious devotees cannot be extinguished by the outside circumstances no matter how stormy these circumstances may be; the fire of lesser mortals is like a candle’s flame — if it is not properly cared for and protected it can be blown out by a gust of wind.
Once I witnessed a curios happening in a Sinai monastery. I was with a group of Orthodox Christians who asked the monks to let them worship the relic head of St Catherine the Martyr. The reliquary was brought out and I was amazed to see a number of other tourists, among whom there were people from various nations, even Chinese, who were definitely not Orthodox Christians, but who nevertheless piously touched the reliquary that contained the relic. They looked surprised at themselves and elated.
There are a lot of sacred relics to be found in the city of Kyiv as well, St Varvara’s among them. Her relics were brought to Kyiv in 1108 by a daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexis Comnene, also named Varvara (Barbara). The princess came to Kyiv to be married to the Grand Duke Svyatopolk-Mykhailo Izyaslavovych, the one who had the Mykhailivsky Zlatoverkhy (St Michael’s Golden-Domed) Cathedral built, one of the three great churches in Kyiv of those times. It was all but natural that the relics were put in St Michael’s. During the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, when Kyiv was captured and destroyed, some of the churches survived, St Michael’s among them. The relics were well hidden in the church and remained intact. In the 1930s, when St Michael’s was pulled down by the communist barbarians during their atheistic campaign, the relics of St Varvara were moved to the Church of St Andrew, and later when St Andrew’s was turned into a museum, the relics were taken to St Volodymyr’s where they are to be found now.
In 2006, when St Varvara’s anniversary was being marked, the saint’s relics were taken to various cities all across Ukraine to make it possible for the pious to worship these sacred relics. At the time when life in Ukraine continues to cause anxiety among so many people in this country, the faithful does need a support of a much venerated saint to improve their spiritual strength and sustain them in hope, faith and love.
Photographs by Dmytro REDCHUK
A religious procession with the relics
The ruins of a church dedicated
The relics of St Varvara in the Cathedral