Commemorated 8/21 January
The Grand Duke Yaroslav the Wise, in baptism George or ‘Yury’, was the son of the Grand Duke St V1adimir. In the year 1030 he took control of the area to the west of Novgorod and Pskov, inhabited by the Estonians. There on the banks of the River Omovzha (or Embakh) he founded a town and built a church, which he dedicated to his patron St George the Great-Martyr. In Russian this town became known as Yuriev after its church, but is also known as Dorpat or Tartu.
From about 1150 on, this area was invaded from the sea and settled by German Catholics, who built castles there to occupy the land and oppress its people. Since at that time there was internal strife among the Russians, they took control of the region. Having enslaved the pagan Estonians, the Germans converted them by force to Catholicism, and at the same time began to oppress the Orthodox who lived there.
By the fifteenth century, Orthodox had two churches in Yuriev - that dedicated to the Great-Martyr George and another dedicated to St Nicholas. Two priests served in these churches - one called John and the other called Isidore. At first with promises, then with threats, the Germans began to lure the Orthodox inhabitants of the city into Roman Catholicism The priest John, who had lived in Yuriev for two and a half years, left for Pskov. Soon after he became a monk with the name Jonah, and founded the Pskov-Caves Monastery. Here he was to be accounted a saint and is commemorated on 29 March. Isidore, however, remained in Yuriev and had great disputes with the Germans about the Orthodox faith. He often reproved them, exhorting them to abandon the Latin faith and embrace Holy Orthodoxy.
In 1472, the Roman Catholics took up arms against Pskov and its Orthodox people in order to spread their faith, confirmed principally by the canons of the pseudo-Council of Florence. Meanwhile, Fr Isidore served blamelessly at the church of St Nicholas, like a star shining amongst his flock. The German head of the town of Yuriev, rose up against Isidore and the Orthodox and complained about them to the Roman Catholic bishop and the city rulers, who were also Catholics, and the merchants of Livonia. He said that he had heard from Isidore and his whole flock blasphemy against Roman Catholicism and the use of unleavened bread, and praise for the Orthodox faith alone. Thus he made the bishop and the nobles angry, and from then on the Latins attempted to torment the Orthodox of Yuriev.
On 6 January 1472, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, the priest Isidore, with all the Orthodox, duly went forth to the River Omovzha with the precious cross to bless the water. There, on the Theophany waters, Isidore and the men and women with him were arrested by Germans, sent by the headman and the bishop, and dragged before the bishop and the civil judges. Great was the torment of the warriors of Christ, which they endured in the judgment hall for their faith, which the Germans tried to force them to renounce. But Isidore and all the Orthodox confessors with him, turning first to the bishop, then to all their judges, replied unanimously: ‘God forbid, enemies of the Truth, that we Orthodox renounce the True Christ and the Orthodox faith! We will not spare our bodies for Christ our God, however much you torture us, but we beseech you, wretched, spare your own souls for the Lord’s sake, for you are God’s creation’.
Then Isidore very boldly unmasked the false wisdom of the Latins and their apostasy from true Christianity. The enraged bishop ordered the Orthodox be cast into prison, and summoned all the local rulers from the surrounding castles, as if to try the Orthodox. As soon as they had gathered, St Isidore instructed his group in prison:
‘Brothers and children’, he said, ‘the Lord has gathered us together for this spiritual feat, desiring to crown you with unfading crowns by His own almighty hand. And brothers, suffer well at the hands of the wicked, having no doubt or uncertainty. Do not fear these bitter torments, neither grow weak, for your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour souls, that is, to lure you away from the Orthodox faith. Let us stand immovable therein against his wiles, like good warriors, for the Lord Himself said: ‘If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saying, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do unto you for My name’s sake, because they know not Him that sent Me. But when the Comforter is come, Whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of Truth, Who proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of Me; and ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning’. So, brothers, Christ spoke to His disciples, and so He speaks to us as well, if anyone suffers for His name’s sake unto the shedding of his blood, which is unto death. And you, my beloved brothers, do not forsake me, but suffer together with me, and do not be deceived by the desires of this world, but be great martyrs of Christ in this generation.’
Afterwards Isidore stood with his company in prison, facing east, and began to sing and pray with tears and heartfelt sighs. He partook of the holy and life-creating gifts and gave communion to all the men, women and children with him. All were filled with spiritual joy, and the devout priest taught them again about the reward of eternal blessings for good deeds and of eternal torments for deeds of darkness. ‘Let not one of us’, he said to his companions, ‘from the least to the greatest, fear either threats or tortures themselves. For if we suffer well for the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, we shall receive the reward of our suffering on the day of judgement’. And with one spirit, in a loud voice, they all sang a hymn in honour of the martyrs: ‘O holy martyrs, who have endured suffering and been crowned, beseech the Lord, that He may have mercy on our souls’.
Messengers from the bishop and civil judges arrived at the prison and led them out. They took them to the place of judgement at the town hall for a short trial before the bishop and all the Latins who had gathered for the spectacle. Like the sun among the stars, so the confessor Isidore stood with his companions before them. At first the bishop tried with cunning to incline the confessors of Orthodoxy to his faith. Turning to Isidore, as the leader and guide of the flock, but afterwards to all those under his care, the bishop said: ‘You only need to obey me and the governors of this town in the presence of these many Germans, who have gathered from the surrounding castles of my realm. Accept our precious faith and the use of unleavened bread, and do not destroy yourselves. Be true brothers to us and partakers of our riches. If you so desire, hold to your own faith again, only confess your guilt now before me and before the judges and the Germans’.
But the confessors replied to the bishop: ‘Why do you try to persuade us with false and lying words? You cannot turn us away us from the true Christian faith. Do with us as you wish, for look, we stand before you and repeat to you what we have already said’.
Then, like serpents, consumed with rage against the Orthodox, the stern bishop and the other judges ordered all of them to be driven into the River Omovzha in whatever they were wearing. St. Isidore, still in his priestly vestments, was thrown into the very hole in the ice through which he had blessed the water at Theophany two days before. Thus they were treated like criminals, cruelly executed for their Orthodox faith. In all seventy-three of them suffered, all considering Isidore their teacher. They surrendered their souls into the hands of the living God and won unfading crowns.
At the time of their suffering an extraordinary thing happened. Among the Orthodox there was a young mother with a beautiful three-year old child. The wicked Germans snatched the infant from his mother’s arms and threw her into the river. Seeing his mother drowning with the martyrs, the child began to weep in the arms of the tormentors. However much they tried to calm him, he struggled all the more, scratching their faces. Then the cruel tormentors threw him down next to the hole in the ice. The child, crawling to the hole, crossed himself three times, and facing the people, exclaimed: ‘I too am a Christian. I believe in the Lord and wish to die, as did our teacher Isidore and my mother’. And with these words, he threw himself beneath the ice. Thus a child suffered for the truth, as of old the infant-martyr, Quiricus, who confessed the Lord on the knees of the tormentor as he saw the suffering of his mother Julitta, and received a martyr’s crown with her.
Spring came. The River Omovzha overflowed its banks. Nearly three miles upstream from Yuriev, beneath a tree by a hill, there appeared the bodies of all the confessors of Christ. They were all incorrupt and lay facing the east, as though they had been laid there by human hand. Fr Isidore lay in their midst in his vestments. Thus the Lord glorified His saints. The Orthodox merchants of Yuriev took up the relics of those that had suffered and buried them in the city, around the church of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, where they rest until the Second Coming of Christ. Orthodox soon began to venerate the memory of the Hieromartyr Isidore and his fellow martyrs.
(From the Lives of the Saints by St Dimitri of Rostov).
Troparion, Tone 2
O blessed passion-bearers of the Lord, with boldness ye preached the Orthodox faith of Christ, and reproved the false teachings of your enemies at the place of judgement. Therefore, having been cast into the depths of the river, O holy ones, your souls now dwell in the heavenly abodes, where ye stand with the saints before the throne of God, the King of all. Beseech Him for all Orthodox Christians, who honour and venerate your feat of martyrdom.
With hymns let us honour the choir of Christ’s martyrs, who suffered mightily for the true faith of Christ, and cast down the pride of enemies until the end. For having shone with the grace of the Uncreated Trinity, O glorious ones, who suffered with the Hieromartyr Isidore, like stars ye enlighten the whole world. Now beseech Christ unceasingly, and defend us from invasions of hostile heathen, O ever-vigilant intercessors for our souls.