Icon of the Mother of God "The Word Made Flesh"
Commemorated on March 9
The Albazin Icon of the Mother of God “the Word made Flesh” is of great religious significance in the Amur River region of Russia. It received its name from the Russian fortress of Albazin (now the village of Albazino) along the Amur River, which was founded in 1650 on the site of a former settlement by the famous Russian frontiersman, Hierotheus Khabarov.
This fortress eventually became an object of hostility to China’s emperor, who dreamt of expanding his influence over Russian Siberia.
On March 24, 1652, the eve of the Feast of the Annunciation, the first battle between the Russians and the Chinese occurred at the Amur. Through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, the pagans were defeated and were pushed back. The victory seemed like a good omen for the Russians, but the struggle had only just begun. Many Holy Russian soldiers died during the battle for the Amur and for the ultimate victory of Orthodoxy in the Far East.
In June 1658, an Albazin military detachment of 270 Cossacks under the leadership of Onuphrius Stepanov fell into an ambush and were completely annihilated by the Chinese. The Chinese burned Albazin, overran the Russian territory, and carried off the local population to China. Their goal was to turn the fertile cultivated area back into wilderness.
During these difficult years, the Most Holy Theotokos showed signs of Her mercy to Amur. In 1665, the Russians were able to return and rebuild Albazin. One day, a priest arrived with Elder Hermogenes from the Kirensk Holy Trinity Monastery. The Elder carried with him a wonderworking icon of the Mother of God “the Word Made Flesh” (called the Albazinsk Icon since that time). A few years later, the holy Elder built a small monastery on the boundary mark of the Brusyan Stone (one and a half kilometers from Albazin near the Amur River), where the holy icon was later kept.
Through the blessings of Our Most Holy Lady, Albazin was re-built. At two churches in the city, the Ascension of the Lord and St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, priests offered the Bloodless Sacrifice. The Spassky Monastery was also built along the Amur. The fertile soil produced bread for Eastern Siberia, and the local populace adapted itself to Russian Orthodox culture, peacefully entering into the multi-national Russian state, and found Russian protection from the plundering raids of Chinese feudal war-lords.
In Moscow, the needs of the far-away Amur frontier were not forgotten. Their military defenses were strengthened, and the regional government was improved. In 1682, the Albazin Military-Provincial Government was formed. One of their goals was the spiritual nourishment of the Amur peoples. In 1681, a local Council of the Russian Church adopted a resolution to send “archimandrites, abbots, or priests, both learned and good, to enlighten unbelievers with the law of Christ.” The Daurian and Tungusian peoples as a whole accepted Holy Baptism. Of great significance was the conversion to Orthodoxy of Daurian Prince Hantimur (renamed Peter) and his eldest son, Katana (renamed Paul).
Seeing the revival of the Amur region, the Chinese emperor planned for a new attack. After several unsuccessful attempts, on July 10, 1685, the Chinese invaded Albazin with an army of 15,000 men and encircled the fortress. Inside were 450 Russian soldiers and three cannons. The first assault was pushed back, but the Chinese piled up firewood and kindling against the wooden walls of the fortress and set it on fire. Further resistance proved impossible. With its military standards and holy things, among which was the wonderworking Albazin Icon, the soldiers abandoned the fortress.
However, the Mother of God did not withhold Her intercession from Her chosen city. It was soon reported that the Chinese began to withdraw from Albazin, ignoring the Chinese emperor’s commands to destroy the crops. The miraculous intervention of the Heavenly Protectress not only drove the enemy from Russia, but also preserved the grain which sustained the city throughout the winter. On August 20, 1685, the Russians were able to return to Albazin.
A year went by, and the fortress was again besieged by the Chinese. A five-month defense of Albazin began, which now occupies a honored place in Russian military history. Three times – in July, September, and October – the Chinese armies made an assault on the wooden fortifications. A hail of fiery arrows and red-hot cannon balls fell on the town. Neither the city nor its defenders could be seen in the smoke and fire. On all three occasions, the Mother of God defended the inhabitants of Albazin from the enemy. When the Chinese finally lifted their siege of the city in December 1686, only 150 of the original 850 defenders remained alive.
These forces were inadequate to continue the war against the Chinese. In August 1690, the last of the Cossacks left Albazin under the leadership of Basil Smirenikov. Neither the fortress, nor its holy things, fell into the hands of the enemy. The Cossacks razed and leveled the fortifications, and the Albazin Icon of the Mother of God was taken to Sretensk, a city on the Shilka River, which flows into the Amur.
God destined its inhabitants to do another service for the good of the Church even after the destruction of Albazin. By divine Providence, the end of the military campaign contributed to the increase of the influence of the grace of Orthodoxy among the peoples of the Far East. During the years of war, approximately one hundred Russian Cossacks and peasants from Albazin were taken captive and sent to China.
The Chinese emperor gave orders to give one of the Buddhist temples in Peking for an Orthodox church dedicated to Sophia, the Wisdom of God. In 1695, Metropolitan Ignatius of Tobolsk sent an antimension, chrism, service books, and church vessels to the church. In a letter to the captive priest Maximus, “the Preacher of the Holy Gospel to the Chinese Empire,” Metropolitan Ignatius wrote, “Be not troubled, nor troubled in soul for yourself and the captives with you, for who is able to oppose the will of God? Your captivity is not without purpose for the Chinese people, so that you may reveal to them the light of Christ’s Orthodox Faith.”
The preaching of the Gospel in the Chinese Empire soon bore fruit and resulted in the first baptisms of the Chinese people. The Russian Church zealously protected their new flock. In 1715, the Metropolitan of Tobolsk, St. Philotheus “the Apostle to Siberia” (+May 31, 1727), wrote a letter to the Peking clergy and the faithful living under the Peking Spiritual Mission, who continued their Christian work of enlightening the pagans.
The years went by, and the new epoch brought to Russian the deliverance of the Amur. On August 1, 1850, during the Feast of the Precious Wood of the Life-Giving Cross, Captain G. I. Nevelsky raised up the Russian flag at the mouth of the Amur River and founded the city of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur. Through the efforts of the Governor-General of Eastern Siberia and St. Innocent, Archbishop of Kamchatka, and through the spiritual nourishment in the Amur and coastal regions, the left bank of the Amur was built up with Russian cities, villages and Cossack settlements.
Each year brought important advances in the development of the liberated territory, its Christian enlightenment and its welfare. In 1857, on the bank of the Amur,. fifteen way-stations and settlements were established (the Albazin on the site of the old fortress and the Innokentiev, named in honor of St. Innocent). In a single year, 1858, there were more than thirty settlements, among which were three cities: Khabarovsk, Blagoveschensk, and Sophiisk.
On May 9, 1858, on the Feast of St. Nicholas, St. Innocent arrived at the Cossack post at Ust’-Zeisk to dedicate a temple in honor of the Annunciation of the Mother of God, the first building in the new city. Because of the temple’s name, the city was also called Blagoveschensk, in memory of the first victory over the Chinese on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1652, and in memory of the Annunciation Church at Irkutsk, in which St, Innocent began his own priestly service. It was also a sign that “from that place proceeded the blessed news of the reintegration of the Amur region territory under Russian sovereignty.”
New settlers on the way to the Amur, journeying through Sretensk, fervently offered up their prayers to the Holy Protectress of the Amur region before her Wonderworking Albazin Icon. Their prayers were heard – the Aigunsk (1858) and Peking (1860) treaties decisively secured the left bank of the Amur and coastal regions for Russia.
In 1868, the Bishop of Kamchatka, Benjamin Blagonravov, the successor to St. Innocent, transferred the holy icon from Sretensk to Blagoveschensk, thereby returning the famous holy icon to the Amur territory. In 1885, a new period began in the veneration of the Albazin Icon of the Mother of God and is associated with the name of Kamchatka Bishop Gurias, who established an annual commemoration on March 9 and a weekly Akathist.
In the summer of 1900, during the “Boxer Rebellion” in China, waves of insurrection reached all the way to the Russian border. Chinese troops suddenly appeared on the banks of the Amur before Blagoveschensk. For nineteen days, the enemy stood before the undefended city, raining artillery fire down upon it, and menacing the Russians with invasion.
The shallows of the Amur River afforded passage to the adversary. In the Church of the Annunciation, services were celebrated continuously, and Akathists were read before the Wonderworking Albazin Icon. The Protection of the Mother of God was again extended over the city, just as it had been in earlier times. Not daring to cross the Amur, the enemy departed from Blagoveschensk. According to the accounts of the Chinese soldiers, they often saw a Radiant Woman over the banks of the Amur, inspiring them with fear and rendering their missiles ineffective.
For more than 300 years, the Wonderworking Albazin Icon of the Mother of God watched over the Amur frontier of Russia. Orthodox people venerate it not only as Protectress of Russian soldiers, but also as a Patroness of mothers. Believers pray for mothers before the icon during their pregnancy and during childbirth, “so that the Mother of God might bestow the gift of abundant health from the Albazin Icon’s inexhaustible well-spring of holiness.”
This icon depicts Christ as a child standing in a mandorla before His Mother’s breast.
By permission of the Orthodox Church in America (www.oca.org)