Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263) was proclaimed Saint of the Russian Orthodox Church by Metropolite Macarius in 1547

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Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263)

On December 6th the Russian Orthodox Church remembers Saint Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky, born in 1219. He was a descendant of Prince Vladimir the Sun, and is equaled to the Apostles by the Church.

The life of a saint is always a mystery both for contemporaries and for descendants. Only our Lord and Savoir Jesus Christ can evaluate in full measure all the troubles and accomplishments of his hermit. The life of a saint, although it belongs to the church on our sinful earth, serves as an expression of the will of the Church in Heaven. We recall the saints in the most difficult minutes of our life, when it seemed there is no way out. And that is when God sends us his hermit. This happened to our Russian land more than once.

“In the year 1237,” runs the chronicle, “Batu Khan, cruel and godless, came to the Russian land and there were many Tartars with him. Batu Khan’s army was so big that one Russian had to fight against a thousand Tartars, and two – against a legion. There had never been a battle like that and there were no survivors.

Almost all Russia, except its Northern areas, languished under the Tartar-Mongol yoke for nearly 300 years.

Having conquered the Russian land, the Tartars went down the Volga River where they founded their kingdom – the “Golden Horde”. The town of Sarai was its capital.

Fortunately, the Tartars, though they imposed a heavy tax on Russia, left untouched the Russian Orthodox Church – the guarantee of the future liberation of Russia.

Alexander’s father, Grand Prince Yaroslav, undertook to take care of the devastated Russian land.

The Tartars and Mongols were not the only enemies Russia had to face at the time. Germans and Swedes threatened it from the West. Prince Alexander was 20 years old when he clashed with them for the first time.

Be that time Grand Prince Yaroslav, Alexander’s father, made him Prince of Novgorod. Taught martial arts since early childhood, Alexander was a skilled warrior. He was a man of military bearing and rare beauty. A contemporary wrote about him:

“I traveled about many countries and saw many celebrities, but never did I meet a prince or king equal to Prince Alexander.”

Prince Alexander was a wise and just ruler, and had good manners which made him very popular and highly respected. A contemporary of his wrote:

“He treated priests and monks with love and respect; he was considerate to the poor. And as for metropolitans and bishops, Prince Alexander honored them as he honored Jesus Christ.”

Prince Alexander’s subjects used to say: “Our Prince is sinless.”

In 1240 Prince Birger of Sweden sent his messengers to Prince Alexander with the following address.

“Hey, Prince Alexander! You may resist if you can. But remember that I am already here ready to conquer your land.”

For a long time Prince Alexander prayed in the St. Sofia Cathedral of Novgorod. He recalled the words of Jesus Christ: “No love is greater than the love of a man who gives life for his friends”. When he left the church, he addressed the army in these words:

“God is not force, God is truth.”

Prince Alexander entrusted his hopes to the Holy Trinity and made up his mind to fight.

The two armies met on the banks of the Neva River. One was the army of the proud invader, the other – of the Russian combatants. Our Lord helped his hermit — Prince Alexander. The legend has it that a soldier named Philip had a miraculous vision on the eve of the battle. He was on patrol on the Neva River. At dawn he saw a boat with martyr princes Boris and Gleb, ancestors of Prince Alexander, in full combat gear. Suddenly Philip heard a voice from the boat:

“Gleb, brother of mine! Hurry up, we must help our relative, Grand Prince Alexander.”

And the vision disappeared…

Encouraged by the miraculous vision, Alexander rushed his men to the scene and gave the battle on the banks of the Neva.

The battle was great, says the chronicle, and many people were killed, both Russians and Latins, and Prince Alexander left a scar on the face of their leader with a lance.

At this point I must explain that in medieval Russia all intruders from the West were called Latins.

After the glorious victory in the battle of the Neva Prince Alexander was awarded the honorary title Alexander Nevsky or Alexander of the Neva.

Birger and his warriors were defeated. But another threat to Russia already loomed in the West. The German crusaders (or Teutonic knights) conquered the ancient Russian fortress of Koporye. In 1241 Alexander Nevsky regained it, but in a year the Teutonic knights were back. They also seized the ancient Russian towns Pskov and Izborsk.

By the winter of 1242 Prince Alexander had gathered an army to defend Russia from the German crusaders. And on April 5th Russian warriors and Teutonic knights met in a merciless battle on the ice of Lake Chudskoye, also known as Lake Peipus.

Prince Alexander was praying: God and our Savior Jesus Christ! Help us defend our country, our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters, as many years ago you helped Moses.

Here’s how one chronicler described the battle on Lake Chudskoye:

“Prince Alexander arranged his men in battle formation and moved towards the enemy. Alexander had many brave men, like King David in ancient times. It was a Saturday. The troops clashed when the sun rose. It was a fierce battle. The crackle of breaking spears and the clanging swords sounded as though the ice began to move. The ice couldn’t be seen for blood…

With God’s help the courageous Russian warriors defeated the Teutonic knights. Many knights drowned, others were taken prisoner, and only few of them escaped.

The contemporaries rejoiced over the victory in what would later be called “The Battle on the Ice”.

Entrance of Alexander Nevsky at Pskov after the Battle on the Ice. Artist: Valentin Serov

“Prince Alexander became famous all over the Russian land, all over Holy Russia – from the Ararat Mountain in the South to the Varyag Sea in the North – and even to the ancient Rome. Glory to you, our Russian land, the birth-giver of such a defender,” ran the chronicle and Prince Alexander was made a Grand Prince, a title he fully deserved.

Having preserved Russian land in the West, the Grand Prince Alexander clearly realized he ought to maintain peace with the Tartars, the “Golden Horde”. Weak and devastated, Russia was in no position to fight again.

The Tartar yoke was a heavy burden on the Russian people. Before he could become a real ruler of his domain any Russian prince had to go to the “Golden Horde” where, after a long and humiliating procedure he might (or might not) get the so called “Yarlyk” – a license to rule. For many Russian princes, landlords and warriors the way to the “Golden Horde” was the last.

Alexander Nevsky too, went to see Batu Khan, the king of the Tartars. Batu Khan was amazed to see him; he told his nobles: “It’s true what they said, that there’s no one like him.” He paid the prince all due honors and let him go safely.

Alexander Nevsky had to go to Sarai, the capital of the “Golden Horde” on three occasions. And every time he was not sure he would return. But he never lost heart, for he was sure that God would not leave him.

In the “Golden Horde” Prince Alexander always remembered he was not only a prince but also a Christian. He told pagans and Muslims about the Christian faith, about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and about the Holy Trinity. That was the beginning of Christianization of oriental peoples. Thousands of them turned their souls to Jesus Christ. Owing to the efforts of Alexander Nevsky the Russian Orthodox episcopate was established in Sarai in 1261.

In 1252 Alexander Nevsky became the absolute ruler of the Russian land. His responsibilities were enormous. He managed to protect southern, eastern and western boundaries of Russia firmly enough. His wise rule breathed a new life into Russia after the Tartar invasion. Churches, monasteries and towns were built all over the country.

Unfortunately, Prince Alexander’s farsighted policy was sometimes disapproved of by his fellow countrymen. In 1261 many Russian towns rose in revolt. The Tartar envoys who had come to collect tribute were killed. People waited for revenge with horror. Prince Alexander had to go to the Tartar capital again in order to ward off devastating raids against Russia. An excellent diplomat, the prince saved Russia and coped with his duty to God and the country.

However years of wars and the affairs of the state undermined Alexander Nevsky’s health. Upon his return from Sarai the Grand Prince fell ill and died in a small monastery of St. Feodor in the town of Gorodets, not far from the ancient city of Vladimir, on November 14, 1263. Just before his death Alexander, in keeping with the ancient Russian tradition, took monastic vows and was named Alexi.

The death of Alexander Nevsky in 1263. Artist: M. V. Nesterov

At the moment of Alexander’s death Metropolitan Cyril in the city of Vladimir suddenly saw, during a divine service, Prince Alexander’s soul raised high by the Angels. Amazed by the vision, he remained silent for a long time and then addressed his flock with the following words:

“Brethren! The sun has set over Russian land! Our Grand Prince Alexander has passes away. No one like him will be found in Russian land.”

And there was so much weeping and groaning as had never been heard before; the land trembled.

Nine days people carried Grand Prince Alexander’s body to the city of Vladimir where the burial service took place in the St. Vladimir Cathedral on November 23. During that service a miracle happened. When a priest about to pull a scroll with the last prayer in the late prince’s hand approached the body, the dead prince stretched out his hand, took the prayer and crossed his hands on his chest again. This episode caused awe and terror in the crowd present…

In 120 years, shortly before a great battle with the Tartars, a monk at the church where the Grand Prince Alexander’s body was buried saw a vision during the night praying.

The candles in front of Prince Alexander’s tomb suddenly lit up and two elders came up to the tomb and said: “Arise, our prince! Hurry to help your relative, Prince Dmitry!” And the saint prince arose and became invisible. After that vision the saint’s tomb was opened and the relics found undecayed. Many sick people who came close to them are said to have been healed.

The Russian Orthodox Church canonized Grand Prince Alexander.

1724 was the time of sweeping and rapid reforms of the Russian emperor Peter the Great. Those were the times of great changes in all spheres of life: spiritual, political, economic. The Emperor and the Holy Synod began to play the leading role in the Russian Church, whereas before the Patriarch was the most important figure. The Emperor and the Holy Synod decided that the relics of Alexander Nevsky be transferred to St. Petersburg, to the monastery built in his honor. On August 30 the capital of the Russian Empire welcomed the boat carrying the holy relics. Peter the Great piloted the boat himself; senior officials assisted him as sailors. A festive religious service for the Grand Prince took place at the monastery of his name. The commemoration of St. Alexander took place shortly after Russia’s victory in the Northern war of 1700-1721 against Sweden.

Almost for 200 years the relics of St. Alexander were kept in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 the relics were taken away and put on display at a museum of atheism. As for the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, it was closed down. Alexander Nevsky remained a saint most revered by the Russian people. People named in his honor are too numerous to count.

In 1990 the relics of Saint Alexander Nevsky were returned to the Russian Orthodox Church to take their place in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg to the joy of all Russian believers. And we know that owing to St. Alexander’s prayers, our Russian land will be revived and stand firm forever…

Watercolour of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg

Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia
7 December, 2012