The icon of the Mother of God of the Sign is one of the most venerated icons of Russia. Its history is linked with the history of Novgorod, which in Kievan Russia was the cultural and commercial center of the North of Russia and one of old Russia's first cities. The importance of Novgorod has certainly contributed to the fame of the icon. Similar to Constantinople, the city had made the icon a sign of special protection by the Mother of God.

Starting in the 12th century the icon was the source of several miracles, the first of which took place in Novgorod. In those days the icon was called "Znamenie", which in Old Russian means "Apparition" or "Sign". Since the City of Novgorod had so much power and also had many vested interests in Northern Russia, many conflicts arose with its neighbours. One such conflict erupted in 1169. Prince Andrew Bogolioubski who left Kiev and took possession of Vladimir, arrived with his army at the walls of Novgorod. The besieged citizens had no other defense than calling on the Mother of God for protection.

According to the legend, their bishop, Saint John of Novgorod, went to get the precious icon and placed it on the city walls. On November 27th the enemy strengthened its attack with a downpour of arrows into the city. One of them hit the icon of the Mother of God. Immediately, the Virgin turned her view away from the enemy and towards the city. With it she gave a "sign" of mercy to the defenders. When the bishop looked towards the icon and saw tears welling from the eyes of the Virgin, he wiped off her tears with an end of his priestly vestment. At that very moment a cloud covered the attackers who, blinded from fear, started to kill one another. The Novgorodians, encouraged by this miraculous sign, launched an attack outside their walls and routed the city was saved.

In remembrance of the miraculous intercession of the Theotokos, Archbishop Elias established a feast day in honor of the “Sign of the Mother of God”, which the Russian Church celebrates to the present day.

For a description of the icon go to:




As Orthodox Christians, we begin the celebration of the Nativity of Christ — on December 25 — with a time of preparation. Forty days before the feast of the birth of Our Lord we enter the period of the Christmas Fast: to purify both soul and body to enter properly into and partake of the great spiritual reality of Christ’s Coming. This fasting season does not constitute the intense liturgical season that is characteristic of Great Lent; rather, Christmas Lent is more of an "ascetical" rather than "liturgical" nature. Nevertheless, the Christmas fasting season is reflected in the life of the Church in a number of liturgical notes that announce the coming feast.

Within the forty days preparation the theme of the approaching Nativity is introduced in the services and liturgical commemorations, little by little. If the beginning of the fast on November 15 is not liturgically marked by any hymn, five days later, on the eve of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, we hear the first announcement from the nine hirmoi of the Christmas Canon: "Christ is born, glorify Him!"

With these words something changes in our life, in the very air we breathe, in the entire mood of the Church’s life. It is as if we perceive far, far away, the first light of the greatest possible joy — the coming of God into His world! Thus the Church announces the coming of Christ, the Incarnation of God, His entrance into the world for its salvation. Then, on the two Sundays preceding Christmas, the Church commemorates the Forefathers and the Fathers: the prophets and the saints of the Old Testament who prepared that coming, who made history itself into the expectation, the waiting for, the salvation and reconciliation of mankind with God. Finally, on December 20th, the church begins the Forefeast of the Nativity, whose liturgical structure is similar to the Holy Week preceding Pascha — for the birth of the Son of God as child is the beginning of the saving ministry which will lead Him, for the sake of our salvation, to the ultimate sacrifice of the Cross.

Fr Alexander Schmemann


This Sunday, November 15, marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast (40 days before Christmas). The following article offers some thoughts on the purpose of fasting.

Fasting is not very alive and well in the Christian world. Much of that world has long lost any living connection with the historical memory of Christian fasting. It is as though they were Jews who heard there was such a thing as kosher and decided to make up the rules for what to eat and what not to eat because no one knew what was actually kosher.

There are other segments of Christendom who have tiny remnants of the traditional Christian fast, but in the face of a modern world have reduced the tradition to almost meaningless self sacrifice…. we can say that knowing God in truth, participating in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything, is the purpose of the Christian life.

… And it is the same path of inner knowledge of God (with all its components) that is the proper context of fasting. If we fast but do not forgive our enemies – our fasting is of no use. If we fast and do not find it drawing us into humility – our fasting is of no use. If our fasting does not make us yet more keenly aware of the fact that we are sinful before all and responsible to all then it is of no benefit. If our fasting does not unite us with the life of God – which is meek and lowly – then it is again of no benefit.

Fasting is not dieting. Fasting is not about keeping a Christian kosher. Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break. I have seen greater good accomplished in souls through their failure in the fasting season than in the souls of those who “fasted well.” Publicans enter the kingdom of God before Pharisees pretty much every time.

Why do we fast? Perhaps the more germane question is “why do we eat?” Christ quoted Scripture to the evil one and said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We eat as though our life depended on it and it does not. We fast because our life depends on the word of God.

I worked for a couple of years as a hospice chaplain. During that time, daily sitting at the side of the beds of dying patients – I learned a little about how we die. It is a medical fact that many people become “anorexic” before death – that is – they cease to want food. Many times family and even doctors become concerned and force food on a patient who will not survive. Interestingly, it was found that patients who became anorexic had less pain than those who, having become anorexic, were forced to take food. (None of this is about the psychological anorexia that afflicts many of our youth. That is a tragedy)

It is as though at death our bodies have a wisdom we have lacked for most of our lives. It knows that what it needs is not food – but something deeper. The soul seeks and hungers for the living God. The body and its pain become a distraction. And thus in God’s mercy the distraction is reduced. Christianity as a religion – as a theoretical system of explanations regarding heaven and hell, reward and punishment, is simply Christianity that has been distorted from its true form. Either we know the living God or we have nothing. Either we eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us….

Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and in dying we can be born to eternal life.

Fr. Stephen Freeman - Glory to God for All Things