When, with fear and reverence, they cast for the holy Mother of God, the destiny of the most Pure One fell on the Iberian land. After the day of Pentecost She meant to set out for Iberia at once, but an Angel of God restrained Her, saying that She must remain in Jerusalem, for Her land would be enlightened with the light of Christ at a later time. These words were fulfilled three centuries later when the most Blessed Virgin Mother of God sent, the holy virgin Nina to preach in Iberia, promising Her blessing and help.
St. Nina was born in Cappadocia and was the only daughter of pious and noble parents—the Roman general Zabulon, a relative of the great martyr St. George, and Susanna, sister of the patriarch of Jerusalem. When St. Nina was twelve years old, she traveled with her parents to the holy city of Jerusalem. Here her father Zabulon obtained the patriarch's blessing and departed into the Jordan wilderness to serve God as a monk. Susanna was appointed by her brother the patriarch at a church to serve the poor and the sick, and Nina was given to a certain pious old woman, Nianfora, for upbringing. The holy young girl had such outstanding abilities that in the course of two years, with the help of the grace of God, she had firmly assimilated the rules of faith and piety. Every day she prayerfully read the Holy Scripture, and her heart blazed with love for Christ, Who had endured the suffering of the Cross and death for the salvation of all. When, with tears, she would read the Gospel story of the Crucifixion of our Savior, her thoughts often rested on the fate of the Lord's robe. She asked her teacher about its present location, for she felt sure that such a holy object could not have been lost. Nianfora told St. Nina that to the northeast of Jerusalem was the country of Iberia, and in it the city Mtskheta, and that there, according to tradition, the Lord's robe had been taken by the soldier who had won it by lot at Christ's crucifixion. Nianfora added that the inhabitants of that country, the Kartlians, and also their neighbors the Armenians and many mountain tribes still remained enveloped in the darkness of pagan error and godlessness.
The old woman's words went deep into the heart of St. Nina, and many days and nights she spent in ardent prayer to the Most Holy Virgin Mother of God that she might be found worthy to see Iberia; to find and reverence the robe of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to preach the holy name of Christ to those peoples who did not know Him. And the most Blessed Mother of God heard the prayer of Her servant. She appeared to St. Nina in a dream and said:
"Go to Iberia and tell there the Good Tidings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and you will find favor before the Lord; and I will be for you a shield against all visible and invisible enemies. By the strength of this cross, you will erect in that land the saving banner of faith in My beloved Son and Lord." When St. Nina awoke and saw in her hands the miraculous cross, she kissed it with tears of joy. Then, tying it in her hair, she went to see her uncle the patriarch. When the blessed patriarch heard that the Mother of God had appeared to St. Nina and had commanded her to go to Iberia to preach the Gospel of eternal salvation, he saw in this a clear expression of the will of God and did not hesitate to give the girl his blessing. When the time arrived for her departure, the patriarch led Nina into the church and up to the holy altar, and placing his hand on her head, he prayed in the following words:
Lord God, our Savior! As I let this young girl depart to preach Your Divinity, I commit her into Your hands: Condescend, O Christ God, to be her Companion and Teacher everywhere that she proclaims Your Good Tidings, and give her words such force and wisdom that no one will be able to oppose or refute them. And You, most Holy Virgin Mother of God, Helper and Intercessor for all Christians, clothe with Your strength against all enemies, visible and invisible, this girl whom You have chosen to preach the Gospel of Your Son and our God among the pagan nations. Be always for her a shield and an invincible protection, and do not deprive her of Your favor until she has fulfilled Your holy will!
St. Nina left Jerusalem with the princess Ripsimia, the princess’s teacher Gaiana, and a group of fifty-three virgins who were fleeing the persecutions of the Emperor, Diocletian. Diocletian wanted to marry Ripsimia, even though she had taken a vow of chastity to Christ, so she and her virgins fled to Vagarshapat the capital of Armenia. Diocletian soon learned that Ripsimia was hiding in Armenia and told the Armenian king Tiridat to take her for his own wife, for she was very beautiful. When Ripsimia remained faithful to her Heavenly Bridegroom, the enraged Tiridat, at that time still a pagan, had her and her companions cruelly tortured and put to death.
Only St. Nina was miraculously saved. Led by an unseen hand, she took refuge among some wild rose bushes that had not yet blossomed. Shaken by fear at the sight of her friends' fate, the Saint lifted up her hands to heaven in prayer for them and saw a radiant angel girded with a shining stole. With sweet-smelling incense in his hands and accompanied by a multitude of heavenly host, he came down from the celestial heights, and as if to meet him, the souls of the holy martyrs ascended from the earth, joined the throng of heavenly host, and rose together with them into Heaven.
On seeing this, St. Nina exclaimed, "O Lord, Lord! Why do You leave me alone among these vipers and serpents?"
In answer to this the angel said: "Do not grieve, but wait a little, for you also will be received into the Kingdom of the Lord of glory. This will occur when the prickly, wild rose that now surrounds you is covered with fragrant blossoms like a rose planted and cultivated in a garden. But now rise and go north, where a great harvest is ripening, but where there are no harvesters."
In accordance with this command, St. Nina set out on a long journey and finally arrived at the bank of an unfamiliar river near the village of Khertvisi. This river was the Kura, which flows west to southeast, to the Caspian Sea, and waters all of central Georgia. On the riverbank St. Nina met some shepherds who gave her food to refresh her after the long and tiring journey. These people spoke Armenian, but St. Nina had learned this language from her teacher Nianfora. She asked one of the shepherds where the city of Mtskheta was located and if it was very far. He answered, "Do you see this river? On its banks a great distance down stands the great city of Mtskheta, where our gods hold power and our kings reign."
Continuing on her way, on one occasion the holy pilgrim was overcome with fatigue, sat down on a rock, and began to wonder: where was the Lord leading her? What would be the fruits of her labors? And might not such a long and such a difficult pilgrimage be in vain? As she was considering these things, she fell asleep and had a dream: there appeared to her a man majestic in appearance. His hair fell to his shoulders, and in his hands he held scroll. He unrolled the scroll and gave it to Nina, commanding her to read it, and then suddenly became visible. On awakening from sleep and seeing in her hand the miraculous scroll, St. Nina read in it the following Gospel verses:
- Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her. (Matt.26:13).
- There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal.3:28).
- Then said Jesus unto them (the women), Be not afraid: go tell my brethren... (Matt.28:10).
- He that receives you receives me, and he that receives me receives him that sent me (Matt.10:40).
- For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist (Luke 21:15).
- And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take no thought how or what thing you shall answer, or what you shall say: for the Holy Spirit shall teach you in the same hour what you ought to say (Luke 12:11-12).
- And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul... (Matt.10:28).
- Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matt.28:19-20).
Strengthened by this divine vision and consolation, St. Nina continued her journey with renewed fervor. Having overcome difficult labors, hunger, thirst, and fear of the wild animals, she reached the ancient Kartlian city of Urbnisi where she remained about a month, living in Jewish homes and studying the manners, customs, and language of a people new and unfamiliar to her.
On one occasion, when all the men of that city as well as many from the surrounding areas were planning to go to the capital city of Mtskheta to worship their false gods, St. Nina decided to go with them. As they were approaching the city, they met the entourage of King Mirian and Queen Nana. Accompanied by a great crowd of people, they were making their way to a mountaintop opposite the city where they intended to worship the lifeless idol Armazi.
Till noon the weather remained clear. But this day, the first day of St. Nina's arrival at the city, which was the goal of her mission to save Iberia, was the last day of power for the pagan idol. Borne along by the crowd, St. Nina made her way to the place where the idol's altar was located. She caught sight of the chief idol Armazi. In appearance he resembled a man of unusually great height; cast of gilded copper, he was clad in a gold coat of mail with a gold helmet on his head. One eye was a ruby, the other an emerald, both of uncommon size and brilliance. To the right of Armazi stood another smaller gold idol by the name of Katsi, and to the left, a silver idol called Gaim.
The entire crowd of people together with their king stood in senseless reverence and trembling before their gods while the priests made preparations for the offering of blood sacrifices. And when finally the incense was burned, the sacrificial blood flowed, and trumpets and cymbals resounded, the king and his people prostrated themselves before the lifeless statues; then the heart of the holy young girl burned with the zeal of the prophet Elias. Sighing from the depths of her soul and in tears lifting up her eyes to heaven, she began to pray:
Almighty God! By Your great mercy, bring this people to the knowledge of Yourself, the One, True God. Scatter these idols as the wind blows dust and ashes from the face of the earth. Look down with mercy upon this people, whom You have created with Your almighty hand and whom You have honored with Your divine Image! And You, O Lord and Master, did so love Your creation that You gave even Your Only-begotten Son for the salvation of fallen humankind; deliver the souls also of these Your people from the destructive power of the prince of darkness, who has blinded the eyes of their understanding so that they do not see the true path to salvation. O Lord, grant me to see the final destruction of the idols standing here so proudly. So act that this nation and all the ends of the earth might comprehend the salvation given by You, that the North and the South together might rejoice in You, and that all nations might worship You, the One Eternal God, and Your Only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom belongs glory forever.
The Saint had not yet finished this prayer when storm clouds suddenly arose from the west and rushed rapidly along over the river Kura. Realizing the danger, the king and his people turned to flight, and Nina hid herself in the cleft of a rock. A storm cloud burst with thunder and lightning over that place where the idol's altar stood. The idols, which had formerly stood lofty and proud, were beaten into dust, the walls of the temple were also reduced to dust, and then the floods of water plunged them over the precipice, and the river carried them away. Thus there remained not even a trace of the idols and the temple dedicated to them. And St. Nina, protected by God, stood unharmed in the cleft of the rock and quietly watched as the elements raged about her, and then once again the brilliant sun began to shine. All this took place on the day of the Lord's most glorious Transfiguration, when the true Light that shone on Tabor transformed for the first time on the mountains of Iberia the darkness of paganism into the light of Christ.
The next day the king and his people searched in vain for their gods, and when they could not find them, they were filled with dread and said:
The god Armazi is great; but there exists some other God, greater than he Who has overcome him. Is this not perhaps the Christian God Who disgraced the ancient Armenian gods and caused the lying Tiridat to become a Christian? But in Georgia no one has heard anything about Christ. What then will happen in the future?
Some time after this, St. Nina entered the city of Mtskheta as a pilgrim. As she was approaching the royal garden, the gardener's wife, Anastasia, rushed out to meet her as if she were a long awaited friend. She bowed down to the Saint and led her into her home. Having washed her feet and anointed her head with oil, she offered her bread and wine. Anastasia and her husband asked Nina to remain with them in their home as a sister because they were childless and were distressed by their loneliness. Later, at the desire of St. Nina, Anastasia's husband built her a small hut in the corner of the garden where to this day there stands a chapel in honor of St. Nina within the enclosure of the Samtauri's Convent. In this hut St. Nina placed the cross given her by the Mother of God, and spent days and nights there in prayer and the singing of psalms.
From this hut there spread abroad word of the deeds and miracles performed by St. Nina to the glory of Christ's Name. The very first converts to Christianity in Iberia were the upright couple who gave shelter to Christ's servant, St. Nina. Through St. Nina's prayers Anastasia was released from her childlessness and later became the mother of a large and happy family just as she also became the first woman in Iberia to believe in Christ, before any of the men. On one occasion a certain woman was carrying her dying child about the streets of the city with loud wailing and appealing to all for help. St. Nina took the sick child and laid him on her bed of leaves. Having prayed, she placed her cross of grapevines on the little one and then returned him to his mother alive and well. From that time on St. Nina began openly to preach the Gospel and to call the Iberian pagans and Jews to repentance and faith in Christ. Her pious, righteous, and chaste life was known to all and attracted the eyes, ears, and hearts of the people. Many, and especially the Jewish women began to come to Nina often to hear from her lips the new teaching about the Kingdom of God and eternal salvation, and they began secretly believing in Christ. Such were: Sidonia, the daughter of Abiathar, the high priest of the Kartlian Jews, and six other women, also Jews. Soon Abiathar himself believed in Christ after he had heard St. Nina's explanations of the ancient prophets about Jesus and how they were fulfilled in Him as the Messiah. Conversing frequently with this Abiathar, St. Nina heard from him the Following tale about the Lord's Robe:
I heard from my parents, and they heard from their fathers and grandfathers, that when Herod ruled in Jerusalem, the Jews living in Mtskheta and all Kartli received the news that Persian kings had come to Jerusalem seeking a newly-born male child of the lineage of David, born of a mother, but having no father, and they called him the King of the Jews. They found Him in the city of David called Bethlehem in a humble cave and brought Him gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Having worshipped Him, they returned to their own country.
Thirty years passed, and then my great-grandfather Elioz received from the high priest in Jerusalem, Annas, a letter which read as follows: “He Whom the Persian kings came to worship and offer their gifts, has reached a mature age and has begun to preach that He the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Come to Jerusalem see His death, to which He will be delivered according to the law Moses.”
When Elioz, along with many others, was about to set out for Jerusalem, his mother, a pious old woman of the lineage of the high priest Elias, said to him: “Answer the king's call, my son, but I beg you, do not ally yourself with the impious against Him, Who they intend to kill; He is the One foretold by the prophets, a Riddle for the wise, s Secret hidden from the beginning of the ages, a Light for the nations and Eternal Life.”
Elioz, together with the Karenian Longinus, arrived in Jerusalem and was present at Christ's Crucifixion. His mother remained in Mtskheta. On the eve of Passover she suddenly felt in her heart something like the strokes of a hammer driving in nails, and she cried out: “Today the kingdom of Israel has perished, because it has condemned to death its Savior and Redeemer; from now on this people will be guilty of the blood of its Creator and Lord. It is my misfortune that I have not died before now, for then I would not have heard these terrifying blows! No more will I see on the earth the glory of Israel!”
And uttering these words, she died. Elioz, who was present at Christ's Crucifixion, obtained the Robe from the Roman soldier to whose lot it had fallen, and brought it to Mtskheta. Elioz's sister Sidonia, on greeting her brother with his safe return, told him of the wondrous and sudden death of their mother and of the words she had uttered just before she died. Then when Elioz, in confirmation of their mother's foreboding regarding the crucifying of Christ, showed his sister the Lord's Robe, Sidonia took it and began to weep and kiss it; then she pressed it to her breast and instantly fell down dead. And no human strength was able to wrest this holy garment from the arms of the dead girl. Elioz committed his sister's body to the earth and buried her with Christ's Robe, and he did this in secret so that even to this day no one knows Sidonia's burial place. Some surmise that it is located in the center of the royal garden, where from that time there grew up of its own accord and still stands a shady cedar. Believers flock to it from all directions, considering it to possess great power; and there beneath the cedar's roots, according to tradition, is Sidonia's grave.
Having heard about this tradition, St. Nina began to go at night to pray beneath the cedar tree; but she doubted whether the Lord's robe was actually concealed beneath its roots. However, mysterious visions which she had at that spot convinced her that the place was holy and in the future would be glorified. Thus, on one occasion, on the completion of her midnight prayers, St. Nina saw how from all the surrounding lands flocks of black birds flew down into the royal garden, and from there they flew to bathe in the river Aragvi. After a short time they rose into the air, but were as white as snow, and then, alighting on the cedar's branches, they filled the garden with their paradisiacal songs. This was a sign that the neighboring nations would be enlightened by the waters of Holy Baptism, and on the spot where the cedar stood would be built a church in honor of the True God, and in this church the Name of the Lord would be praised forever.
Assured by such signs that the Kingdom of God and the salvation of the Georgian nation was near, St. Nina unceasingly preached to the people the word of God. In telling the good news of Christ her disciples labored with her, especially Sidonia and her father Abiathar. The latter so zealously and insistently argued with his former co-religionists, the Jews, about Jesus Christ, that he suffered persecution from them and was condemned to be stoned; only King Mirian saved him from death. And the king himself began to ponder the Christian faith in his heart, for he knew not only that this faith was wide-spread in neighboring Armenia, but also that in the Roman Empire the Emperor Constantine, having conquered all his enemies by the Name of Christ and by the sign of His Cross, had become a Christian and the protector of Christians. Iberia was under Roman rule, and Mirian's son Bakar was at that time a hostage in Rome; therefore Mirian did not hinder St. Nina's preaching of Christ in his city. Only Mirian's wife, Queen Nana, harbored malice toward the Christians. A cruel woman, she fervently revered the lifeless idols and had placed a statue of the goddess Venus in Iberia. But the grace of God, "which heals all diseases and meets all needs," soon healed the sick soul of this woman also. The queen became extremely ill, and the greater the efforts of her doctors, the worse the illness grew. She was at death's door. The women who were intimate with her, recognizing the great danger, began to entreat her to summon the pilgrim Nina, who by means of prayer to the God she preached, healed all kinds of infirmities and diseases. The queen ordered this pilgrim to be brought to her. As a test of the queen's faith and humility, St. Nina said to the messenger, "If the queen wants to be well, let her come here to me in this hut, and I believe that she will receive healing here by the power of Christ, my God."
The queen complied and ordered that she be carried on a litter to the Saint's hut. A multitude of people followed. St. Nina arranged for the sick queen to be placed on her own bed of leaves, knelt down and fervently prayed to the Lord, the Healer of souls and bodies. Then she took her cross and touched it to the sick woman's head, feet, and shoulders, thus making the sign of the cross on her. As soon as she had done this, the queen immediately arose completely well. Having given thanks to the Lord Jesus Christ, there before St. Nina and the people, and afterwards at home before her husband King Mirian, the queen confessed aloud that Christ is the true God. She made St. Nina her intimate friend and constant companion in conversation, nourishing her soul with her holy instruction. Then the queen brought close to herself the wise elder Abiathar and his daughter Sidonia, and learned from them much concerning faith and piety.
But King Mirian still delayed in openly confessing Christ as God and strove, instead, to be a zealous idolater. On one occasion he even conceived the idea of exterminating the Christian confessors, and St. Nina along with them. This happened as follows: A close relative of the Persian king, a scholar and fervent follower of the Zoroastrian teaching, came to visit Mirian, and after some time fell prey to the serious malady of demon possession. Fearing the anger of the Persian king, Miriam sent envoys to plead with St. Nina to come and heal the prince. She had the sick man brought to the cedar tree that grew in the center of the royal garden, placed him facing the East with his hands raised, and instructed him to repeat three times: "I renounce you, Satan, and commit myself to Christ, the Son of God!"
When the possessed man said this, the demon at once, having shaken him threw him to the ground as if dead; but not having the power to resist the prayers of the holy virgin, he came out of the sick man. On his recovery, the prince believed in Christ and returned to his own country a Christian. This frightened Mirian even more than if the prince had died, for he feared that the Persian king, a fire-worshipper, would be extremely angry that his kinsman had been converted to Christ in the home of Mirian. He threatened to have St. Nina put to death for this and to annihilate all the Christians in the city.
Agitated in spirit by such hostile thoughts against the Christians, King Mirian set out for the Mukhrani forest to divert himself with hunting. While conversing with his companions, he said:
We have brought upon ourselves the terrible anger of our gods because we have allowed the sorcerer-Christians to preach their faith in our land. But soon I will destroy by the sword all those who bow down to the Cross and to Him Who was crucified on it. The queen, also, I will command to renounce Christ; and if she does not obey me, I will destroy her along with the rest of the Christians.
With these words, the king reached the summit of the steep mountain, Tkhoti (To this day on the summit of Mt. Tkhoti there stands a church built by King Mirian). Suddenly there arose a storm like the one that had cast down the idol Armazi. The gleam of lightning blinded the eyes of the king, and the thunder dispersed his companions. In despair the king began to appeal to his gods for help, but they were silent and did not hear. Then sensing above him the chastising hand of the Living God, the king cried out, "O God of Nina! Dispel the gloom before my eyes, and I will confess and praise Your Name!"
At once it grew light, and the storm died down. Marveling at the power of the Name of Christ alone, the king turned toward the East, lifted his arms to the heavens, and cried in tears:
O God, Whom Nina preaches! You alone are the true God above all gods. And now I see Your great mercy towards me, and my heart feels joy, consolation, and Your nearness to me, O blessed God! On this spot I shall erect a cross so that the sign which You have shown me today may be remembered for all time!
The king returned to the capital city and walked along the streets, loudly exclaiming, "Glorify, all my people, Nina's God, Christ, for He is the eternal God, and to Him alone belongs all glory forever!" The king was seeking St. Nina and asking, "Where is that pilgrim, whose God is my Redeemer?"
The Saint was at that time saying her evening prayers in her hut. The king and the queen, who had come to meet him accompanied by a throng of people, came to the hut. When they saw the Saint, they fell down at her feet, and the king exclaimed, "O my mother! Teach me and make one worthy to invoke the name of your great God, my Savior!"
In answer unrestrained tears of joy flowed from the eyes of St. Nina. On seeing her tears, the king and queen also began to weep, and after them all the people who had gathered there. A witness, who later described this occurrence, says: "Whenever I remember those sacred moments, tears of spiritual joy involuntarily flow from my eyes."