The Orthodox Church not only celebrates special events during the Incarnation of Christ (Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension etc.), but also miraculous events that happened after the time described in the New Testament. This demonstrates that the time of miracles has not ceased, at least for faithful Christians.
One such feast day for a miracle, is the Miracle at Colassae (or Chonae) by the Archangel Michael, celebrated on September 6. Not only is there a dedicated feast day, but even churches and icons dedicated to this single event and what it can teach us.
The Miracle of Archangel Michael
The miracle occurred in Phrygia at a place called Colossae, the first Christians at that place being the recipients of St Paul’s letter to the Colossians. By the 4th century, a church dedicated to the Archangel Michael was built on the source of a natural spring. The location of this spring had been revealed to a man from nearby Laodicia by the Archangel, and was told that if he took his mute daughter there, she would be healed. This happened, and the church dedicated to the Archangel Michael was built in thanksgiving.
Around ninety years later, a young boy called Archippos travelled from his hometown of Hierapolis, to the Church of Archangel Michael in Colossae. It is worth noting that at Hierapolis, there was a pagan underwater spring called the Plutonium, named after the god of the Underworld. This spring emitted poisonous gases that the pagans believed to be the work of Pluto, making the spring sacred in their eyes. And so, the pious Christian Archippos left the poisonous pagan springs at Hierapolis, to live by the life-giving spring of Colossae.
Archippos dedicated his whole life to God, taking care of the church of the Archangel, and living in strict asceticism. Meanwhile, an increasing number of pagans came to the spring at Colossae and were converted to Christianity by its healing powers. Finally, when Archippos was already an old man, the pagans around Colossae decided to destroy the church and the spring. The pagans set to work diverting the flow of two nearby rivers so that they would flow together in a torrent, “diluting” (as they imagined) the life-giving spring, and certainly destroying the Christian church. For ten days they laboured openly in the sight of Archippos, who during this time fervently besought the protection of God and of the Archangel Michael. After the tenth day, at night, the pagans broke the dam that had been holding the combined waters back. Hearing the roar of the approaching waters, Archippos cried out with greater fervency for protection, and at that moment the Archangel Michael appeared – fully armed – and struck what appeared to be a spear into the ground. With a loud thundering the earth cleaved in two, and the onrushing waters were funneled into the great fissure, saving Archippos, the spring, and the church.
The pagans fled in terror, the Christians came together to give thanks, and the place where the waters plunged into the cleft was renamed “Chonae”, which means “plunging.” This is the Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Chonae (or Colossae) depicted in icons.
The Miracle at Chonae in Iconography: Two Types
Type 1: When I first saw an icon of the Miracle at Chonae it was similar to the 15th century Novgorod icon shown above. With the blue-green of the waters darkened with age, and not knowing the story behind the icon, it looked to my eyes that the Archangel Michael was spearing a giant serpent that threatened the old man, who looked like John the Theologian, on the right. I was wrong. However, reading more of the miracle suggests the distinctive depiction of the water is deliberate. The written texts of the miracle, appearing between the 5th and 7th centuries, start the story by mentioning St John the Evangelist’s exploits in Phrygia during the 1st century A.D. Together with the Apostle Philip and his sister, St Mariamne, they entered the city of Hierapolis (the birth place of St Archippus centuries later). At that time, the city had a temple which housed a giant serpent that was worshiped by the local pagans. Ss Philip, Mariamne, and John joined in prayer against the idolatrous practice and, according to the accounts, “slew the viper with prayer, as with a spear, putting it to death through the power of Christ.”
The Apostle John then prophesied that in the local area at a later time there would spring forth a great abundance of holy water in honour of the Archangel Michael, who would perform awesome wonders and miracles. This is the spring at nearby Colossae, where the “Miracle of Archangel Michael” occurred.
It appears that the “serpent-like” waters are deliberate: showing the Miracle of Chonae but echoing the earlier miracle of St John and the giant snake. Both miracles show how, through the power of Christian prayer, the disastrous actions of man, beast, demon, or nature are averted by God.
Type 2: The earliest surviving image of the miracle is from the 11th-century Menologion of Basil II (click link to see the image). Older icons, like the 12th century Sinai icon at St Catherine’s monastery shown above, are incredibly similar.
In these icons the two streams are shown coming together and rushing towards the church, where the Archangel Michael strikes the ground to cause the fissure. Or does it show holy water streaming forth from the spring at the touch of St Michael, like the healing waters that were stirred up by an angel at? Unlike later icons that show the pagans diverting the streams, this ancient Sinai icon is deliberately ambiguous – seemingly showing the protection from danger and the bestowing of blessings. The entire story of the Miracle at Chonae is an archetype of how the Christian approaches God. The righteous Archippus dedicated his life to God, laboured in asceticism, and served those around him. With true faith in God, Archippus became familiar also with His servants, including the bodiless powers: the Angels. As such, Archippus could boldly approach the Archangel Michael, knowing that by asking the angel’s help “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, the ascetic was drawing closer to the Holy Trinity. Intercessory prayers – in this case to Archangel Michael – were not a barrier to Archippus’ approach to God, but a means toward it.
The church behind St Archippus is not, as far as anyone knows, an accurate depiction of the temple dedicated to the Archangel Michael at Colossae. Rather, it is an archetype of the Church. The Church, through the prayers of the righteous on earth, to the righteous in Heaven, is protected and strengthened by the power of God. The Miracle at Chonae is not the only miracle in history, nor the only miracle performed by the Archangel Michael, but it is an image of how we can even today rely on the Angels as intercessors before God.
Let us who dwell in the world now like angels keep the feast,
And unto God who is carried
On the throne of His glory
Cry aloud the hymn, saying: “Father who art
In the heavens, Holy are You;
Co-eternal Word, Holy are You;
And all-holy Spirit, Holy are You.”
Since you are foremost in heaven, and have great freedom to speak,
O Chief Commander Michael, as you stand there in glory
Near the unendurable throne of the Lord,
And behold things ineffable,
By your entreaties deliver us from distress
And temptations and from perils, we pray.
Among the bodiless Angels you are expressly the first.
O Chief Commander Michael,
An eye-witness and mystic
Are you of that divine and resplendent light.
Hence we fervently pray to you:
Save us who piously honor you every year
And in faith extol the Trinity.
(Prosomia of the Praises – First Tone)
Short description of the Feast with icons and hymns, complied by the Full of Grace and Truth blog.
Fuller version of the miracle, taken from the “Greater Synaxarion”.
Article on the Chudov Monastery (Чудов монастырь), dedicated specifically to the Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Chonae.
About the Menologion of Basil II, from which one of the earliest images of the miracle is taken.
The Divinely-Revealed Appearance of Angels in Icons – a little extra information on angels and the bodiless powers.