Tag Archives: Christian martyrs

He thirsted, and drank deeply.

When I arrived on the church property this morning on St. Justin’s day, I saw three trees in pots sitting by the front porch, waiting to go in and become part of the decoration for Pentecost Sunday. I walked around and took pictures of the landscape with its ever changing color display. Throughout the morning people were coming and going, for the service and for other activities connected to the upcoming feast. A crew was cooking in the kitchen, and out on the patio women arranged flowers.

Four of us were in the temple ironing green altar cloths and replacing the white ones that have been the theme since Pascha, almost fifty days ago. A few of the icons are so heavy, it takes two of us to lift the big box frame from its stand, while the third set of hands slides off the white satin hanging and arranges the fresh green cloth as straight as possible; then the saint’s image is laid down to rest again.

Before any of that, the Liturgy in honor of St. Justin was served in our little church; one of our group who bears the name of Justin was directing the minimal choir. It may be that I never before attended a Divine Liturgy for St. Justin, though I have mentioned him on my blog. In any case, I didn’t remember the hymns of the feast, which draw attention to his title as Philosopher, and his ability to defend the faith in words, and to witness to it by his death. I was moved by their poetry.

You emptied the cup of the wisdom of the Greeks,
but you thirsted again,
until you came to the well where you found
water springing unto eternal life.
And having drunk deeply,
you also drank from the cup
which Christ gave to His disciples.
Therefore, O Justin,
we praise you as a Philosopher
and Martyr of Christ.

O Justin, teacher of divine knowledge,
you shone with the radiance of true philosophy.
You were wisely armed against the Enemy.
Confessing the truth, you contested with the Martyrs,
with them, O Justin, always entreat Christ to save our souls.

On this page, you can read the life of the saint: St. Justin the Philosopher.

He lived in the second century, and wrote his second Apology, addressed to the Roman Senate, in 161, soon after Marcus Aurelius became emperor. He had been able to persuade the previous emperor, Antoninus Pius, to stop persecuting Christians, at least for a time. The Cynic philosopher Crescentius, who reportedly always lost debates against Justin, had a part in his death, as out of envy he denounced him to the Roman court, after which Justin and six friends were imprisoned, tried and beheaded. The following is considered to be the court record of the trial (Wikipedia):

The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods. Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy. Justin replies: That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvationand firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour. And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols. The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws. The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Saviour.

I admire this saint’s search for the truth, and am glad that it didn’t take his whole life to try out, in turn, the Stoics, the Peripatetics, the Pythagoreans and the Platonists, until he at last found Christ. Even more inspiring is his resolve, once he knew the Truth —  the way he clung firmly to Christ who is the true Logos, the Word of God. I want to follow St. Justin’s example in drinking deeply of True Philosophy.

As a breath from Paradise,
the dew descending upon Hermon,
Christ the Power and the Peace and Wisdom of God the Father,
came upon your thirsting spirit, O Martyr Justin,
making you a Fount of Knowledge for all the faithful,
when with true valor you endured death as a Martyr,
to live forever in Christ.

Slave, servant, son: St. Onesimus

“Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”

This is a middle portion of the Letter to Philemon that St. Paul wrote to his friend about a runaway slave. It’s an unusually short and focused epistle in the New Testament, dealing mainly with this issue of the freedom of Onesimus, who had been converted while he and the apostle were in prison together.

The article, “Holy Apostle Onesimus as a Model for our Lives,” contrasts the former life of Onesimus as a “worthless slave” to his new life as a brother in Christ, and a valuable servant, as St. Paul describes him so movingly:

“I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.”

St. Philemon did forgive Onesimus, and sent him back to Paul as requested. Philemon was later made bishop of Gaza, and Onesimus continued to serve the apostles and was also consecrated as bishop.

This article on the Life of Onesimus gives more details about his bishopric and preaching, and ends with his death in this fashion:

“During the reign of the emperor Trajan (89-117), Saint Onesimus was arrested and brought to trial before the eparch Tertillus. He held the saint in prison for eighteen days, and then sent him to prison in the city of Puteoli. After a certain while, the eparch sent for the prisoner and, convincing himself that Saint Onesimus maintained his faith in Christ, had him stoned, after which they beheaded the saint with a sword. A certain illustrious woman took the body of the martyr and placed it in a silver coffin. This took place in the year 109.”

At this season of the year the Orthodox Church remembers both St. Philemon and St. Onesimus, which is why I was prompted to revisit this story, which I find I love more than ever. It prompts the author of the first article linked above to this thought:

“Let us pray that God shows us true spiritual fathers, even in our days,
who can help people be reborn, so as to acquire perfect love,
and from useless servants to become useful and free.”

-Fr. George Papavarnavas

Like an anvil, and bread baking: St. Polycarp

St. Polycarp was born in the first century and was burned at the stake in the second. Because of an early and well known document, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, thought to be the oldest authentic account of an early Christian martyr’s death, he is one of the most famous who have refused to deny Christ in the face of extreme threats.

His life is connected to several other notable saints, earlier and later, starting with St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, whom he knew and talked with; St. Ignatius, who met him and afterward sent a long letter of exhortation to him; and St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who was baptized by Bishop Polycarp when a youth and was sent by him as a missionary to Gaul.

The Letter of St. Ignatius to St. Polycarp resonates with life and the vibrant faith of the writer and the churches of Christ in those early centuries. An excerpt:

“Stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten. It is the part of a noble athlete to be wounded, and yet to conquer. And especially, we ought to bear all things for the sake of God, that He also may bear with us. Be ever becoming more zealous than what you are. Weigh carefully the times. Look for Him, who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account, and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes.”

The author of “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” is unknown, but it was sent to the church in Philomelium, Asia Minor, from the church in Smyrna. Here is one paragraph from the letter:

“And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour, as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.”

In a letter to his friend Florinus, after the death of Polycarp, St. Irenaeus writes fondly of his elder in the faith:

“I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse — his going out, too, and his coming in — his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures. These things, through God’s mercy which was upon me, I then listened to attentively, and treasured them up not on paper, but in my heart; and I am continually, by God’s grace, revolving these things accurately in my mind.”

On this day on which we commemorate St. Polycarp, I will be listening to a sonata composed in his honor by Heinrich Biber (1644-1704): “Sancti Polycarpi”, and “revolving these things” I’ve been learning about these men in my own mind —  their struggle to stand firm, as St Ignatius exhorted, and to “Weigh carefully the times. Look for Him, who is above all time….” Thank you, Lord, for the ever encouraging testimony of your saints, and on this day, especially that of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna. +

Mixing and pressing the spirit of man.


“The purpose of the Church is a constant battle; this is why it is called the ‘militant Church,’ battling with the prince of this world – that is, with all those who by all possible means and ways press the spirit of man, bind it, as it were mix it with matter, gradually suppress in it the call from heaven, deprive it of the opportunity even to feel its own true nature, the true purpose of its life in this world, and even harden it against eternal Life. For the spirit that has become attached to earth, this Light even now becomes painfully tormenting, which is why there is occurring a rebellion against the Light, an effort to put out its remaining rays in this world.”

Saint Damascene of Glukhov, 20th century Russian martyr