June 17 of the Gregorian we celebrate the memory of Frontasius, Severin, Severian and Silanus, цhereas on June 17 of the ‘Julian calendar’ the memory of Savel, Manuel and Ismail is celebrated
Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest
The ongoing series of publications about the forgotten and unknown, famous, and unnamed saints of the Ancient Church offers readers of the Russian Mind a theological reflection on the saints, whose memory is celebrated in June. In the Church of that time they were famous. Now they are forgotten.
These are saints Frontasius, Severinus, Severian and Silanus, of Gaul, who lived and suffered for their faith in Christ in the south of modern France, and Sabel, Manuel, Ismael of Persia became martyrs in the west of Asia Minor. Let us call the first saints “Provencal”, while the memory of the Church calls others “Martyrs of Chalcedon”.
They lived at different times in different parts of the Roman Empire. However, they are surprisingly connected by the amazing irony of the combination of the Gregorian and Julian, that is, the new and old calendars.
The fact is that June 17 of the Gregorian, that is, the modern secular calendar, we celebrate the memory of Severin, Severian and others. Whereas on June 17 of the ‘Julian calendar’, that is June 30th of the Gregorian, the memory of Savel, Manuel and Ismail is celebrated. The Julian calendar is astronomically late. Now the difference between the calendars is 13 days. Therefore, despite this factual difference, the memory of the Provencal and Chalcedonian saints seems to fall on the same day.
Frontasius, Severinus, Severian and Silanus – Saints of Provence
The book of Acts of the Apostles reports that the Emperor Claudius (41–54) “ordered the Jews to withdraw from Rome” (18:2). The consequence of this Jewish exile was the resettlement of the Roman Jews. At that time, the Romans did not yet fully distinguish Judaism from Christianity, and the Early Church itself expected that all Jews would believe in the Messiahship of Christ. Therefore, as a consequence of Claudius’ edict of, Christians were also affected by this imperial order of exile. So, Saints Frontasius, Severin, Severian and Silanus, according to their lives, found themselves in the South of France, where they preached Christianity. In this mission, they were not alone, since there were quite a lot of such itinerant preachers, following the example of the Apostles, in the first centuries of Christianity. So, according to the testimony of the vita of Mary Magdalene, after the Resurrection of Christ, also preached Christ in Provence. At the origins of the mission of Frontasius was a certain Bishop Frontonus.
Since the existence of Judaism was sanctified by antiquity, Roman laws recognized it as a legitimate religion. In its turn, Christianity, from the moment the Roman authorities began to distinguish it from Judaism proper, was considered a new, innovative religion, and therefore was forbidden. The time of the preaching of the Provencal martyrs fell on that very historical moment when the Romans began to understand that Christianity was not only not identical, but also opposed itself to Judaism.
For preaching about Christ, the saints were seized and brought to trial. According to the acts, at a trial chaired by the local Roman governor, Frontasius and his companions were required to renounce the faith. To do this, they had to make a sacrifice to Zeus. According to the Church Fathers, as well as modern historians, such a sacrifice could be both public and solemn, but it also could be completely formal. However, the Ancient Church perceived even such a formal renunciation as an apostasy – a direct denial of the faith of Christ.
“After the governor could not overcome the saints with torment, he made the last decision regarding them – he ordered them to cut off their heads”, – is written in the acts. “The impious warriors, having beheaded the heads of the martyrs, threw their bodies to the ground, leaving them without burial,” the same text testifies. So, for refusing to renounce Christ and to sacrifice to the gods, the saints were tortured and then beheaded.
After some time, as the acts say, the Lord revealed with the bodies of the saints something supernatural. It was an obvious miracle. The beheaded Frontasius, Severinus, Severian and Silanus got up, and took their heads in their hands. They ascended a high hill, where at that time Bishop Frontonus, who had sent them to preach, was hiding from persecution. Having laid down their heads before the feet of the bishop, they “stretched out their bodies on the ground in the form of a cross.”Note that the cross bow, when the arms and legs are completely outstretched, and the shape of the body forms a cross, is one of the oldest forms of Christian bow. Nowadays, it used during the orthodox rite of monastic tonsure.
So, the holy martyrs “rose, took their heads in their hands, and ascended a high hill.” A similar, almost analogous story is contained in the description of the martyrdom of saint Denis of Paris (+96), who was a contemporary of our saints.
It is possible that the very identity of these stories indicates that their autors hardly pursued the goal of reconstructing the historical picture of what happened after the death of the martyrs. There is an eschatological symbol.
Recall that eschatology is a theological discipline that aims to interpret the end times. The task of the systematic theologian is the need to try to decipher special semantics, and eschatological symbolism of a text. “Things begin to speak when you look at them for a long time”, ‘writes Erich Maria Remarque in the novel “Shadows in Paradise” (1971). To paraphrase these words of the famous writer, the lives of the saints are silent if you do not listen to them.It was precisely this miraculous resurrection from the dead, the taking into hands of his own head in the martyrdom of saint Denis of Paris, that was the subject of special ridicule from Ivan Karamazov himself in Dostoevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov.”
It is important to understand that the worldview of the first Christian generations was based on opposing the Christian belief in overcoming death by the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus to the idea of biological, technological, literary, natural and any other immortality of personalities, people, gods, or heroes.
If we try to translate what has just been said into the language of modernity, then we can say that Christian understanding of immortality is not a natural-religious, mythological, or even biblical Old Testament immortality of procreation. It is not the bare life of medical technologies and not the “immortality of dictionaries”.
“The immortality of dictionaries”- when the memory of a person is stored in encyclopedia articles, or in volumes of countless books and works written by him and stored on the shelves of libraries. Contemporaries called such people “prolific authors”, but the writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) considered them “petrified”. So, Christian immortality is not the immortality of petrification.
This is extremely important. Because both in the secular and even in our “internal” orthodox mentality, the presence, recognition and even the desire for such “immortality of dictionaries” is sometimes extremely strong. We are often convinced that through a career, work, hierarchical affiliation, or theological creativity, one can firmly enter history and, thereby, gain “immortality”. Thus, the illusion arises that future generations will read our texts, see our name on the bookshelves, and which may seem a very convincing and weighty factor, read, remember, and know about us thanks to dictionaries.
It is very important to remember that the person who lives and acts here and now, while still alive and the name, designation, title, photograph, picture, and obelisk that will exist here on earth after death are not identical. This not-identity is both biblical and axiomatic. We are absolutely not identical to what will be after us. We are not identical to all those who will come after us. Death cannot be overcome by any biological, hereditary, hierarchical way. In this total denial of the “surmountability” of death lies one of the axioms of the Christian understanding of the last things. This is what eschatology is about. The Ancient Church tried to formulate this in a very special semantic form. Let’s call this first axiom “the axiom of non-identity”. In Christianity there is another axiom. This second axiom asserts that to the extent of real communion, that is, the communion of a person here and now with the grace-filled gift of the Faith of Christ, death will be overcome. On the other side of his earthly existence the human being,, in Christ Jesus, and only in Him, is predestined to live. Not just to exist, but to live – and this is the most important thing. Not on their own, not because “the soul is immortal by nature and continues to live after the death of the body,” as ancient philosophy taught. But, firstly, due to the fact that man was created in the image of God, and the image of God cannot turn into non-existence. And secondly, by the power of Christ’s Resurrection, as Paul writes about it, “as in Adam all die, so in Christ, on the contrary, all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). ‘We need to die in such a way that death itself loses its strength when it meets us’, writes Andrey Platonov (+1951) in one of his stories. “He lived as if he had to die, so that, having died, he would live, the medieval epigram echoes this.
It is important to understand that the trials of Christians in the Roman Empire followed a pattern. Therefore, many of these acts, that is, descriptions of the trial of the martyrs, which necessarily included demands to renounce faith in Christ, torture, and suffering, were simply the same. To give these documents theological and philosophical relevance, they used a language saturated with special semantics, a play on words and images. They used images, symbols, and narrations that, not only to us, but also to the children of Modernity, such as Ivan Karamazov, seemed and continue to seem naive, absurd, and meaningless.
So, back to the language of martyr acts. It has a special semantic depth. The martyr is already partaker of the power of the coming general resurrection of the dead.By the power of faith, he is already with Christ in Heaven. The Witness of the Faith, and this is precisely what the word ‘martyr’ means, acquires the ability to look at the former self, and therefore the former mortal. Now the martyr has partaken of the immortality of the Lord Jesus Christ. He looks at us from the pages of his own acts, in order to call us by word and deed, with a gesture, as if repeating the gospel words of the Lord. “Get up, let’s get out of here” (John 14:31). He speaks in the symbolic language of hagiographic martyr stories, and he calls to “pick up your head and ascend the High Hill. “He invites us to follow the eschatological call of Christ the Savior.
Manuel, Sabel, and Ismael of Persia
Contemporaries called Chalcedon “the city of the blind”. It was here, on the Asian shore of the Bosporus, that the ancient Greeks founded a colony in 680 BC. They did not notice that on the other, European coast, there was an area that was incomparably more convenient and incredibly suitable for founding a city. A thousand years later, in 330, it was there that Emperor Constantine founded the new capital of the Empire, Constantinople, New Rome.
Modern Chalcedon is a district of Istanbul, on its Asian side. It has long lost its former name; there are no traces of the ancient Christian presence in it. But in ancient times, it was very significant.
In the ancient Roman Martyrology, Saints Manuel, Sabel and Ismail are called the “Martyrs of Chalcedon” and are not listed by name. Such “nameless” mention of certain saints in Christian antiquity was not rare. It could mean that those who entered the names in the calendar knew them personally. This could also testify to the great veneration that took place then. Now Manuel, Savel and Ismail are forgotten saints.It so happened that the first three centuries of Christian history were a time of persecution. However, since the Edict of Milan (313) and the era of the sole reign of Constantine the Great (272–337), the persecution ceased. As many thought, the persecution ceased forever.
At the same time, persecution of Christians continued to take place in Persia, as well as in other lands and territories. Persia was a rival empire of Rome for many centuries. For the apologists of Orthodox Christianity, mainly in the east, this served as a very weighty argument for the apotheosis not only of Christian emperors, but also of the Roman Imperial Rule itself. Up to the point that the definition of Orthodoxy became: “the official doctrinal formulation of the Roman Empire». Starting from that era, it finally took shape at the Ecumenical Council of 451.
Surprisingly, it was under such circumstances that in 361–362 the rule passed to Julian. Initially, he was an adherent of Christianity, so that even in the Church he was considered catechumen. Recall that in those days baptism was accepted, if not before death, then at a very mature age. However, just before accession to the throne, Julian proclaimed himself a pagan and began a campaign to destroy Christianity.
In 362 it was the Shah of Persia who sent three Christians in military rank to Julian to conclude peace between the Empires. Not knowing about the faith of the envoys, he invited them to his celebrations in Chalcedon. Most likely, there was simply no place for such a holiday in too Christian Constantinople – New Rome was originally a Christian city – therefore the ruler preferred to make sacrifices and prayers “outside the city wall”. Manuel, Savel, and Ismail, and it was they, refused to join the pagan holiday.
In the form in which it has come down to us in the description of the suffering of the martyrs, the confession of faith by Manuel, Sabel, and Ismail bears obvious features of authenticity. It does not repeat the arguments of traditional canonical hagiographical formulas. The saints did not make excuses before the Emperor. “You constantly talk about the gods!” They were diplomats. They succinctly and justly put Julian on the look that, under the pretext of religious disputes he was waiting for the settling of personal scores with those whose religion he obviously hated and despised. Julian accused the martyrs of espionage and tortured the envoys. Then, finding no reason to accuse them, for confessing the faith, he ordered them to be beheaded. The saints confessed their faith in Christ. And in this confession, they were profoundly modern. In fact, they defended the right of politics to secularity. The right for religion to remain religion, and relations between states to be regulated by diplomacy. According to the vita, the saints urged the Emperor not to argue about faith, but to reason about deeds. Having beheaded them, Julian ordered their bodies to be burned. In one of his works, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben (born 1942) says that the real etymology of the concept of “religion” lies not in the combination of “divine” and “human”, but in the ability to separate them. If this is so, then Manuel, Savel and Ismail were not only convinced Christians, but also truly religious people in the modern sense of the word.
Soon war broke out between Rome and Persia. On June 26, 363, Julian was killed in battle. His last words were the exclamation: “You defeated me, Galilean!”. Just as it seemed to him, very contemptuously, but, in fact, in full agreement with the gospel text, as befits the catechumen, Julian the Apostate called Christ during his lifetime.