The period from Easter to Pentecost is dedicated to the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ
By Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest
The Feast of all Feasts and the Solemnity of all Solemnities, as the liturgical hymns call Holy Pascha, lasts exactly fifty days. However, at the same time, the Church daily celebrates the memory of the saints. This theological reflection issue is dedicated to three saints of the Ancient Church, whose memory is celebrated in May.
All three were bishops, which in the mentality of the Ancient Church meant constant concern for the poor, sick and persecuted, serving God and people. The first of them, Theodore of Sykeon, was an ascetic and miracle worker, the second, Athanasius of Alexandria, a thinker and theologian, the third, beloved and well-known Saint Nicholas a good shepherd, friend, and brother of his people. All of them were united by a common faith in the Risen Lord. They were the saints of the Passover Time.
Theodore of Sykeon
On May 5 the Church celebrates the memory of Theodore of Sykeon (530–613). The saint was a great ascetic, abbot of the monastery, a bishop who left his throne for the sake of ascetism, a miracle worker and seer, similar to the biblical prophets.
Theodore’s whole life was related to the veneration of the Saint George, whom the Orthodox tradition calls the Great Martyr. Thanks to his own genuine personal righteousness, Theodore contributed to the spread of the veneration of Saint George at that time.
One of the greatest saints of his time, Theodore seems to be forgotten nowadays. Unfortunately, he is a forgotten saint. If the saints can be compared and likened to each other, then, perhaps, Theodore Sykeon was for the north of Asia Minor the same who, two centuries before him, was for the south of Anatolia St. Nicholas.
The vita of Theodore is extremely interesting and rich in details. It was written down by his disciple Eleusis, nicknamed George. It is an interesting coincidence of names in honor of Saint George!
So, Theodore was born around 530 in the village of Sykeon in Galatia, a historical region in the central region of Asia Minor. It was the time of Emperor Justinian the Great (527–565), who for the last time united the Empire, East and West, Constantinople and Rome, Spain and Roman Africa into a single Empire.
According to his vita, Theodore’s father was a certain Cosmas, an imperial official who set off from the capital to become the ruler of one of the provinces. On the way he stopped in Sykeon in one of the hotels… Theodore’s mother was a prostitute.
From his very birth, Theodore was given the special intercession and help of Saint George. From a very young age, Theodore showed a particular propensity for ascetic exercises, completely neglecting the rules of moderation. Already at the age of 14, the age of majority according to the laws of that time, Theodore dug a cave for himself under the church of Saint George in order to practice asceticism alone. The extreme severity of self-restraint in the asceticism led to the fact that Theodore had to be saved from wounds and ulcers. Barely alive, he was rescued from the cave and brought to the house of the bishop of the city of Anastasiopolis. The bishop was so struck by the spiritual age of the young man that, contrary to the canons, he ordained him a priest, successively raising him to all the previous degrees of clergy in just five days. The bishop also took care of his treatment.
After his recovery, Theodore went on a pilgrimage to Palestine, in order to get acquainted with the life of the hermits there. There, in the Monastery of Saint George of Choziba near Jericho, became a monk Soon he returned to his homeland, where he founded a monastery near the very church of St. George, where he had spent his youth. There Theodore gathered his disciples around him.
Despite the remoteness of this area from the largest political centers of that time, authorities approached him for advice. Among them was the future emperor Mauritius, who was then at the head of the imperial army. After the victory over the Persians, the commander visited the hermit, who predicted his ascension to the imperial throne, which happened soon in 582.
After the death of the local Bishop Timothy, Theodore, against his will, by solemn acclamation of clergy and people, was elected bishop.
The main duty of the bishop in those days was the deeds of mercy, a fair trial and helping people. At first, Theodore zealously devoted himself to episcopal work, but soon, contrary to the canons, he left the see and fled to Palestine. There he turned to one of the great hermits with a question about his future. The ascetic pointed out to him that Theodore’s disgust for the episcopal ministry meant that by the will of God he had to resign.
Theodore returned to Ancyra and asked the metropolitan to appoint a successor to him. The metropolitan refused. Then Theodore went to Constantinople, where, with the same request for permission to leave the see, he turned to the Patriarch and even to the Emperor. They ordered the Metropolitan of Ancyra to release the saint from the administration of the diocese. Rejoicing at the fulfillment of his dream of hermitage, Theodore closed himself in his monastery, so as not to leave it again. But one day he still had to go to Constantinople to heal one of the Emperor’s sons from leprosy.
At the end of his life, the saint became very known for many miracles and prophecies. The life of Theodore of Sykeon passed under the protection of Saint George. The whole life of Theodore passed near the shrine dedicated to George: there he was baptized, grew up, became an ascetic, founded a monastery, was elected a bishop, and again returned to monastic life.
The memory of Saint George, 6 May, is always celebrated during the Easter period. By the will of God, the same applies to Theodore. Because according to the vita, Theodore departed to the Lord on the eve of the memory of the Saint George in 613, on May 5.
Athanasius of Alexandria
On May 15 the Church celebrates the memory of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. The saint was the bishop of Alexandria. Founded by the Apostle Mark, the Church of the biggest City of the Empire gave birth to many holy bishops: Dionysius, Peter, Alexander, Timothy, Theophilus, Proterius, Apollinarius, Eulogius, Theodore, John V the Merciful, and many, many others. “The great host and the great cloud of witnesses”, – as the Epistle to the Hebrews says (cf. Heb. 12:1). Saint Athanasius was the greatest among them. He entered the memory of the Church under the name of Athanasius the Great.
Throughout his life, Athanasius defended the dogma of consubstantiality of Jesus Christ with God the Father. He confessed and taught that the Logos, the Son of God, God, who became man in Christ Jesus, is eternal and uncreated. This confession saved Christianity, preserved its biblical origins.
Athanasius was repeatedly in exile, for a total of about 20 years. He lived a very long life at that time, and passed away to the Lord in 373, having lived a little over 75 years. Athanasius was a mild-mannered man, ardent for the truth, and at the same time meek and firm. A friend of the monastics, it was he who compiled the life of Anthony the Great.
Among the great multitude of saints glorified by the Church, only a very few have received the title of “Great Ones”. These are the bishops: Athanasius, Basil, Leo of Rome, Pope Gregory I; and the Desert Fathers: Anthony, Pachomius, Arsenius, Macarius. Such a name, undoubtedly, denotes a special significance in the formation of the Orthodox Christian tradition, the foundations of spiritual life and asceticism. Athanasius is called great for his role in defending the dogma of the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father and the decrees of the Council of Nicaea.
Commemoration of St. Athanasius (+373) is an ecumenical tribute to the memory of the Alexandrian Church. Egypt and Alexandria made a precious, invaluable contribution to the origin, development and spread of Christianity. A mature, intellectually, and spiritually strong and persuasive Christianity.
Athanasius personifies that holy and great time when the Universe longed that soon Christianity would be preached everywhere and the whole world would believe. “You have not yet fought to the point of bloodshed, striving against sin” (Heb. 12:4), – the memory of the holy Archbishop of Alexandria is a commandment to proclaim the gospel throughout the earth. Under Patriarch Germanus I (715–730), the relics of Athanasius were transferred to Constantinople.
Nicolas of Myra
The veneration of Saint Nicholas is extremely great. Undoubtedly, he is one of the most revered saints in history. Moreover, this veneration extends not only to the entire Orthodox world, but to the entire Christian planet. As a spontaneous reaction to such great fame of one of the saints, the question arises why some saints are revered more than others. The answer to it is revealed in the biblical teaching, according to which, an immortal man, created in the image of God, who has attained the likeness of God in holiness, lives and continues to live forever. A human being remains a living, thinking, loving person.
Therefore, many saints chose to praise God day and night. They preferred to get away from the veneration of people, and after the death of the body to maintain that humility that revived their souls in their bodily life on earth. As it says in the book of the Apocalypse: “These are those who came from the great tribulation; they washed their clothes and made their clothes white with the blood of the Lamb. For this they are now before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His temple, and He who sits on the throne will dwell in them” (Rev. 7:14-15).
These saints, who loved most of all the glorification of God, laid their hands on Saint Nicholas and entrusted him with intercession for the people. They preferred to remain in the unknown. They are great saints, and, above all, saints, holy bishops, contemporaries of Saint Nicholas himself.
It is known from the history of the Ancient Church that only a few decades after the death of St. Nicholas, within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, which then numbered, according to various estimates, about fifty million people, there were two thousand orthodox bishops. Asking the question why Nicholas, was chosen for such a great service to people after his death, by his brothers in holiness and God, it is important to turn to the text of his vita to make sure that almost nothing has come down to us from his biography. Unfortunately, specific detailed historical documents about the earthly biography of Nicholas have not come down to us. His glory of holiness is, first, a heavenly glory of signs and wonders born of reverence born in the veneration of the church people. Contemporaries of Nicholas, the great bishops of the East and West of the Christian world – Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo and Leo the Great – did not say anything about Nicholas in their works.
According to his life, the saint was born in the year 270. That is, he was a contemporary of the era of persecution and the legalization of Christianity under Emperor Constantine (+337). He was present during the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea of 325. He was contemporary of the era of great dogmatic disputes after the Council. But for his contemporaries Nicholas remained in obscurity. This mysterious disappearance of him from the immediate memory of history was rewarded by God with the great glorification and glory that he received from Heaven.
Belief in the Second Coming of Christ is a dogma. Every day it is proclaimed in the Creed with the words: “I believe in the One Lord Jesus. Christ. Coming again with glory, to judge the living and the dead. His Kingdom will have no end.”
The expectation of the Lord’s Coming places us, the Church, as a community of believers, in the period between two Easters: our earthly Easter, celebrated from since the Resurrection of Jesus to Pentecost every year, and that Great Easter of the Lord Jesus, when He returns in glory with all the saints. The Lord will resurrect every person who has ever lived from the beginning of the world. “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this corruptible puts on incorruption, and this mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:53-54).
For a correct, Orthodox, understanding of holiness, it is especially important to realize that the saints are not only intercessors helping us, as if remaining with the Church after the Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord Jesus – the One and Only True Wonderworker and Saint for all time – but they are forerunners of His Second Glorious Coming. As the Gospel of Matthew mysteriously speaks of this: “And the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were resurrected, and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection, they entered the Holy City and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:51-53). Such a resurrected, emerging from the graves forerunner of the Coming of Christ was for the Church and the Whole World St. Nicholas, whom the faithful request for intercession before God.
Christ is risen!
The spring celebration in honor of St. Nicholas on May 22 falls on the Easter period. These days, believers greet each other with the words “Christ is Risen!”. To conclude our text on the Paschal saints, let us say a few words about this Easter greeting, which, no doubt, each of them proclaimed.
“Christ is Risen” is not just a message that Jesus is alive, but one of the original Creeds. This early Christian exclamation confesses the belief that the Lord Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the God-Anointed Savior of the World, in whom, and only in Him, deliverance is given. “God raised him from the dead, and he is a stone that has become the head of the corner, and there is salvation in no one else” (Acts 4:10-12).
“Christ is Risen” means that the Lord Jesus has risen from the dead, and death no longer has power over Him. Death no longer possesses Him, as Scripture says. “Christ, having risen from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over Him” (Acts 6:9). Anyone who joins this witness of the life and death of Christ is withdrawn from the power of death by the power of Christ and God.
“Christ is Risen” – the confession of the Lordship of Christ and His Victory over death in the Orthodox tradition replaces any greeting on Easter days, and even many prayers. It is repeated again and again because the property of the Christian faith is such that only transmitted, that is, communicated to others, believers and unbelievers, this faith comes to life in the heart of the confessing person himself and becomes his real property.
After all, faith is not a property or an acquisition, but a gift from God. The faith ist an unaccountable, sovereign, without beginning, that is, if translated from the original Greek literally, an anarchic Gift of God and the Father in Christ Jesus. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude of people, whom no one could number, from all nations and tribes and peoples and languages, stood before the throne and before the Lamb in white robes and with palm branches in their hands”, – is written in the Apocalypse (Apoc.7,9).
Imagine all the people, imagine this great multitude of saints, who serve God and help people day and night until the time is fulfilled. “Behold, I come quickly, and my reward is with me. And the Spirit and the bride say: Come! And let him who hears say: Come! Amen. Him, come, Jesus Christ” (Apoc. 22:12,17-20). The Church, as the Society of Believers and the Bride of Christ, together with St. Theodore, Athanasius, Nicholas, and all the saints, here and now, is waiting for the Lord Jesus. This expectation should come true.