The peak of summertime, July, is rich in remembrance of great saints
Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest
In the first half of the month, the Church celebrates the Nativity of John the Baptist and the memory of the Apostles Peter and Paul. In the second half of July comes the turn of St. Sergius of Radonezh, Saint Olga and Vladimir.
Continuing the tradition of remembrance of the saints in the publications of Russian Mind, we would like to remember those of them whose memory seems forgotten today. These are Saints Agrippina and Febronia, and the Great Martyr Procopius. Let’s talk about them in order of calendar memory.
SAINT AGRIPPINA OF MINEO
On July 6, the Church celebrates the memory of the holy martyr Agrippina. The saint was one of those numerous consecrated virgins who suffered for their faith in Christ during the era of Roman pagan persecution. Among them are Catherine, Barbara, Marina, Dorothea, Tatyana, Agatha and many, many others. “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,” says the book of the Apocalypse (Rev. 7:17). Saint Agrippina is now one of the forgotten saints. But once he was highly revered by the Church. She was revered in Rome, where she came from and where she became a martyr for Christ. She was revered in Sicily, where her relics were transferred shortly after her death. Her memory was celebrated in Constantinople. Because during the Arab conquests of the Italian islands, her relics were transferred to the capital of the empire. According to the vita, Agrippina dedicated herself to God at a young age. Being the daughter of wealthy parents, she was able to devote herself to the works of mercy. She suffered for Christ in Rome under Emperor Valerian I (253-260). Agrippina was fifteen years old at the time of her suffering. Having endured many tortures, the body of the saint was laid where the Basilica of the Holy Apostle Paul now stands and where, after being beheaded with a sword, the body of the Apostle was buried by the apostolic community. As already mentioned, shortly after her death, presumably in 263, the relics of the saint were transferred to Sicily. The body of the saint was laid in a cave in the small village of Mineo not far from the Sicilian Catania. Hence the name of the saint: Agrippina of Mineo. Subsequently, the relics of the saint were found by Saint Gregory of Agrigento (603–680). This great Sicilian saint, as well as his contemporary, Bishop Severinus of Catania, stood at the origins of the veneration of Agrippina in the next centuries. It is important to understand that the Ancient Church saw in consecrated virginity a special, incomparable vocation. To understand this, it is very important to be able to distance ourselves from our own time and from the understanding that belongs to it. In Freud’s words, the universe is governed by the law of reproduction and destruction. So, it was and will be. In turn, the biblical, apostolic, ancient Christian consciousness carefully reveals in the holiness of virgins the suspension of time, the collapse of chronology, the cessation of human dependence on himself. Indeed, in the history of the Ancient Church, consecrated virginity became the unique topos of immutability. In this uniqueness, the church saw the image of God. In other words, inspired by biblical texts, early Christianity did not want, and indeed could not, see in the virginity consecrated to God simply asceticism aimed at mortifying the flesh or consciously refusing to bear children. In this it differed from Gnosticism or Manichaeism, which despised and destroyed life, the world and flesh. “I will destroy those who destroy the earth,” as if in response to this, the Lord Himself warns in the Apocalypse (Rev. 11:18). Thus, the virtue of virginity, and here the peculiarity and uniqueness of precisely the female vocation in the eyes of the Ancient Church, became a place of immutability, a topos of reflecting the presence of the One Who, being above the laws of time and being, became a human being, entered time, and, in the words of the Creed, “for the sake of us, man and for our salvation, he was incarnated from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” The Lord Jesus became the “Beautiful Far Away” – the True Future of every person. “The Lord is near, worry about nothing,” writes Paul (Philippians 4:5-6). Inspired by these words of his, Christians, and, most importantly, Christian women of that time were truly equal to the Apostles. After all, they were able to show the world the onset of the Messianic time, to point out that the Second Coming, or, more correctly, the Return of the Lord, is not just close, but already “here, at the door” (Matt. 24:33).
SAINT FEBRONIA OF NISIBIS
On July 8, the Church celebrates the memory of saint Febronia. She suffered for Christ during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (284-305). Like Saint Agrippina about half a century before her, Febronia was a consecrated virgin. On the same day, July 8, the Russian Church honors the memory of Saints Peter and Febronia of Murom (+1228). These saints are the patrons of family and marriage. It is important to remember that Febronia of Murom was named after saint Febronia of Nisibis.
Febronia was one of the very few Syrian martyrs of the first centuries of Christianity whose names have come down to us. She entered the memory of the Church as the personification of all those who, far from the main centers of Apostolic Christianity of that time, testified of the Faith in the Crucified One “before the Gentiles, the kings and rulers of the earth” (Matt. 10:18).
So, Febronia came from Nisibis – modern Nusaybin, a city in southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border. In her time, it was the border of the Roman and Persian Empires, and the city itself belonged to the Romans since 298. Nisibis was an important military and trading point, a center of education, a meeting place for Rome, Syria, Persia, and other countries of the East. In the middle of the 4th century, the Nisibis Theological School, similar to the Antiochian School, began to flourish in Nisibis. With this School St. Ephraim the Syrian was associated. Christianity of the first centuries existed as a vast Universe, in which there were many traditions, countries and languages. Gradually, Christianity united, and Greco-Roman philosophy, civilization, Greek and Latin languages, culture, law, and conceptual thinking began to dominate. At the turn of the century, around the year 400, such an influence of the Hellenistic world began to dominate in Syria. But Febronia herself did not live to see this time. She was a child of the Syriac language and the Syrian Church, she spoke and thought in Syriac, and most likely did not know the Greek language. The Orthodox worldview, forms of reasoning and language of the ancient Syrian Christians of that time came from three main sources: Mesopotamian legends and type of thinking; Syriac translation of the Bible and oral Jewish traditions; Greek-speaking Christianity, at the same time, indirectly, in Syriac translations. Syriac was one of the varieties of Aramaic. It was spoken by Jesus, the Gospel was first preached in Aramaic, the Good News was uttered. The Christological, and not the philosophical, religious, and ascetic orientation of the virginity of young Christians that drove the pagans into a frenzy. This made the rulers indignant. After all, they, who deified the emperor, saw that the only true Master of life and death, soul, body, and spirit is the Lord Jesus Christ. The virgins testified of Him. As the Apostle Peter says, “The Lord Jesus triumphs in the weakest vessels of the bodies of Christian women” (1 Peter 3:7). The Syrian Church of that time was characterized by special communities of consecrated men and women, called “Sons and Daughters of the Covenant.” For example, the great ancient ascetic, the founder of Syrian monasticism, the Persian sage Aphrahat (270-346) was a contemporary of our Febronia. So, Febronia led a lifestyle dedicated to God. And although in the Russian liturgical calendar she is called a nun, she did not live in a convent in the modern sense of the word. According to the testimony of the vita, when the rumor about the onset of persecution of Christians reached the Community to which she belonged, all the virgins preferred to flee. But Febronia remained, was captured, and brought to trial. The trial of Christian virgins was necessarily built along two lines, each of which was extremely important for the pagan rulers: the virgins were required to renounce their faith; they were promised a prosperous marriage with a pagan spouse. According to the idolaters, the Christian virgin had to make a double renunciation in this way. She was to proclaim the Emperor as Lord, and, according to the logic of Roman law, she was to find a powerful pagan spouse as her new father. After all, the Romans perfectly remembered whom the Christians called, confessed, named their One and Only Father in Heaven. Christians called Jesus Lord and called their father God. Febronia did not renounce her faith and refused a marriage proposal, which, according to the acts of martyrdom, was made to her by the ruler, the pagan Lysimachus. The virgin was forced by persuasion, then tortured, mutilated her living body, cut off her arms and legs. But the pagans achieved absolutely nothing. That summer day 1725 years ago became Febronia’s birthday. For this is the only way the first Christians called the days of the martyrdom of their brothers and sisters. Seeing the blood baptism that had taken place, the pagan Lysimachus believed in Christ. So, by the prayer of the Church and the virgin, unlike all his pagan compatriots, he ceased to be an orphan, for he found himself a Heavenly Father (cf. Matt. 6:9).
PROCOPIUS OF SCYTHOPOLIS
On July 21, when the Russian Church solemnly celebrates the appearance of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God in 1579, the liturgical calendar honors the memory of the great saint of Christian antiquity, the martyr Procopius. Continuing to mention the heavenly patrons of the glorified saints, let us say that the Russian saint Procopius of Ustyug (+1303) was named in honor of Saint Procopius. It was to him in 1914 that Nicolas Roerich dedicated his famous painting. The Orthodox Church calls Procopius the Great Martyr. So, in ancient times it was customary to call those of the holy martyrs who were of royal or very noble origin. The name “Great Martyr” had nothing to do with the strength of the torment endured. In this sense, if Tsar Nicholas II had been glorified by the Church as a martyr, then he should have been called a “great martyr.” Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (265-339), a witness and contemporary of his life, narrates about the martyrdom of Procopius. According to Eusebius, in April 303, in the nineteenth of his reign, the Emperor Diocletian issued several successive decrees on the persecution of Christians. In the first of the decrees, the Governor of Palestine, Flavius, was ordered to destroy Christian churches to the ground and burn sacred books. Christians invested with positions should be stripped of their titles, and private individuals should be put in chains. In subsequent documents, this time directed against the servants of the Church, it was prescribed to put them in bonds and in every possible way force them to make sacrifices to the gods. Initially, Jerusalem was the Mother of the Churches and the chair of the brother of Jesus, the Apostle James. However, in the year 70 the city was completely destroyed by the Romans. Warned of the coming catastrophe, the Christians then left the city, and the first apostolic see thus ceased to exist. The Church of Jerusalem was thus considered to have lost her apostolic succession. In 135, the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina was founded on the site of Jerusalem. Although, according to Tradition, the place of the former Holy City in the first centuries of Christianity was always inhabited by a bishop with a small number of faithful Christians, the city of Aelia was full of idols. The largest cities of Palestine then were Caesarea, Scythopolis and Petra. It was with Caesarea that the activity of the great ancient theologian and interpreter of the Scriptures, Origen (185-254), was connected. According to Eusebius, Procopius appeared before the court and heard the command to bring a pagan sacrifice. Being a reader, a catechist, a translator from Syriac and an exorcist, that is, a church minister who exorcised evil spirits, the saint undoubtedly aroused the special hatred of the Romans. In response to the order to sacrifice to the gods, Procopius replied that he knew only the One and only God, Who Himself determines what kind of sacrifice he should bring at a given particular moment in time. Such an answer, no doubt, contained a mockery of the representatives of the Empire, who imagined themselves entitled to decide what kind of sacrifice those whom they called “gods” wanted to receive. But, most importantly, in his brief convincing answer, Procopius pointed to the confession of the Christian faith – that genuine sacrifice to the One God, which he himself would soon really bring. The time of the Palestinian persecution was a period of tetrarchy, that is, the reign of four actual emperors. Therefore, the Proconsul ordered Procopius to make a libation to “four rulers.” In response, the martyr quoted Homer’s Iliad (2.204): “There is no good in many powers, let there be a single ruler!” The testimony of the holy martyrs of Christ in history followed a certain special plan, which miraculously reproduced the sequence of our Creed. Obviously, Procopius’ refusal to sacrifice to the Gods corresponded to the Christian monotheistic confession of faith, and, in fact, reproduced the first lines of the Symbol: “I believe in the One God, the Almighty.” The words about the One Sovereign, formally referring to the words of the ancient Greek classic Homer, in fact, meant fidelity to the further words of the Christian confession: “I believe in the One Lord Jesus.” “Having uttered these words, he was beheaded,” is how Eusebius ends his testimony about the martyrdom of St. Procopius. In the narrative of the Passion of the Palestinian martyrs in the form in which we find it in Eusebius, as well as in one of the additional ancient sources, two details are extremely important. First, speaking about the origin of the saint, the source calls Jerusalem “Aelia”, as if deliberately forgetting about the true name of the Holy City. Secondly, Eusebius calls Procopius “the first martyr”, emphasizing the primacy of this great witness of Christ in martyrdom for faith in the One True God. In fact, the first martyr was The Lord Jesus Christ Himself. “Thus says Amen, the faithful and true martyr, the beginning of God’s creation,” testifies the Apocalypse (Rev. 3:14). In this sense, calling the first martyrs, that is, the first witnesses of the faith who suffered for Christ, Stephen and Thecla, and others, the Ancient Church continued this original biblical analogy. And just as in the first apostolic generation the Lord raised witnesses of the faith like Himself, so in every era and in every generation, diocese, region, local church that testified to the faith, there were always those who were the first to suffer for Christ.
So, the First Martyrs are a separate, special, chosen face of holiness. Saint Procopius became such a Palestinian first martyr during the Great Persecution of Diocletian. A native of Aelia Capitolina, he laid the foundation for the great martyrdom of Christ’s witnesses. Following Procopius there were many other Palestinian martyrs – these July saints, on the testimony of which the Holy City of Jerusalem was reborn, and twenty years later, under Emperor Constantine (+337), regained its name.