Born in Sozopolis Pisidia, modern day Bulgaria in 456AD, Saint Severus of Antioch was born of non-believing parents. Upon the death of his father 485AD, his mother paid for him to travel with his two older brothers to Alexandria to learn grammar and rhetoric, a pre-requisite for legal studies .
The birth of this blessed saint comes in the aftermath of Chalcedon, where the holy father and Patriarch of Alexandria St Dioscorus was persecuted without just cause. St Dioscorus had championed himself against Nestorianism and any discussion of two natures of Christ after the ineffable union, an error which had spread through the Church and even Rome. Pope Leo had written a Christological statement upholding two natures after the union, which St Dioscorus anathematised. St Dioscorus was persecuted and placed in exile at Gagra. He upheld his theological position as that which had been received from the fathers of the Church, especially the dogmatic teachings of St Cyril of Alexandria, the definitive statement of Nicaea “One Lord Jesus Christ” and in unison with the voice of both Latin and Cappadocian fathers. St Severus would champion the theological correctness of St Dioscorus, St Cyril, the Nicaean faith and the non-Chalcedonian Oriental Churches.
As a student in Alexandria, St Severus was in one of the world’s foremost epicentres of learning and education. The city was rich with philosophy, religions and of course the most influential theological school in the ancient world. He had access to the great library of Alexandria, with its uncountable treasures, and of course the tomes of the theological school of Alexandria!
It was at this time the saint was introduced to the fathers by the Coptic people, St Basil and St Gregory of Nazianzen. He began a lifelong friendship with Zachariah Scholasticus, another student who would become his biographer. St Severus at this time acted as a young advisor to his fellow Christian students, who were fighting and struggling against the pagans, both whilst in Alexandria and in Phoenicia. These same Christians persuaded him to put aside reading the rhetoric of a secular scholar Antiochene Libanius in favour of St Basil and St Gregory.
Saint Severus became captivated by the inspirational writings of the Cappadocian fathers, and he even believed they would hold him accountable on judgement day, for he received the faith they had faithfully delivered in apostolic succession from Christ.
Zachariah Scolasticus joined with him in pursuing their legal studies weekdays, they would rest Saturday morning, and then he would spend the rest of the weekend with St Severus studying and reading theology. After 5 years in Beirut, St Severus graduated master of law. He remained interested in canon law through his life.
At this time, he received formal catechetical teaching from a monastic father and was baptized at the shrine Church of the holy martyr Leontius at Tripoli in modern day Lebanon. This had significant meaning as St Leontius the martyr was credited with power in converting pagans and overcoming demons – which St Severus attests to in his own life as having converted (in a text of one of his surviving homilies).
The Bishop in Beirut at the time was Chalcedonian which is perhaps why he left the capital to pursue baptism elsewhere.
Ascetic tradition was strong amongst the faithful orthodox believers of Palestine and Egypt, and St Severus became an extreme ascetic. He was journeying home to Pisidia to purchase his official legal robes of trade and become a lawyer, when he met disciples of the holy Saint Peter the Iberian, who convinced him of his spiritual vocation, and he became a monk at Peter’s monastery near Gaza, in 490AD.
At Peter the Iberian’s monastery St Severus joined a melting pot of ascetic monastics, intellectuals, bishops and administrators that would have a profound effect on his development.
From the monastery St Severus graduated to the anchoritic ascetic life and fled to the wilderness of Eleutheropolis, where his asceticism weakened him so much one of the monks carried him back to the monastery of St Romanus to be nurtured to good health. So many monks began to follow the example of this holy father that he used his family wealth to build a monastery to house them in near Gaza at Maiuma. He was ordained around 500AD a priest by Bishop Epiphianus of Magydon, Pamphilia.
At this time theological wars began to be waged between the monks of Palestine St Sabas who opposed the anti-chalcedonians. Letters and verbal attacks increased, and a certain Nephalius caused an uproar against St Severus in Jerusalem that saw him expelled. St Severus travelled straight to Constantinople with 200 monks to plead his case before the righteous emperor Anastasius. Nephalius followed with an entourage of monks and Constantinople was over run with monks waging theological war against each other. Anastasius believed rightly and St Severus was appointed theological advisor to the emperor.
St Severus received the support of St Philoxenus, another holy father who had travelled earlier to uphold the true faith. St Severus and St Philoxenus would only be content with outright rejection of Chalcedon. Whilst Anastasius believed the Orthodox faith, he had the duty of holding the empire together and sought peace by a document called the Henotikon – which sought to unite both sides again. This failed, and so St Severus was commissioned to draft another document without anathematizing Leo. He did so, and to the embarrassment of the Chalcedonians in later years it was accepted by many of their bishops throughout the empire, whilst upholding the faith of St Dioscorus.
The addition of the Trisagion Agios o theos to uphold true Christological teaching happened at this time – inserting the words “Who was crucified for our sake” which cancels the error of Nestorius by upholding God the Word incarnate was crucified. Huge fights ensued as the opposition tried to claim somehow that this was a reference to the impassable Godhead. This created further rifts and the continued opposition of the chalcedonian patriarch of Constantinople, Macedonius, who was eventually deposed. He was replaced by the more moderate Timothy – evidence that St Severus did not seek power as the chaplain to the emperor he could have pursued the office himself had he wanted to. At this time wars still continued, especially with the Akoimetoi – sleepless monks objecting the new trisagion hymn and arguing was commonplace throughout the capital.
With St Severus in the capital and St Philoxenus in Palestine, the theological postion of the Orthodox father St Cyril of Alexandria took dominance throughout the empire.
A summons came from the Emperor Anastasius in 512AD calling St Severus to attend Antioch. As he arrived in the city, crowds gathered, chanting “Free us from the doctrines of the Chalcedonians, the cursed council and tome of Leo has turned the world upside down. He who will not do so is a wolf not a shepherd!” St Severus submits to the will of the people and is enthroned as Patriarch of Antioch, taking the see of the Holy Ignatius, and following on as a new eloquent mouth in the tradition of the Golden Mouth, St John Chrysostom.
Twelve bishops including St Philoxenus concelebrated his enthronement, and he delivered the first of 125 cathedral homilies to the crowd of faithful. In the homily he confirmed, “Christ out of two natures, a single Lord, a single Son, and not two natures after the ineffable union.” He then denounced the Chalcedonians as the new Jews, and upholds the use of two dissolves the unity and destroys the economy of salvation. At the conclusion of the ceremony he signed a decleration of faith in front of 13 Bishops. Persia to the borders of Roman territory remains non-Chalcedonian, but the situation was different in the capital Constantinople. Problems ensued and saw Emperor Anastasius stand down one day after St Severus’ accession to the patriarchate.
If you have any doubt as to the problem of Nestorianism, or that elements of the Antiochene theological school continued to teach this error, the name of Nestorius was used in the commemoration of ‘saints’ in the diptych in Tarsus, and a number of prominent figures followed him such as Theodoret of Cyrus who wrote opposing St Cyril of Alexandria.
The metropolitos of Antioch rivalled Rome itself, and had a powerful status in the time of St Severus. Many pilgrims passed through on route to Jerusalem. St Severus opposed the Olympic games which took place in the city due to the riots which it caused, often between the religious factions. Saint Severus also had to deal with judaizers in Churches, who were influenced by the example of the Macabees and sought to judaize Christianity – influenced by the large Jewish population in Antioch. There is cause to believe they influenced the use of good luck charms which St Severus railed against. The Chalcedonians had fluctuated between being moderate and seeking some form of peace to murdering their opponents. Despite the pluralism and political turmoil in the city, St Severus remained steadfast and a true example of a monk-theologian. He ensured the removal of the names of all Chalcedonians and Nestorians from the diptych in his patriarchate to send a clear message of faith. The name of St Dioscorus and St Timothy – the Cat were returned to the diptych.
St Severus wrote a number of homilies and hymns, including the famous hymn ‘O Monogenes’ used by the Syriac orthodox and the Coptic Church on Good Friday. Soon Anastasius grew sick and passed away, opening the way for the installation of a Chalcedonian supporting emperor Vitalian, with strong connections to the power brokers of Chalcedonianism. Vitalian was the godson of Flavian and sought to avenge his godfather, who had been put aside by St Dioscorus, and the days of St Severus would be numbered.
St Severus left Constantinople anathematized by the Chalcedonians with the weight of the Roman empire behind them, was called to have his tongue cut out, but he managed to escape to the port of Seleucia Piera where he took ship for Alexandria and sanctuary.
He was welcomed by our Coptic father and Patriarch St Timothy IV, who sent him to a monastery of Enaton, and opposition increased from the Capital city of Constantinople with false accusations of sorcery against him and St Philoxenus, and iconoclasm for the use of pictures of doves in the Church as if they were following some obscure pagan connection to Aphrodite Goddess of love!
St Severus spent the next 20 years in exile, a dangerous time for him. No one knew where he was living, but he managed to write a huge number of theological treatises and letters to encourage the faithful everywhere, through a contact in Palestine named Theodore. He had returned home to his love of asceticism. During his time in the deserts of Egypt, St Severus travelled disguised as a simple monk, and strengthen the orthodox faith of the people. Whilst visiting a church during the Divine Liturgy, he stood at the back corner. The priest offering the liturgy began to uncover the altar and the Korban bread of the offering had disappeared! An angel of the Lord spoke to the confused priest who was looking around the altar, that God had hidden the offering because he was in the presence of a high priest (patriarch), and then revealed St Severus at the rear of the Church.
The priest went forward to take the blessing of the holy patriarch, who commended him to continue the offering of the liturgy. As he returned to the altar, the Holy Korban was back in its rightful place.
St Severus was eventually summoned back to the capital at the initiative of the God fearing empress Theodora, under the auspices of an attempt at peace and reconciliation. He went to engage discussions and uphold the faith once more. Whilst there the patriarch of Alexandria died, and Theodora saw a deacon of St Severus’ party enthroned as patriarch, St Theodosius. A new patriarch was enthroned in Constantinople as well who having met St Severus entered into communion with him, revoking Chalcedon. However, the patronage of Queen Theodora could not withstand the union between the Roman Pontiff Agapetus and Justinian the emperor.
Agapetus purportedly a Nestorian who denied to call St Mary the Theotokos came and visited Justinian his friend and the King in Constantinople. It is said of his arrival in Constantinople, there were ominous signs in the heavens, different kinds of eclipses, and ferocious sea storms driving spray from the coast. Agapetus and the King were very close as they spoke the same language, and he turned the emperor against St Severus. His wife, Theodora was a true believer in Orthodoxy as the former Emperor Anastasius, and protected St Severus because of her love for him. Agapetus refused communion with Saints Severus and Anthimus – the patriarch of Constantinople who would not take on the innovations or additions to the faith made at Chalcedon, and they the more with him. Agapetus claimed of the two one was an adulterer and the other a Eutychianist. Eventually the pair were driven from the city. Because of the impiety of Agapetus, he suffered a form of tongue cancer and died.
St Severus returned once more to Alexandria for the final time, living his final years as an ascetic in the wilderness of Scetis (sheheet) and the mountain of Assuit. He died at Xois – Sakha and his body remains in Zughag in a monastery. He was revered among the Copts as an ascetic miracle worker One collection of hymns totals 295 making him a significant liturgist, and the greatest theologian of the One nature of God the word incarnate theology, testified by a number of biographers. He was eventually succeeded by one Jacob, from where our Syrian brothers receive the name Jacobite from.
He was responsible for the powerful and 1500 year brotherly relationship between us and the Syriac Church along with the prayers of St Timothy IV, evidenced in the recent enthronement of Pope Tawadros II and the role played by Mar Ignatius Zaka I with an entourage of Syriac priests.