Category Archives: Saints Alive!!!

Hagiography and the lives of the Saints…

St Severus of Antioch…

We celebrate 15 centuries since the ascension of this eloquent and holy saint as patriarch of Antioch…St-Severus-of-Antioch-06-by-Samy-Hennes-2004-at-St-Mina-Monastery-Egypt

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.st leontius

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.

Here Peter_the_iberianhe parted with his friend and biographer Zachariah, who wished to fulfil his vocation to law at the wish of his parents.

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-philoxenus-of-mabbug-61

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.

st severus...stephane reneTwelve 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.

The Bible and St Augustine on the place of Saints in the Church

machenitsiThe place of saints in Christianity in general is a hot topic.  Many non-Orthodox groups reject showing any kind of reverence towards the Saints in heaven (whom we believe intercede for us) or further yet towards their holy remains.  The issue is, can the remains holy saints be the vehicle of God’s grace?  We shall see, the Biblical answer is an affirmitave yes!  Further, Scripture also gives us a very clear example with the reverence we should show towards the blessed remains of these holy saints.

Firstly, the Scriptures give us a clear indication that the saints offer prayers for us and intercession before God.

Revelation 8:1-41 When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. 3Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. 4And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.

Revelation 5:8,98Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints

The incense rising from the golden bowls befor the throne of God are the prayers of the saints!  When someone walks into an Orthodox Church and witnesses Orthodox Christians worshipping God they will often see pious behaviour directed towards the holy martyrs and saints.  This is clearly not the worship we offer God, but a reverence and respect for those blessed ones who preceded us in the Body of Christ.  We do not say all are saints, only those whom the Church has approved by God’s will.  Yet it can be confusing for someone to see people prostrating and kissing icons etc., and the priests annointing relics with an ancient mixture of spices. 

Exodus 13: 19 And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had placed the children of Israel under solemn oath, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here with you.”St. Sedhom Bishay

With reverence and respect the Hebrews of old preserved and maintained the bones or relics of the prophet and patriarch Joseph for centuries until Moses brought them out of Egypt.  This tradition is continued to this day in the Christian Orthodox Churches where the bones of Saints are kept near or under altars and in holy places for the faithful to receive blessings.  But, isn’t all this superstitious nonsense?  Do these relics really pass on the grace of God?  Countless miracles through history and in telishahe modern era attest to an affirmative yes!  However, Scripture also reveals another evidence of the power of relics to reflect the glory of God…

2Kings 13:20 Then Elisha died, and they buried him. And the raiding bands from Moab invaded the land in the spring of the year. 21 So it was, as they were burying a man, that suddenly they spied a band of raiders; and they put the man in the tomb of Elisha; and when the man was let down and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.

Interestingly, the bones or relics of Elisha still exist and are located in an Orthodox Church in the middle east with the relics of St John the Baptist…

Clearly then the bones of holy saints of God can bestow miraculous blessing upon us on earth.  Yet it is without further ado that I wish to share the teaching of St Augustine which clarifies the Orthodox Christian tradition that WORSHIP IS DUE TO GOD ALONE – and further that our reverance for the saints is something altogether different to this…

FROM ST AUGUSTINE – THE CITY OF GOD…. (End of Book VIII)St-Takla-org_Coptic-Saints_Saint-Augustine-01

But, Nevertheless, we do not build temples, or ordain priests, rites, and sacrifices for these same martyrs; for they are not our gods, but their God is our God.  Certainly we honour their reliquaries, as the memorials of holy men of God who strove for truth even to the death of their bodies, that the true religion might be made known, and false and ficticious religions exposed….But who ever heard of a priest of the faithful, standing at an altar built for the honour and worship of God over the holy body of some martyr, say in the prayers, I offer to thee a sacrifice, O Peter, or O Paul, or O Cyprian? for it is to God that sacrifices are offered at their tombs – with holy angels in celestial honour; and the reason why we pay such honours to their memory is that by doing so we may give thanks to the true God for their victories, and by calling them afresh to remembrance, may stir ourselves up to imitate them by seeking to obtain like crowns and palms, calling to our help that same God on whom they called.  Therefore, whatever honours the religious may pay in the places of martyrs, they are but honours rendered to their memory, not sacred rites or sacrifices offered to dead men as gods…

Remember, Remember, the Feast of the Martyrdom of St Mark the Evangelist

St Mark Neo Coptic Icon
St Mark Neo Coptic Icon

Today the Coptic Orthodox Church remembers the martyrdom of the apostle of Egypt, St Mark the Evangelist.  Born in Cyrene in Northern Africa near Pentapolis to Aristobulous and Mary, he was born of the tribe of Levi and was brought up as a learned student of Hebrew and Greek.   His name was John Mark (Mark being his surname Acts 12:12) and the Lord Christ spoke of him when he told the disciples to go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘My time is at hand, I will keep the passover at your house with my Disciples.’ (Mat 26:18)  His family house was the first Church where the passover was eaten, they hid their after the crucifixion and in its upper room the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost.The family emigrated to Jerusalem where St Peter was married to a cousin of Aristobulous, and Mark visited Peter’s house often to be instructed in the faith.  Once Aristobulous and Mark were travelling through the wilderness of the Jordan and encountered a ravenous lion and lioness, where St Mark interceeded and called on the name of the Lord Christ for protection and the lion dropped dead.  His father marvelled and was baptised. 

St Mark was one of the younger seventy disciples of the Lord who preached the kingdom, and was always in the background in the Gospel accounts of the Lord Christ.  He was also a relative of St Barnabas, and after the ascension accompanied him and St Paul on evangelical missions through Antioch, Selucia, Cyprus, Salamis, and Perga Pamphylia where he left and returned to Jerusalem.  After the departure of the Holy Saint Barnabas, at the commandment of the Lord Christ St Mark came to Afrikia, Berka, and the Five Western Cities.

After he entered the city of Alexandria his sandal broke and he took it to the cobbler, Anianus, to repair it.  While he was repairing it he pierced his finger and cried out ‘EIS THEOS – The One God!”  So St Mark healed the cobbler miraculously by the power of Christ and Anianus went on to become a Bishop of the Orthodox Church.

There is a historical background to this event that we should consider.   The land of Egypt was at this moment prepared to receive the true knowledge of God and the Orthodox faith.  The scientific prowess of the ancient Egyptians was immense, considering the engineering and technical skills behind the construction of the pyramids, their mathematics and philosophy came to the forefront of the world and the great library of Alexandria contained the largest collection of scientific and historical record the ancient world had ever known, and much ancient history was lost when it was destroyed.  Nevertheless, the scientific knowledge of the ancient pharoh’s was not considered detrimental to religious knowledge but supplementary to it.

Alexandria LibraryIn any case, the fact is that the ancient Egyptians put their scientific abilities at the disposal of the religious thinking (building pyramids, embalming etc).  It had influenced the Copts.  They looked to science not as an enemy of religion or contrary to it, but rather that science acts in favour of religion.  Therefore the school of Alexandria (left) opened its doors to the scholars and philosophers, believing science and philosophy could serve the true spiritual life.” (Fr Tadros Yacoub Malaty “Introduction to The Coptic Orthodox Church”)

In fact, Fr Tadros Yacoub Malaty notes that many of the ancient philosophers believed in one supreme being, the best example being king Ikhnaton (1383-1365BC).  Further, the ancient Egyptians had contemplated much on afterlife and the implications of spiritual knowledge and although of human construct the best of their efforts is seen in the example of king Ikhnaton led to the ultimate truth of accepting One God. 

What does all this have to do with St Mark?  Well, St Mark is well known as an evangelist and author of the Gospel, he is also known as a missionary and also as a martyr.  What we often to easily forget is his eminence as a theologian, scholar, and we should consider his holiness and great rhetorical skills as he the Beholder of Divinity related the power of the risen Christ – which he had witnessed firsthand.  St Mark entered an eminent scientific and philosophical arena in Alexandria of the worlds finest thinkers, rife with the schools of Greek philosophy and even the theology of the Jews, whose efforts some two hundred years earlier produced the Septuagint which is received as Holy Scripture by the Orthodox Church and confirmed at its councils years later.  In fact the learned Jewish philosopher Philo had even dabbled in the allegorical method of study which was to be confirmed by the Lord Christ and the Fathers of the Church.  St. Mark was able to confirm and proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Christ, he catechized and established Christian truth and the Lord worked miracles by his blessed apostolic hands.  Yet his preaching was able to confirm the wisdom of Christianity and its ability to answer the great philosophical debaters of  Alexandria.  We should consider that what he bore was not of human construct but rather Divine Revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  He bore witness to the Holy Trinity the One Divinity.  This revelation and its study is the purest of sciences as the Book of Sirach pronounces in chapter 39.  St Mark was well placed to witness to Christ from what he witnessed first hand, from his knowledge of the Law and the prophets and one wonders at the influence of St Peter, St Barnabas and the eminent New Testament theologian St Paul.  His teaching and holy example lead to the foundation of the Alexandrian School of Theology to promote the pure science and the fact that while Orthodox Christianity is a faith of discipleship involving mystery and the revelation of God, it is still more than able to interact and even challenge the greatest philosophical questions humans can come up with.  This school whose foundation was laid by St Mark (St Jerome) was to go on to uphold and defend Orthodox truth and become the most influential theological force in the exposition of the faith once deliviered and confirming Orthodoxy, with such renowned saints as St Diddymus, St Cyril and St Athanasius.  Nonetheless, St Mark’s impact was so great that he angered his opponents to the point that for a time he left the city having ordained ministers and Bishops he travelled to other parts of Africa continuing on in the evangelical spirit.

Upon his final return to Alexandria, St Mark witnessed that the Church founded had grown under the care and patronage of St Anianus and they built a Church at Bokalia (place of the cows) east of Alexandria by the sea shore.  In the year 68 AD, St Mark was celebrating the feast of the resurrection which coincided with a pagan festival to Syrabis, and a pagan mob sought the life of St Mark and binding him with thick rope they dragged him with cruelty through the streets cutting and tearing his flesh leaving a trail of blood behind him.  Bound, they threw him into prison that night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to him and strengthened his resolve ‘O Mark, the good servant, rejoice for your name has been written in the Book of LIfe and you have been counted among the congregation of the saints.’  After this the Lord Christ himself appeared to the holy Saint giving him peace.  St Mark rejoiced in his heart.

Shrine of St. MarkThe next day he was again tortured and dragged through the streets until finally he delivered up his soul into the hands of the Lord.  He received the crowns of martyrdom, apostolicism, evangelism, and virginity.  The pagans still not satisfied in their hatred sought to burn his Holy Relics and gathered firewood to burn his body, yet on the way to heaven St Mark saw a severe storm and heavy rain dash their wicked desires and the Christians took his holy remains and buried him in the Church at Bokalia.  After some centuries and journeys, his relics reside today at the Coptic Orhodox Cathedral in Alexandria (left).

St Mark came to Egypt to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 19, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of Egypt.’  His holy example lead to the growth of the first Christians who had witnessed his miracles and heard his eyewitness accounts of the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He saw many catechized and baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity.  He founded the school of theology to combat heresy and promote Orthodox witness.  His ascetic example of discipleship and service lead him to forsake his life for the name of Christ to the point of martyrdom, an example for the generations of confessors and martyrs and ascetic anchorite monks whose lives followed his holy example.  St Mark came to Egypt full of the Holy Spirit and found the fields ripe for harvest as the ancients had prepared for his arrival and the message of Christ in their learned reflection.  He planted the seed of faith amongst the people by his teaching and exposition of the faith once delivered, and he then watered that seed by the blood he shed in his martyrdom, and he showed the power of Christ not only in his life but in the miraculous preservation of his Holy Relics which have blessed many generations up to today.  The seed he watered by his blood has become a golden chain of holy saints and martyrs, great theologians and simple holy men, fools for Christ and has under the current guidance of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III become a blessing to all nations.

I wish we could all increase our love, devotion and appreciation of St Mark, to ask his prayers to encourage us to struggle to follow his example as we bear witness to the Resurrected Lord, so that the first Patriarch of Alexandria would reflect the Glory of God onto us from heaven as he did when he walked on earth, may his prayers be with us all Amen.

St Mark

Syrian Orthodox Icon of St Mark the Evangelist