Six centuries after Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar followed the star and brought gifts to the Christ child, another magus learned of Christ, believed, and gave his life for his faith.
Magundat, a Persian, was the son of a magician, who had taught him all the practices of his art. Magundat and his brother were serving in the Persian army in 614 at the time that King Chosroës took Jerusalem and carried off the true Cross of Christ. Magundat’s natural inquisitiveness made him curious about a piece of wood that could be so important and he saw many Christian things in Jerusalem which aroused his interest.
Returning to Persia after being discharged from the army, he settled in Hierapolis, taking lodging with a silversmith who was a Persian Christian. From this man, and through the icons which he saw, Magundat learned the stories of our faith and how to pray to the Holy Trinity. When he progressed to the point that he desired baptism, Magundat’s host advised him to leave Hierapolis, which was more closely ruled by the Persians, so he returned to Jerusalem. There, the priest Modestus was serving as the spiritual leader of the Christians since Chosroës had taken Patriarch Zachary captive into Persia.
Magundat completed his catechumenate with Modestus and took the name Anastasius, signifying his rising to new life, at his baptism. In the fervor of his conversion, Anastasius decided to become a monk, and was accepted as a postulant in a nearby monastery by the Abbot, Justin. After living the monastic life for some time (and memorizing the Psalter), Anastasius was tonsured in the year 621, seven years after seeing the Cross of our Lord.
The next seven years, the monk Anastasius spent in the life of devotion and service in the monastery, striving to combat the temptations to magic and superstition which the devil sent in remembrance of his earlier life. He then began a journey to visit more holy places associated with our Lord’s life and that of his holy mother. At Caesarea (then ruled by the Persians), he witnessed some Persian soothsayers practicing their fortune-telling in the street, and he reprimanded them for their superstitious practices. When they accused him of being a spy, he told them that he had once been a magus like them, but that he had become a follower of Christ. They immediately had him arrested and imprisoned and soon brought before the governor for interrogation. The governor offered him great honors, considering the high position of magi in Persia, if he would renounce his “foolish” conversion to Christianity. But Anastasius boldly professed his faith and so was chained at the neck and foot to another prisoner and commanded to carry heavy stones. He was ridiculed by the other Persians as a traitor to his country and culture. Kicking and beating him, plucking out his beard hairs, they also added more weight to his load of stones. When he was beaten by soldiers, Anastasius asked to remove his monk’s habit so that it would not be defiled by such treatment.
The governor reported his troubles with the former magus and soldier to Chosroës, the king, who suggested that all he had to do was verbally renounce Christ – it wouldn’t matter what he actually believed in his heart as long as he publicly went along with the accepted beliefs. Anastasius was not tempted by this offer, so he was ordered to be sent to the king for execution.
Abbot Justin heard of the sufferings of the monk Anastasius and sent two other monks to assist him in whatever way they could. One of the monks traveled with Anastasius to his martyrdom and later relayed the details so that others might know the story. All along the journey to Barsaloe, in Assyria, where the king was, Anastasius was greeted by local Christians who encouraged him and who were, in turn, made stronger in their faith by his perseverance. On September 14, through the intercession of the local tax-collector, who was a Christian, Anastasius was given permission to attend divine services in church. This day, which after the recovery of the Cross by the Emperor Heraclius became the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, was at this time celebrated as the day of dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
Arriving in Barsaloe, Anastasius was put in prison to await the formality of a trial before the king. The jailer was a Christian, and he allowed all the local Christians to visit Anastasius in his cell. Once again, Anastasius was offered great rewards for returning to the religion of his country and forsaking Christianity, but as before, the monk was steadfast. He declared that he could not be tempted away from eternal salvation by the worldly riches and position offered by a king who would also soon die.
St. Anastasius was forced to witness the strangulation of all the other condemned prisoners before he himself was killed in the same way. The bodies of those executed were left exposed to be devoured by wild dogs, but St. Anastasius’ body was untouched and taken by the Christians to the monastery of St. Sergius nearby. His fellow monk who had traveled with him, retrieved his tunic. St. Anastasius’ relics were eventually taken to Constantinople and then to Rome.
As the first Magi had been brought to Christ by the shining of a star, St. Anastasius had begun his journey of faith through the power of the Holy Cross. He received the crown of martyrdom on January 22, 628. Ten days later, the Emperor Heraclius entered Persia, and the following year, he triumphantly returned the Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy Cross thou hast redeemed the world.
Some of the most tragic incidents in war are the occasional “friendly fire” accidents, when soldiers mistakenly fire upon (and often kill) members of their own military force. But these incidents, regrettable as they are, are still understandable in the midst of the chaos and confusion of war. It would be impossible for many of us to imagine a worse case – where soldiers were ordered to purposely kill their own highly respected officers. Such was the case for a number of the saints – men who, despite valiant service to their country as courageous soldiers, were killed at the command of an emperor because they professed faith in Jesus Christ. St. Sebastian was one of those saints.
Sebastian was born in Narbonne, France and is thought to have been educated in Milan. The religious background of his family is not known, but Sebastian became a Christian early in life – a serious Christian, committed to living his life in a way that his actions would show forth the love of Christ. About the year 284, Sebastian came to Rome where he began his military career.
In this same year, the military officer Diocletian became Emperor. His most brutal persecution of all Christians did not fully begin until about the year 303, but his early days as Emperor were marked by decisions which made life very difficult for Christians, especially those in public service. He declared himself an absolute monarch, “semi-divine” and worthy of worship.
During this time, Sebastian had quickly risen to a high position as a centurion with the Praetorian Guard. When he discovered Christians who were suffering imprisonment and persecution, he encouraged them and gave them protection when possible. Through his example and efforts, many were converted to Christianity, among them the Prefect of Rome, who then resigned from his position in order to provide a safe haven for other Christians at his country estate.
It was finally made known to Diocletian that his high military officer was a Christian and would not recognize him as divine or worship the Roman gods. Diocletian was so incensed by this that he ordered the imperial archers to tie Sebastian to a stake and use him for target practice. What a moral dilemma this must have been for those soldiers who admired and respected Sebastian but who feared punishment – even death – if they refused to carry out the royal order. So Sebastian was shot through with numerous arrows and left for dead.
But Sebastian was not dead. A Christian widow, Irene, took him in and, at great danger to herself, treated Sebastian’s wounds and nursed him back to health. He then went directly to the Emperor to protest his treatment and that of other Christians. This time Diocletian made sure that he was rid of Sebastian. He had soldiers club him to death and his body thrown into the sewer. The martyr’s body was recovered by another Christian woman, Lucina, who secretly buried him.
The stories of St. Sebastian’s bravery helped other Christians as they faced persecution. St. Sebastian was listed among the holy martyrs in early 4th and 5th century lists of saints and his memory is celebrated in the Church to this day. His feast day is January 20 (December 18 on the Eastern calendar), the day of his martyrdom (in 288), his “heavenly birthday.”
May God give us grace to be courageous when faced with a hostile environment or abandonment by our friends. May we, like St. Sebastian, be faithful “soldiers of Christ.” Holy Sebastian, pray for us.
Reprinted from The Prologue from Ochrid by Bishop (St.) Nikolai Velimirovic
Antony was an Egyptian, born about 250 in a village called Quemen-el-Arons near Heracleopolis. After the death of his rich and noble parents, he shared his inherited possessions with his sister, who was still in her minority, made sure that she was cared for, gave away his half of the inheritance to the poor and, at the age of twenty, consecrated himself to the life of asceticism that he had desired from childhood. At first he lived near his own village but then, in order to escape the disturbance of men, went off into the desert, on the shores of the Red Sea, where he spent twenty years as a hermit in company with no one but God, in unceasing prayer, pondering and contemplation, patiently undergoing inexpressible demonic temptations.
His fame spread through the whole world and around him gathered many disciples whom he, by word and example, placed on the path of salvation. In eighty-five years of ascetic life, he went only twice to Alexandria: the first time to seek martyrdom during a time of persecution of the Church, and the second at the invitation of St. Athanasius, to refute the Arians’ slanderous allegations that he too was a follower of the Arian heresy. He departed this life at the age of 105, leaving behind a whole army of disciples and followers.
And, although Antony was unlettered he was, as a counselor and teacher, one of the most learned men of his age, as also was St. Athanasius the Great. When some Hellenic philosophers tried to test him with literary learning, Antony shamed them with the questions: “Which is older, the understanding or the book? And which of these is the source of the other?” The shamed philosophers dispersed, for they saw that they had only book-learning without understanding, while Antony had understanding.
Here was a man who had attained perfection insofar as man is able on earth. Here was an educator of educators and teacher of teachers, who for a whole eighty-five years perfected himself, and only thus was able to perfect many others. Full of years and great works, Antony entered into rest in the Lord in the year 356.