Today in the Church we remember James the Sawn-Asunder, the great-martyr of the Persian people and a towering spiritual model of fidelity, truthfulness, courage and perseverance for the Holy Orthodox Church, along with the luminary saints of his illustrious nation who followed in his footsteps, such as Ražden, Dometius and Eustace.
James was a high-ranking military officer in the service of the Persian Šāhanšāh Yazdegerd I and his successor Bahrām V, born into a well-to-do Christian family. He married a particularly devout Christian woman and loved her dearly; they had a number of children whom they raised dutifully in the Christian faith. He was mild-mannered and good-natured, and did good and honourable service under both kings, and his services to the Persian nation were well-honoured and beloved; he was so dear to both Yazdegerd and Bahrām that they kept him in their retinue constantly and showered him with gifts and gratitude.
Like most mild-mannered and good-natured men, he had a certain weakness: James was unwilling to ‘rock the boat’. Both Yazdegerd and Bahrām had plied him with riches and honours for so long that he began to waver in his faith, being seduced not only by ease and wealth but also by the understandable desire to be genial. In the end, he offered sacrifices in the Zoroastrian temple in the presence of Emperor Bahrām, to the shame of his faith.
When his wife and his mother heard of James’s weakness, both women were quite put out. They sent him a missive berating him for shaming his nobility, for exchanging falsehood for truth, and for defrauding the Christian faith in pursuit of glory and temporary rewards; they told him bluntly that they would disown him if he did not repent of his sins and return to his former observance. When he read this letter, James, greatly distressed, began openly lamenting and weeping, imploring Christ to forgive his iniquities, ‘in imitation of Manasseh and Peter’s repentance’. He studied the Scriptures and contemplated his end; and he could not stop the flow of tears, of which jealous and wicked officials in Bahrām’s service took notice, and discerned the reason for his distress. Seeing an opportunity for advancement in James’ downfall, they reported to the Emperor that James had not abandoned his former faith. Infuriated, the Persian Emperor summoned James to him in Gondēshāpūr, and inquired if he were a Nazarene. To which James answered boldly: ‘Yes – I am a servant of my Lord, Jesus Christ.’
As he had done formerly, Bahrām again tried to ply James with gifts and favours, but to no avail. When this failed, he threatened James with horrific tortures and punishments – but James would not again falter in the faith he had professed. James spoke boldly to Bahrām:
‘O King, do not waste time importunely. Do not frighten me with torments, nor insincerely compliment me with tributes and gifts, because I despise from my heart all temporal enjoyments, empty glory, decaying riches and bodily sensuality, in order to inherit the true wealth and the honour, inexpressible delight and bliss. Wherefore, gladly I divest myeslf of wealth and glory, friends and relatives, mother, wife and all the pleasures of the body. And not only these things, but I am prepared to meet with ten thousand deaths, only not to injure my sweet Christ, the Beautiful One among the sons of men, Who fashioned the sun, moon and the remainder of creation, and Whose divine will is equal to His power. He who denies Him goes to endless death.’Bahrām, hearing these words, became enraged, realising that no inducements of pain or pleasure could be brought to bear upon the Great-Martyr. One of the wicked counsellors who had betrayed James recommended to the king that he be dismembered by the joints, starting from his fingers and working back to his limbs, and the impious and ungrateful tyrant agreed to this sentence – but James himself did not flinch or cower on hearing this judgement, but went to his death with joy and eagerness.
Even as he was at the execution-ground and his arm was placed on the anvil to be subjected to the hideous punishment, and the executioners themselves tried to persuade him at the last moment to abandon his faith, he berated them and told them to weep not for him but for themselves, as their idols and temporal pleasures would not avail them in the end. He prayed to Christ before the sentence was carried out, that he would be strengthened in the struggle.
As the body of the Great-Martyr James was destroyed in this heinous manner, however, he did not utter a single word of anger or hatred toward his executioners, but instead offered at each cut a prayer to God, a verse from the Scriptures or a song of praise. When they had dismembered his fingers from his hands, his hands and his feet from his limbs, and his limbs from his torso, he still remained alive, but the executioners and the counsellors and the emperor who beheld him were all unnerved and frightened by his not having uttered one cry of hurt or anger or rage. When at last they ordered him to be beheaded, the Great-Martyr bowed his head and gave thanks to the Holy Trinity that he had been able to endure all, and prayed that even he, having been made a ‘branchless tree without roots’, might not be abandoned in the final moment.
The worldly leaders of the Sasanian kingdom ordered the martyr to be put to death at last by beheading, having had their worldly powers put to shame by the Great-Martyr’s uncomplaining perseverance. His family and his fellow-believers came to Gondēshāpūr and collected the relics of Saint James, where they interred them with the reverence befitting such a spiritual athlete.
It is meet and fitting and important to remember such a martyr and saint in his own right, because he was subject to all manner of ordinary and understandable struggles with which the ordinary believer can easily identify, in addition to the horrific tortures which ended his life. But it is also important to remember not the king and counsellors who destroyed him but rather the fact that the spiritual principle of the Iranian people – the great uncompromising, truth-seeking, poetic and personalist genius of that great civilisation – shines with great brilliance in her saints of the Orthodox faith.
You listened to your faithful wife
And contemplated the judgement of God, holy James;
You despised the threats and commands of the Persians,
Accepting the cutting of your body as though you were a vine.
Therefore you were revealed as a martyr worthy of honour.