17 April 2016

Remembering Holy Hieromartyr Symeon Bar Sabbae, Bishop of Persia

Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt

Today is the Sunday of our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, whose boundless humility, and whose legendary seventeen-year eremitical struggle against the fornication and the passions of the flesh she embraced in her wild youth, very meetly set her apart as one of the most revered figures in Orthodoxy. She is rightly considered a model for all of us penitents, and particularly those of us who struggle against lust and pride; and the length and intensity of her struggle against her own ‘wild beasts’ and her ‘mad desires and passions’ is a model and comfort to those of us (yours truly very much among them) who find we have only begun. The miracle she wrought just before her repose, walking across the water to where Saint Zosimos was waiting to give to her the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, having been barred from the temple by an unseen force seventeen years before, was evidence of the great holiness she had attained through her ascetic struggle and her attainment of humility. Her Life is recommended Lenten reading along with St Andrew of Crete’s Great Canon. Holy Mother Mary of Egypt, pray to God for us!
Having been a sinful woman,
You became through repentance a Bride of Christ.
Having attained angelic life,
You defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross;
Therefore, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

Holy Hieromartyr Symeon of Persia

But I would like to focus also on the lesser-known saint and martyr who is commemorated today, and those 1,150 men and women who died together with him: St Symeon, Bishop of Persia. Blessed Symeon was born to a menial family, who were fullers as indicated by their surname, Bar Sabbae. He became bishop of Salwakiyeh and Tisfun during the reign of Shāhpuhr II ‘the Great’ of the Sasanian Empire, at a time when all Christians were suspect of being agents of Rome. To this end, Shāhpuhr levied a heavy tax on Christians throughout his kingdom as a test of their loyalty; however, many Christians either could not afford, or refused to pay this tax – and this was considered an act of subversion against the Persian king. Chief among these tax protesters was Bishop Symeon, a loyal subject of Shāhpuhr, who nonetheless refused to submit to such an oppressive rule. Shāhanshāh Shāhpuhr brought him to the capital in iron fetters, but the blessed bishop refused to bow to him. When Shāhpuhr asked him the reason for this, the holy man replied: ‘Earlier I did bow to thy dignity, but now, when I am led forth for this, to renounce my God and quit my faith, it doth not become me to bow to thee.’

The shāhanshāh used many threats and enticements to get Bishop Symeon to pay homage to Mithra, including the threat to exterminate all the Christians in his realm – but all to no avail. As the saint was being led off to prison, he was approached by the eunuch Guhushtazād, who was an Imperial counsellor and a former Christian who had turned to the worship of Mithra out of fear of the shāhanshāh. However, Symeon turned away from the eunuch and would not speak with him. Guhushtazād was at once stricken with remorse. He took off the finery of his high official station and put on rough garments of mourning, and cried out, ‘Woe to me, when I stand before my God, from Whom I am cut off. Here – was Symeon, and he hath turned his back on me!’

Shāhpuhr, learning of Guhushtazād’s grief, summoned him to the court and inquired about what had happened. The eunuch spoke openly to the shāhanshāh that he rued and deeply repented of his former apostasy, and would no longer pay homage to Mithra but instead worship only the One True God. Taken aback at Guhushtazād’s sudden display of courage, Shāhpuhr again attempted to persuade the eunuch not to abandon the gods of his forefathers, at first with flattering words and subsequently with threats. But Guhushtazād would yield to neither. In the end, the emperor condemned his counsellor to death, and Guhushtazād made only one request: that the heralds proclaim that he had died not for any crime against his nation or people, but for confessing Christ. This request Shāhpuhr granted.

When Blessed Bishop Symeon heard of Guhushtazād’s conversion and his having faced the same death as the penitent thief, he gave thanks aloud to God. When the bishop was again brought before Shāhpuhr, he again refused to worship the pagan gods, and the wrathful emperor ordered all the Christian prisoners to be hauled up and beheaded before the bishop’s eyes.

However, these prisoners went to their deaths gladly, being blessed by Bishop Symeon before they submitted to execution. One of them, however, a priest named Hannanja, faltered and trembled when they came to him. One of Shāhpuhr’s dignitaries, a secret Christian named Fusik, told Saint Hannanja not to fear the sword, for he would that day see the divine light of Christ. Saint Fusik himself was submitted to terrible tortures and killed for his faith, along with his daughter Saint Askitrea. Another eunuch and close advisor to Shāhpuhr, and holy confessor of Christ, Saint Azād, was also martyred that day. Blessed Bishop Symeon was the last of them to be killed for his faith, and he submitted willingly to the executioner’s sword on the 13th of April, Good Friday of 344 AD.

Christians have, if I may understate the case of it, not always had an easy time of it in Iran. However, we have always had a presence there – Armenians and Assyrians particularly. Shāhpuhr’s persecutions were dire, but his own descendants were far more tolerant of us – notably the shāhanshāh Anushirwān the Just, who was educated in philosophy under another Persian Christian bishop Mar Bar Samma, married a Christian woman and had a son who confessed Christ, Prince Nushizād. The Zoroastrian influence on the entirety of the monotheistic tradition ought not to be discounted, and it should be little surprise that Iranian Christians – including some very important ones, like Bishop Symeon and like Saint Aphrahat the Persian Sage – have contributed a number of significant witnesses and great wisdom to the Apostolic deposit.
With your holy band of martyrs
You shone forth from Persia like radiant stars.
With them we praise you, O Simeon.