July 16 – Athenogenes; Sisenandus

Athenogenes (d. 311) was bishop of Sebaste (in western Anatolia) when Philomarchus was governor. Phil arranged a big festival in honor of the pagan gods, knowing full well (one presumes) that the town was largely Christian. Perhaps unsurprisingly[1], none of the Christians turned up, so he rounded a few up and martyred them, just to show who’s boss.

Christianity continued to grow in the region, however. Asking around, Phil determined that the cause was the boldness of the bishop, who lived way out on the outskirts of town (cultural reference) in a little monastery with ten disciples. The soldiers sent to seize Athenogenes found only the ten, whom they arrested and tossed into prison with some new iron bling. When he heard about this, Athenogenes hurried to town to protest their innocence, which he did with boldness and a bit of sauce. He was firmly invited to join them in their cell.

There he encouraged them for their coming ordeal, which was as stereotypical as it was inevitable (read in a sing-song voice): they were urged to recant, refused to sacrifice to idols, were tortured in divers ways, and were beheaded. Seeing him in such straits, a deer which Athenogenes had hand-fed from a faun ran up to him and shed tears, but to no avail. He (the martyr not the deer) asked to be killed in the monastery, which so touched the torturers (or something) that they agreed. He prayed unto God for forgiveness for both himself and his disciples, and heard a voice saying, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” Then the holy martyr calmly submitted to the headsman’s sword.

Another Athenogenes, also fêted today, was the composer of the hymn “Phos Hilaron” or “O Joyous Light” (or any of a sketeload of other names), widely acknowledged as the oldest (extant) post-biblical Christian hymn. Today is also the festival of the Icon of the Mother of God of Pskov, which shed tears during a famine in Chirsk, and which I mention mostly because “Pskov” is so much fun to say (well, “Chirsk” is, too).

Sisenandus (d. 851) was one of the 48 Martyrs of Córdoba, who were dispatched by the “Moorish” (Muslim) officials of Al-Andalus (as they (the Moors, not the martyrs) called their emirate in southern Spain in those days). As later under the Ottomans, Christians and Jews were allowed to live in the Muslim state as dhimmis, which is to say as non-Muslim citizens with restricted rights and subject to certain taxes, but death for any number of real or trumped-up charges was always a real threat, as it proved for the forty-eight.

Sisenandus was from his youthhood devoted to the Cross of Christ. He loved to make the sign of the cross over himself, his food, the roads, and so on. He loved roadside crosses, he loved the crosses in the churches—let’s face it, he loved the Cross. He left his home in what is now Portugal to journey to Córdoba to study Latin, canon law, theology, and liturgy (the usual), and was made a deacon. He was devoted to St. Acisclus (in whose church he lodged), and fervently sought his prayers, somehow knowing without knowing that he would soon be a martyr for Christ. (If that makes any sense.) (Or even if it doesn’t.)

Sure enough he was rounded up in one of the periodic persecutions and tossed in jail, but his devotion to the Cross and to St. Acisclus kept him calm, and indeed joyful. He prayed for the conversion of his guards, and even began a letter to a friend, but had to break it off when they came to get him for his final ordeal. As he emerged from his cell he crossed himself “as if he were entering a church.” He was buffeted with blows, then taken out before a large crowd and beheaded, just after crossing himself one last time.

[1] Ironic understatement.