04 February 2009

'The Wise Anastasius, Who Shone Like a Star from Persia'

We also commemorate today the Holy Venerable Martyr Anastasius the Persian († 628). His father was a magus, and at birth he was given the name ‘Magundat’. The young Magundat received an excellent education, showing ‘an interest in philosophical and religious problems’ (‘Οσιομάρτυς Αναστάσιος [Πέρσης]’). When the Persian king, Chosroes, conquered Jerusalem and stole the Precious and Life-giving Cross from the Christians, taking it back to Persia, this magus’s son had the opportunity to hear the story of our Lord’s saving crucifixion. Magundat was converted to the Christian Faith and travelled to Jerusalem to be baptised. Indeed, he went further, and was tonsured a monk with the name ‘Anastasius’ at a monastery between the Holy City and Mar Sabas known as the monastery ‘of Abba Anastasius’ (see Bulgakov’s Menaion).

At the monastery St Anastasius learned Greek, memorised the Psalter, served in the kitchen, worked in the garden, and participated fully in the divine services (Derwas Chitty, The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1995], p. 161). Chitty tells the next part of the story wonderfully:

His concentration on the Lives of the Martyrs seemed already to indicate a desire growing in him [according to the Prologue, ‘he moistened the book with tears’]. At last a dream caused him to go out into the sacristy during the night office, and open his heart to the Abbot. With his understanding, he received Communion at the Liturgy, breakfasted with the fathers, and after a short sleep went out with nothing but the clothes he had on, down to the shrine of St George at Lydda (Diospolis), then to Garizim and the other Holy Places, then to Caesarea, where he spent two days in the house of the Theotokos before finding his opportunity to court arrest and confess his conversion. (p. 161)

While he was waiting to be taken to the king, in order to bolster his courage the abbot of the monastery, Father Justin, sent two monks to St Anastasius, one of whom accompanied him the whole way. The martyr also wrote twice to his elder during the journey, begging his intercessions (Chitty, p. 161). According to Bulgakov’s Menaion, when he was finally taken before the king:

They beat him with clubs three times for a long time and without mercy. They placed a heavy plank on his shins which crushed his legs. They hanged him by his hands, having tied a large stone to one leg. But, not looking at all the kinds of torments and tortures, the sufferer remained unshakable in faith and finally they strangled him [and, one must add, decapitated him] in 628 [on 22 January].

Interestingly, St Anastasius is one of those Saints whose relics have a history all their own. Shortly after his martyrdom, the monk that accompanied St Anastasius on his final Golgotha took the precious relics to a nearby church, just before the Emperor Heraclius arrived there with his army, 1 February 628. Chosroes was killed in March, in accordance with a prediction of the holy Martyr. In the same month, three years later, the Emperor brought the Precious Cross ‘back in great triumph to Jerusalem’ (Chitty, p. 161). On 2 November of that year, after a journey marked by numerous miracles, there took place ‘the triumphant arrival of the relics [of St Anastasius] in Jerusalem’ (Carmela Vircillo Franklin, The Latin Dossier of Anastasius the Persian: Hagiographic Translations and Transformations [Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004], p. 4). In a purely literary observation, Franklin nevertheless displays some spiritual insight:

Thus, the capture of the cross by the Persians becomes the means of the Persian soldier’s conversion, the Persian magician becomes a model Christian monk and glorious martyr, and the restoration of the cross to Jerusalem is paralleled by the return of the martyr’s relics to his monastery near the holy city. The story of Anastasius thus becomes an analogue of the history of Palestine during the Persian conquest. (p. 5)

But of course, the story of the relics doesn’t stop there. They were soon taken, with an icon of the holy Martyr, to the imperial city, Constantinople, accompanied by still more miracles. It seems, however, that the head at least of the Saint was taken to Rome (perhaps by 645 [Franklin, p. 11]—Bulgakov is quite mistaken at this point), for after a short account of the martyrdom St Bede the Venerable reports that the ‘relics of the blessed martyr Anastasius’ were venerated ‘in the monastery of the blessed Apostle Paul [in Rome], called “By the Salvian Waters”’ (‘The Greater Chronicle’, trans. Judith McClure and Roger Collins, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994], p. 332; McClure and Collins believe that this was the monastery where St Theodore of Tarsus had lived, and that it was he who had introduced the veneration of St Anastasius in Britain—p. 400, n. to p. 171). Later, during the Seventh Œcumenical Council at Nicea in 787, when several miracles from the Saint’s Life were being discussed, the papal legates—one of whom was the abbot of St Sabbas’s Monastery in Rome—reported the presence of the relic as well as a wonderworking icon in their city (Franklin, p. 7). Indeed, the relic remained there, constituting a significant site of pilgrimage and continuing to work miracles throughout the Middle Ages. The monastery, once known as ‘Trium Fontium ad Aquas Salvias’, ‘Tre Fontane’, or ‘Three Fountains’, is now called the Abbey of Ss Vincent and Anastasius.

I shall close with the Kontakion in honour of the venerable Martyr as well as the Apostle Timothy, chanted in Tone I:

Let us faithful sing praises to Timothy,
Divine disciple, and companion of Paul,
And with him honor the wise Anastasius,
Who shone like a star from Persia,
Driving away our spiritual passions and carnal infirmities.

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