06 March 2009

'The Chief of Fathers of Jerusalem'—St Zachariah, Patriarch of Jerusalem

On this day, 21 February, we commemorate our Holy Father among the Saints, Zachariah, Patriarch of Jerusalem (†631). It was the lot of St Zachariah to have the care of the Church of Jerusalem at the time of the Persian conquest of the Holy City in 614, a lot he bore bravely. Here is the account of his life in The Lives of the Saints of the Holy Land and the Sinai Desert Throughout the Year, According to the Church Calendar, trans. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1997), pp. 111-2:

St Zacharias served as Patriarch of Jerusalem (609-632), succeeding Isaacius (601-609). According to John Zonaras, the great compiler of the Canons, his tenure lasted twenty-three years; but according to St Nicephorus, it lasted twenty-two years. The holy Zacharias, in turn, was succeeded by St Modestus. In the life of St Modestus, the following was written concerning his predecessor: ‘History will always remember the imprisoned Patriarch Zacharias, the heroic champion of the Holy Land, with great admiration and respect for refusing to be separated from the most venerable Cross.’ Meletius states that at the time of Emperor Heraclius (614), the blessed Zacharias was imprisoned by Chosroes, but he returned to Jerusalem with Heraclius, who had driven out the Persians. Jerusalem, in the meantime, was rebuilt, and the captured Holy Cross was returned and elevated once again by the hands of St Zacharias on the 14th of September, 629.

One can thus see that although it is St Macarius of Jerusalem depicted elevating the Cross in the icon of the Feast of the Exaltation, it is on the date of St Zachariah’s elevation of the Cross that the Feast is actually celebrated. For this reason, St Nicholas (Velimirović) notes that with this Feast we commemorate both the finding of the Cross as well as its return to Jerusalem after the Persian conquest.

But as for St Zachariah himself, there are some illuminating details of his story recorded in the account of the capture of Jerusalem by the Persians by Antiochus Strategus (a monk of Mar Saba—Derwas Chitty refers to him in The Desert a City [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995], p. 159), a translation of which is kindly made available online by Roger Pearse. I shall give some of the relevant excerpts:

For Zachariah, the chief of fathers of Jerusalem, patriarch and shepherd of the holy city, was shepherding his flock in a manner correct and decent and pleasing to God. . . .

Now listen, my brethren, and I will relate. For after all this evil doing they captured the good shepherd, the patriarch Zachariah, and conducted him to Sion through the gate through which our Lord Jesus Christ came in; and he was conducted cautiously, like a brigand, pinioned with cords. . . . Then they led out the good shepherd, as they did Christ when He went forth from Sion to the Cross. But Zachariah they led forth from the gate of Jerusalem, like Adam forth from paradise. . . .Then went forth the blessed pastor with the people by the gate called Probatike, from which also went forth the Saviour for His Passion; and he sat down on the Mount of Olives, and as for a widowed bride so he wept for the holy church. Then there came up before him all the people. They fell prone on their faces furrowed with excess of mourning. He gazed upon them, and beheld the members of his flock, that weakened with lamentation, overcast with grief, and beset with perils, were brought nigh unto death. Then he began to console them. . . .

Then the enemy were mingled with the company, like wild beasts among sheep; they carried them off to slaughter like lambs, and seized the blessed Zachariah, and led him off. Meanwhile the righteous man ceased not to lament and sob, but every moment he looked away and said: 'Farewell, O Jerusalem!' And from that time forth he never beheld her again. But he said: 'Farewell, holy city! Forget not thy servant! Thou knowest my love for thee, and my earnest zeal to serve thee ; and therefore I pray thee to remember me and this people, whenever thou shalt pray to Christ:' . . .

Antiochus goes on to describe how St Zacharias accompanied the Precious Cross into exile, where he confounded Persian magi, and even endured slanders for the sake of the Lord. According to Chitty (p. 160):

Meanwhile, after the arrival of the captives in Perssia, the influence of the Christian (Nestorian) queen had soon gained for the Patriarch and for the Cross (its precious case remained sealed) an honourable captivity in her palace, whence the Patriarch wrote an Epistle to the Church in Jerusalem. But the influence of the Cross was at work in unexpected ways.

In this way, Chitty sets up the story of St Anastasius of Persia, who was converted through the influence of the Precious Cross and whose memory is celebrated 22 January on the Church’s calendar.

But at this point there is a discrepancy between the account of Antiochus, and those in the Orthodox liturgical sources to which I have referred. According to the former, ‘the blessed Zachariah had died in Persia, and the church was widowed’, and it was thus the Emperor Heraclius alone who returned the Cross to the Holy City. Chitty follows this testimony, it appears (p. 161). But whether or not the holy Patriarch actually returned the Cross to its rightful place in triumph, or had the glorious distinction to repose while still guarding it in its captivity, surely it seems right to remember him not only on this day, his own feast, but in connection with the Great Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross that he loved so much.

1 comment:

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

The Lord is glorified in His Saints!