Most precious in the eyes of the church is her choir of heavenly intercessors which stand before the throne of the Lord of hosts. The See of Antioch, whose apostolic establishment is recorded in the book of Acts, is especially blessed with an abundance of Saints in this glorified assembly. Being drastically reduced in both geographic area and numbers, having endured the ravages of time and wars, and bearing the loss of her finest church buildings and earthly goods, the see of Antioch knows full well the worth ofhaving laid up her treasures in heaven, her harvest of Saints.
What sort of people are those Saints whose icons now adorn our churches and sanctify our homes? To put it very simply, they are human beings like you and me. In fact it can be said that they are more human, because they recognized their proper relationship with their Creator. To stand before the Trinity with full knowledge of and sorrow for one’s sinfulness, and to recognize one’s unworthiness for the abundant and free graces, is to be fully human. To be in perfect communion with the Father, his only-begotten Son, and His all-holy, good and life giving Spirit is to be fully human. Anything other than perfect communion is an unnatural existence and thus less than human. It is natural for Mant to do good, to strive for good, to live in sanctity.
Some of the most well-known of those who achieved this holiness of life within the See of Antioch and whom we revere among the saints of god are:
St. Peter was from the town of Bethsaida and was a fisherman by trade. He followed his brother, Andrew (the First called) and became a disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ. His impetuous nature but firm loyalty caused our Lord to change his name from Simon to Peter (the “rock”). Peter’s three denials during Jesus’ trial resulted in such repentance that he never again faltered in his resolve to follow Him. Peter is considered by tradition to be the first bishop for the newly-established Gentile church in the city of Antioch (after God revealed to him the universality of the gift of his Son in a dream), before having that responsibility in Rome. It was in Rome that he suffered martyrdom, on orders of the Emperor Nero, c. 67. his relics ae in St. Peter’s basilica in that city.
St. Paul was born in Tarsus. Saul (as he was originally called) was a Pharisee who had studied under the great Jewish teacher Gamaliel. He was a fierce persecutor of Christians untill Christ appeared to him when he was on his way to Damascus, striking him blind and causing a complete conversion of his life. After his baptism, Paul (as he was known thereafter) became a fervent, untiring Christian missionary. He went to Antioch and from there was sent out on his journeys throughout the Roman Empire as the “Apostle to the Gentiles” He was beheaded in Rome at the same time as St. Peter, c. 67.
St. Ananias, one of the Seventy sent out by Christ [Luke 10], was the Bishop of the fledgling church in Damascus when he was told in a vision of God’s plan for Paul, whom he baptized. St. Ananias suffered persecution without faltering in his faith and was stoned to death. His relics are now in Constantinople, but his home in Damascus, which was used by the Christians as a church, can be visited today.
St. Luke was a physician of the city of Antioch and a member of the Christian community there. It was he who donated land on which was the cave that became the meeting place for that community. In this cave church St. Peter led divine worship; from this church, St. Paul was sent out on his missionary journeys and St. Ignatius was led to martyrdom. St. Luke accompanied St. Paul on some of his journeys and wrote the third Gospel and the book of Acts from what he learned and experienced about the life of our Lord and the beginnings of the Church. St. Luke is also known as an artist who painted the first icon of the Theotokos (in the “seat of wisdom” pose, holding the Christ child in her lap). This icon – now sealed up as a protection from the elements – can still be venerated today at the Saydnaya Monastery in Syria.
St. Thecla was 18 years old when St. Paul came to her village in Iconium to preach the Gospel. After three days of listening intently, the young woman was thoroughly convinced of the truth of Christianity. Her parents, prominent in the community, were furious with their daughter for her conversion and because she now rejected the man to whom they had betrothed her. Unsuccessful in her attempts through talking and beating to dissuade Thecla, her mother finally reported her to the local government officials. Their torture also did not dissuade the saint who then followed St. Paul on his return to Antioch. Persecution continued in that city and Thecla was soon thrown to the wild beasts, who only tamely curled up at her feet! Eventually the young saint escaped to the area near present-day Maaloula in Syria. She preached to the local people, baptizing those who believed in our Lord Jesus Christ. When she was being pursued again, she came to a rocky mountain with no way to escape. After she prayed to God to show her a way out, a break occurred in the rock, forming a cave in which the young woman could hide. There she eventually died and it is there that her relics may be venerated today. The cave is surrounded by a monastery and many pilgrims come to ask for her intercession in heaven.
St. Ignatius, according to tradition, was the little child whom our Lord held in his lap when he taught the disciples about humility [Matthew 18:4]. Ignatius grew up to be a fervent follower of Christ. He was a disciple of St. John the beloved disciple along with St. Polycarp (later bishop of Smyrna). Eventually becoming the bishop of Antioch, St. Ignatius led the Christians of that city with love and wisdom. The Emperor Trajan heard about the godly bishop when he visited Antioch and, perhaps as a test case, called him in and ordered him to offer sacrifice to the idols. The devout bishop never wavered in his refusal and so was arrested and marched to Rome for execution in the arena. During the lengthy journey to Rome, St. Ignatius wrote letters (to several churches and to St. Polycarp) which serve as an invaluable source of information and inspiration to us today. St. Ignatius received the crown of martyrdom in the year 106.
St. Ephraim the Syrian lived during the reign of the Emperor Constantine the Great when Christianity became a legal religion. Ephraim’s family was poor and he had a troubled childhood before experiencing a conversion of the heart. He became a fervent follower of our Lord and began using his many gifts for the instruction and conversion of others. As a monk, he imparted wisdom to other monks, he especially encouraged repentance, and he spent many hours in prayer, composing prayers, and in writing books. When the people wanted to make St. Ephraim a bishop, he feigned madness in order to be allowed to remain as a simple monk and continue the work that God had given him. St. Ephraim fell asleep in the Lord in the year 373.
St. John Chrysostom was born to pagan parents in Antioch in the year 347. He studied Greek philosophy, and eventually turned away from empty pagan beliefs, became a Christian and was baptized by Meletius, the Patriarch of Antioch. Soon his parents were also baptized and, after their deaths, John became a monk, living an ascetic life of prayer. He was ordained to the priesthood and was eventually chosen as the Patriarch of Constantinople. He wrote many books, was known far and wide for his persuasive preaching, and he increased the Church by sending out missionaries. He composed a liturgical rite for the church, and as a defender of right living – even for those in positions of power – he was exiled twice by the Empress Eudoxia. It was in exile in Armenia that he died in the year 407. His eloquent words (as in the Paschal sermon which we hear each year) are as meaningful for us today as they were in his time.
St. Simeon the Stylite was born in 390, he son of a shepherd. He was attracted to the ascetic life like others of his time who, after the Edicts of Milan and Rome had made Christianity respectable and popular, wanted to express their faith in a life of sacrifice. They gave up “normal” life in the world and retreated to the desert, to mountain monasteries, or to other secluded areas to spend their time in prayer and meditation away from the concerns of the everyday world. St. Simeon was one of the more extreme of these recluses, as he built a pillar in north Syria, on which he lived for many years. As was the case with many other ascetics, people flocked to him to seek his advice and request his intercessions. From his tower, St. Simeon not only prayed and studied Scripture, but he also counseled these pilgrims and celebrated the Divine Liturgy until his death in 459. His followers declared him a saint immediately upon his death and built a magnificent monastery with four basilicas around his pillar. The ruins (now under restoration) of these basilicas are still visited by tourists and pilgrims today.
St. John of Damascus was a nobleman who first had a career at court as a minister of Caliph Abdul-Malek during the reign of the iconoclastic Emperor Leo the Isaurian. John vigorously defended the veneration of icons and was reported to the Emperor by the Caliph. For this “offense”, the Emperor had John’s right hand cut off, but when the saint prayed before the icon of the Theotokos, he was miraculously healed. John then became a monk in the monastery of St. Sava and spent the remainder of his life in prayer and writing hymns and theological works. He was granted a long life and a peaceful death in the year 749.
As Sayedna PHILIP has said: “The light of Christ has shone brilliantly upon the See of Antioch for the past twenty centuries, revealing countless examples of individual sanctity. May we in the new World be accounted worthy of providing our own Harvest for the glory of Christ and His Holy Church, through the intercessions of all the Saints.”
Sources: The Harvest of Antioch: A Selection of Heroes of the Orthodox Church of Antioch (published by the Department of Christian Education of the Archdiocese in 1977); The Orthodox Study Bible; The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, by Hugh Farmer; The Prologue From Ochrid, by Bishop (St.) Nikolai Velimirovic.