The task of a judge is to weigh evidence, to hear arguments for and against a case, to rise above the narrow limitations of his own background and experience, and to make impartial and fair decisions regarding the truth of the matter before him. This is a tremendous responsibility and one which is essential for a civilized, orderly society.
Many of the images of judges presented in the pages of Holy Scripture are negative ones: those of the Jewish Sanhedrin to whom our Lord was brought for trial before his Crucifixion and that of Pontius Pilate, who tried to avoid judgement of Christ by washing his hands of the whole affair. But there is one judge, named in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, who was a hero of the early Church.
Dionysios was one of the judges who presided in the Aeropagus of the city of Athens, the court on Mars Hill where arguments were heard and decisions were made regarding matters of public concern. In essence, Dionysios was a sort of Supreme Court justice.
The Apostle Paul arrived in Athens sometime around the year 55 to preach the good news of Christ to the educated, sophisticated people of this city. Speaking in the marketplace, Paul attracted the attention of some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who asked, “What does this babbler want to say?” [Acts 17:18] They took him to the Areopagus where they asked him to articulate his story before the judges.
St. Paul then preached one of his most famous sermons, pointing out that among the many temples of various pagan gods in this city, there was one which was dedicated to the “unknown god”. Paul proceeded to explain to the Athenians that the god whom they did not yet know is the God of all – the Creator who came to earth in human form and who will return to “judge the world in righteousness.” His audience listened politely to this sermon, but most began to ridicule St. Paul when he talked of the resurrection of the dead. One of the judges, however, was less skeptical of the Apostle’s arguments. Dionysios asked to hear more and St. Paul spent many hours telling him the story of our Lord Jesus Christ.
No doubt Dionysios’ rational mind was convinced of the truth of St. Paul’s teachings, but a curious event from his past also played a part in his conversion. He had been in Heliopolis, Egypt on a certain Friday more than 20 years earlier when a strange phenomenon occurred. The light of the sun was blocked and the earth became dark as night, but there was no eclipse or storm to explain this. The event had troubled Dionysios for many years until he heard the story of Christ’s crucifixion and knew that it was on that day that the darkness he had witnessed occurred.
According to tradition, based on the witness of the Apostolic Constitutions and the testimony of Dionysios of Corinth (as quoted by Eusebius), Dionysios the Areopagite was ordained by St. Paul to serve as Bishop of Athens following his baptism and catechesis by the Apostle.
How many other citizens of Athens must have been influenced by the conversion of this prominent judge! How much good for the Church and the souls of men must have resulted from his judgement of the truth of these new teachings!
Dionysios was said to have had a dream in which the blessed Virgin Mary called him to come to Jerusalem, where he arrived on August 15, in the year 55, in time to witness (along with the Apostles of our Lord) the death of the Theotokos.
Writings exist, attributed to Dionysios, which are now considered by many to be of 5th century origin. These writings, consisting of four treatises and ten letters, are now often designated as by “pseudo-Dionysios”. The subjects of these treatises include the names of God, the celestial hierarchy (a subject about which our patron, St. Gregory the Great, also wrote), the hierarchy and sacraments of the Church, and mystical union with God. The letters are addressed to monks, priests and bishops as well as to the Apostle John.
These writings have been very influential in articulating the Orthodox approach to theology, particularly as they describe the “apophatic” or “negative” way of speaking about God: while we often speak of what God is and what He is like, it is sometimes better and more accurate (as God is infinitely beyond our ability to describe and comprehend) to speak of what He is not.
In an age before the instant communication which is possible in our day, there were sometimes confusions between saints with similar names and similar stories. In the traditions of some parts of the Christian world, St. Dionysios became intertwined with St. Denis of Paris, the first bishop of that city who was martyred, along with the priest Rusticus and the deacon Eleutherius, around the year 250.
Whatever the historical facts of the life of St. Dionysios are, his conversion to Christianity and subsequent witness to the truth of our faith to the Athenians are certain. We give thanks for the courage and devotion of the saints of the Apostolic age and we ask for the intercessions of St. Dionysios the Areopagite especially for judges, that they may seek God’s truth and declare it fearlessly.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and other Saints by Rev. Alban Butler; Orthodox Saints by George Poulos; Orthodox Study Bible; Orthodox Wiki; Prologue from Ochrid by Bishop (St.) Nikolai Velimirovic.