We are once again living in dangerous times. In so many parts of this world, persecution – and even death – are the fate of those who call themselves Christians. Our Lord warned us of these times: ..you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved [ Matt. 10:22]; …they will deliver you up to councils, and you will be beaten in the synagogues. You will be brought before rulers and Kings for my sake… [Mark 13:9]; ..the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. John 16:2]
In the early centuries of Christianity, when persecution of the followers of Christ was carried out by Emperors, governors and local officials, being in a position of service to the Empire did not exempt a Christian from receiving persecution. In fact, Christians were more vulnerable if they served in some official capacity and members of the army were in the front lines of this battle. A revered saint of the Church who shows us courage in the face of death is St. Maurice, who with his companion soldiers, received the crown of martyrdom around 286-7.
Maurice was born in 250 in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. As soon as he came of age, he joined the Roman army, beginning a career path as common in that time and place as it is now. Through loyal and valiant service, Maurice received promotions in rank until he became the leader of the Theban Legion, a company of more than 6,000 soldiers.
Raised in the land which had received the Christian faith from St. Mark, Maurice was a Christian and it happened that most of his fellow soldiers were also Christians. Their faith had sustained them in their defense of the Empire and had not been a source of trouble until the Legion was called up by Emperor Maximian to help put down a revolt in Gaul. When the troops rested on their march across the Alps, the Emperor announced that the soldiers would all join in a formal sacrifice to the Roman gods in anticipation of their success. This, along with the knowledge that Gallican Christians would be among those who suffered in this military operation, led the Theban Legion to retreat and encamp at an area somewhat away from that of the other companies of soldiers.
But Maximian was suspicious of this action and ordered the soldiers to return to the camp. Several times, they refused, through their leader, Maurice, and then they received the shocking news: if the Legion did not obey the Emperor’s order, it would be decimated – every tenth man would be executed. This severe punishment was reserved for extreme cases such as that of treason. But in Maximian’s mind, these soldiers were traitors for having forsaken the Roman gods in favor of allegiance to Christ. The soldiers’ courage did not fail them. They declared themselves as Christians, held fast and encouraged each other as the order for decimation was given and repeated several times until no one was left standing. The place where this martyrdom occurred was called Agaunum, but is now called St. Maruice-en-Valais in honor of the courageous saint, and an abbey was built on the site in 515.
In the centuries following, knowledge of the martyrdom of St. Maurice and his companions spread around the world, largely through a letter of Bishop Eucherius of Lyons (c 434-450) so that veneration of this saint became widespread. St. Maurice became the patron saint of the Holy Roman Emperors, and he is particularly venerated in the Egyptian Coptic Church.
May St. Maurice plead in heaven for the safety of Egyptian Christians at this time and may he intercede for all in military service. Holy Maurice, pray for us.