All posts by Blair Mulholland

Saints of July

Yeah, I missed a few weeks.  I’ve had my kids with me for the summer.  But there was a bunch of VIPs we missed:

VLADIMIR of Kiev (15th July, 958-1015AD)
st_vladimirA devout pagan King of the Russians, with multiple wives, his curiosity about other belief systems (including the Christianity of his grandmother Olga) got the better of him.  He sent envoys to various parts of the globe to explore the faiths, including to Muslims, Jews and Latin Christians.  None proved satisfactory, until the emissaries to Constantinople attended a service of the Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia, and reported “We no longer knew whether we were in Heaven or on Earth”.  This, along with the political convenience that an alliance with the Romans provided, convinced Vladimir, and he ordered that the pagan idols be smashed and “strongly encouraged” his citizens to be baptized.  This “Baptism of Holy Rus” occurred in 988AD, and is to this day the largest mass conversion to Christianity in its two thousand year history.  The change in both Vladimir, and Kievan Rus, was dramatic – a hitherto rapacious and warlike King became a man of peace who kept only one wife.

Vladimir is given the title Equal to the Apostles in the Church, and is rightly venerated as the father of the Russian nation, as well as a holy Saint.

ELIZABETH of Russia (18th July, 1864-1918AD)
stelizabethnewmartyrA granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who was raised at Buckingham Palace following the death of her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Hesse am Rhein, Elizabeth was chrismated Orthodox of her own free will, adopting the faith of her husband, Grand Duke Sergei of Russia.  She devoted herself to her new faith with great gusto.

In 1905 Sergei was murdered by a communist terrorist who had planted a bomb in his car.  Elizabeth famously visited the perpetrator in prison, forgiving him for what he did, but warning him that he needed to repent and giving him a copy of the gospels to read.  A short time afterwards, she decided to accept tonsure and become a nun, liquidating her many assets and jewels to build the convent of Saints Mary and Martha in Moscow, of which she became the first Abbess.

grandduchesselizabethFollowing the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Elizabeth was taken from her monastery and imprisoned.  She, with several other members of the nobility and their employees, were thrown down a mine shaft and blasted with grenades.  These, however, failed to kill her, and she was eventually martyred by asphyxiation from a fire that had been set in the shaft.

Saint Elizabeth is my daughter Bella’s name Saint, and has become very popular among modern Orthodox Christians, especially converts to the faith, for her piety, her willingness to forgive, and her devotion to the poor of Moscow as an Abbess.

MACRINA (19th July, 330-379AD)
macrinaMacrina was from the famous Cappadocian family of Saints that also gave us Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa.  Though she herself wrote no texts, her younger brother Gregory wrote extensively about her, her virginity and asceticism for Christ, and liberally quoted her, referring to her as “the Teacher”.  She is therefore, through Gregory’s writings, regarded as a Church Mother along with the many Church Father.

She is famous for having refused any further suitors following the tragic death of her betrothed fiancee, instead opting to live the life of a monastic, and convincing her mother, Saint Emilia, to free their slaves and give away their possessions.

Macrina was renowned for her skills as a philosopher, as can be seen through Gregory’s work On the Soul and Resurrection, and other texts.  She reposed in peace in 379 or 380AD.

MARY Magdalene (22nd July)
mary-magdalene-xlgOther than Christ’s mother, Mary Magdalene is regarded as the woman who was closest to Him in His earthly ministry.  Because of this, there is much speculation about her from some who would like to discredit Christ’s sexual purity, or to claim he was married to her, or had children by her (a view that Dan Brown based a notorious novel on).  There has also been through the centuries, attempts to paint her as a reformed prostitute or scarlet woman, but there is certainly no evidence of any of this from either the Gospels, or the Holy Tradition, which states that she was merely beset by seven demons, whom Christ cast out.

While not an Apostle (an office given only to men), she is given the title Apostle to the Apostles, as she was blessed to be the first person to see the resurrected Christ, and report this fact to the Apostles, thus she holds a special place in the Church.  Following Pentecost, she joined in the ministry of the Apostles, preaching the Gospel around the Roman Empire.

It is to Mary Magdalene that the tradition of Easter Eggs is ascribed.  She is reputed to have met with, and directly confronted, the Emperor Tiberius, discussing Christ’s resurrection with him over dinner.  The Emperor bragged to her that a man could no more be resurrected than the boiled eggs before him could change colour, at which point the eggs turned bright red.  She then began to use coloured eggs as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection in her preaching.

The date of Mary’s repose is unknown, but Tradition suggests that it was peaceful, in Ephesus, at some time in the late 1st Century.

Saints of the Week (6th to 12th July)

SISOëS the Great (6th July, d. 429AD)
Sisoes-b4-tomb-of-alexander_metoraMany Saints of the Church are very difficult to write about in an entertaining way – especially those who live their lives in solitude as tonsured monastics.  It is truly and literally a case of “no news is good news” – they stay in solitude and pray, and achieve a holiness that radiates Christ’s Light.  So it is with Sisoës, whose asceticism and temperance stands as an example of what is possible with humility and love of God.

Sisoës, originally from Alexandria in Egypt, lived for many years in a desert cave with the relics of Saint Anthony, the father of the monastic movement.  The most famous story told about him attests to his humility.  When St Sisoës lay upon his deathbed, his disciples saw that his face shone like the sun. They asked the dying man what he saw. Abba Sisoës replied that he saw Saint Anthony, the Prophets and the Apostles. His face increased in brightness, and he spoke with someone. The monks asked, “With whom are you speaking, Father?” He said that angels had come for his soul, and he was entreating them to give him a little more time for repentance. The monks said, “You have no need for repentance, Father” Saint Sisoës said with great humility, “I do not think that I have even begun to repent.”

There are many wonderful quotes and aphorisms attributed to Sisoës, but my favourite is probably the following:  A brother asked Abba Sisoës, “What shall I do, abba, for I have fallen?”  The old man said to him “Get up again.”  The brother said, “I have got up again, but I have fallen again.”  The old man said, “Get up again and again.”  So the brother said, “How many times?”  The old man said, “Until you are taken up either in virtue or in sin.  For a man presents himself to judgement in the state in which he is found.”

He is often depicted in icons standing above the bones of Alexander the Great, a reminder to Christians that death humbles the proud.

OLGA of Kiev (11th July, 890-969AD)
st-olga-orthodox-christian-mini-icon-4Olga is regarded as the first Russian Christian, and is given the title of Equal to the Apostles by the Church.  The wife of Igor, the ruler of Kievan Rus, she became a Christian and was baptised on a state visit to the Roman capital of Constantinople in 957AD.

While her conversion did not have an immediate effect on the Russians, and her son, who ruled at the time, did not embrace the faith, she is still venerated as the first Russian Saint, and it is almost certain that if it were not for her influence and prayers, her grandson Vladimir would not himself have dramatically converted and dramatically turned Kievan Rus into a Christian nation nearly twenty years after her death.

Saints of the Week (29th June to 5th July)

PETER and PAUL (29th June, d.67AD)
Peter-and-Paul-ByzMost Christian readers ought to be familiar with these two “Princes of the Apostles”, whose joint feast day was celebrated this last Monday, and is regarded as the fourth most important feast of the Church after Pascha, Nativity, and the Dormition of the Theotokos.  Peter, one of the original twelve Apostles of Christ, is regarded as the leader of the twelve, a passionate firebrand of a man who, like his fellow Apostles, preached in numerous places, but especially in Antioch, where he is regarded as the first Bishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, which survives to this day.  There is, however, actually no record of him being Bishop of Rome, a position which Irenaus says was first occupied by Linus on Peter’s appointment and consecration.  Nevertheless, he, with Paul, is regarded as the founder of the Roman Church, and both the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Antioch are said to sit in “the See (or seat) of Peter”.

Paul, made an Apostle by revelation of Christ on the road to Damascus from Jerusalem, similarly needs no introduction.  The boldest and most widely travelled of all the Apostles, and “the Apostle to the Gentiles”, Paul wrote the bulk of the New Testament epistles.  He and Peter were both martyred under Nero around the same time – Peter by being crucified upside down on Vatican hill, and Paul by beheading (denoting his privilege as a Roman citizen).

COSMAS and DAMIAN of Rome, Holy Unmercenaries (1st July, d.284AD)
cosmasdamianCosmas and Damian were brother physicians, whom God granted supernatural powers of healing, and through this they won many people over in favour of Christ.  They are called “unmercenary”, because they accepted no payment for their treatment, and told the sick that it was not their own power that healed, but Christ’s.

The authorities arrested several Christians for refusing to give up the location of the brothers.  Hearing this, they offered to turn themselves in in exchange for their release.  Brought before the Emperor Carinus and put on trial, the Emperor was suddenly struck blind, however, the brothers healed him and restored his sight.  Having been subject to this miracle, the Emperor had no choice but to release them.

The brothers were martyred, not by the Roman authorities, but by their own teacher of medicine, who was driven by envy of their gifts, and lured them into the mountains on the pretense of finding medicinal herbs before killing them both.

Saint of the Week (22nd to 28th June)

ELIZABETH, Mother of the Forerunner (24th June)
saintelizabethmotherofforerunnerKnown for her faithfulness to God in the face of childlessness, Elizabeth is the mother of John the Baptist, and her feast day is the same as John’s birthday.  Tradition has it that Saint Anna, the mother of Mary, was her sister and therefore the Theotokos was her niece.  She is the originator of the first blessing of the Theotokos, when she said “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”, thus she honours the Theotokos and reveals her role in the salvation of the world, just as her son would reveal Mary’s son, the Christ and saviour.

During Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, she took John up into the mountains and a cleft miraculously appeared in a rock to hide them, however, her husband Zechariah was killed, something mentioned by Christ in Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51.  The date and circumstance of her own repose, however, is unknown.

Saints of the Week (15th to 21st June)

I’ve kinda been busy getting married and whatnot, so I wasn’t sure what to do in resuming Saints of the Week – do I cover all the ones I missed, or do I just resume for the week at hand and just try and catch some of them at a later date?  I’ve decided to do the latter.

AUGUSTINE of Hippo (15th June, 354-430AD)
St_Augustine_of_HippoAugustine is a controversial figure.  While he is lionised in Western Christianity as the go-to expounder of orthodox Christian doctrine, (and in fact, is probably the only first millenium Church Father most evangelicals could name), he is treated with suspicion by many Orthodox Christians.  While he is technically a Saint of the Orthodox Church as well, it is fashionable to only acknowledge this begrudgingly – sometimes through referring to him not as a Saint but as “Blessed” Augustine.  This damnation with faint praise is not entirely without foundation – while “Blessed” acknowledges the vast and valuable contribution he made to Christian theology, it also acknowledges that Augustine was out of step with other Church Fathers on many points, and in fact remains the source of several heretical ideas that to this day are bog-standard beliefs in either Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, or both.

Much of his popularity in the West stems from the fact that he was the first prominent Church Father to write exclusively in Latin, owing to his lack of proficiency in Greek.  For many in the West, especially the Germanic tribes who overtook the Western Roman Empire, this made Augustine’s voluminous works their only easily accessible theological source.  While other contemporary Fathers also proposed erroneous ideas, their errors were all in Greek and did not get amplified, but were instead corrected over time by the Church.  Augustine’s ideas, however, had no competition, and especially as the Western Empire disintegrated and the Dark Ages took hold, the West became characterized by a lack of scholarship, divided from the intellectual heft of the Eastern Romans.  So, in the West, we see Augustine’s novel proposal that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father, take hold.  We see the popularity of the notion of “original sin”, and that this sin is sexually transmitted to one’s offspring.  It was also from his writings that Western notions of predestination developed.  It was many of these beliefs that were a factor in the Great Schism between the Western and Eastern Church in the 11th Century, a schism that remains to this day.

Despite this, Augustine fleshed out many theological ideas that are Orthodox, and he remains a treasured asset to the Church.  His personal story of redemption is also compelling, a misspent youth followed by a dramatic conversion, a baptism by Ambrose of Milan, and eventually being appointed Bishop of Hippo in what is now modern Tunisia, all of which should be sufficient to confirm his status as a holy intercessor.  He passed away from illness as the Vandal armies laid siege to Roman Africa.

JEROME (15th June, 347-420AD)
St_Jerome_01_icon_225pxWith Augustine, the Church also commemorates Saint Jerome.   Born into a Christian family in what is now modern Bosnia, he dedicated his life to being a scholar and a monk, studying under various people in various parts of the empire, including under Gregory the Theologian in Constantinople, where he was ordained a Priest.  Returning to Rome as an assistant to Pope Damasus in 382AD, he was commissioned to make a translation of the Scriptures into Latin, a consistent compendium of which did not exist at the time.  This translation became know as the Vulgate – an invaluable resource to the Church’s evangelism in the Western Empire, and is the work for which Jerome is most famous.

After the death of Damasus in 384AD, he left Rome and eventually took up as a monastic hermit in Palestine, where he continued to write.  His defence of Mary as being ever-virgin is still a compelling rebuttal to those who would claim she had other children besides Christ.  After Augustine, he remains the second most voluminous Christian writer in the Latin tongue.  He reposed in peace near Bethlehem in 420AD.


JUDE THADDEUS (19th June, d. 65AD)
Apostle_JudeJude is my wife’s name Saint, and his icon hangs proudly on our wall.  A son of Joseph and brother of the Apostle James, he was slow to accept his younger stepbrother as the Christ, and tradition has it that on the death of Joseph he objected to Jesus receiving a share of the inheritance.  He later came to faith and was made an Apostle, and following the Resurrection, went out preaching to numerous regions.  The book of Jude in the New Testament is attributed to him.  He is also regarded as the patron Saint of Armenia, having been martyred there by being shot with arrows.

In the Latin church, Jude has developed a following as the patron of lost causes.  While this has never been his reputation in the East, he is hymned as a healer and an “unshakeable pillar of the Church of Christ”.

Saints of the Week (26th April)

GEORGE the TROPHY-BEARER (23rd April, 280-303AD)

stgeorgeGeorge/Giwargis of Lydda is without doubt one of the most beloved and venerated of all Christian Saints, almost inexplicably so.  Much of this may come from his career as a soldier, rising through the ranks of the Roman army at a young age to become a Tribune, one of the six officers who commanded a Roman legion.  He was a man of great power, valour and standing, which meant that, when the Emperor Diocletian ordered his armies to clamp down on Christians throughout the Empire, George’s refusal, protest, and public declaration of loyalty to Christ before the Emperor was unprecedented.  Diocletian, shocked by this impudence, had George tortured, then decapitated outside the walls of Nicomedia.

Over time, George’s legend grew, and may have spawned, in the spirit of his profession as a soldier, the notion that, in his life and martyrdom, George had done battle with the dragon (ie. the devil) and defeated him.  By the 11th Century, this metaphorical narrative had turned into one in which George had somehow saved a princess and defeated a flesh and blood creature with fire-breath and bat wings.  But no, the Church does not believe in material dragons, only the dragon of old that deceives the nations, and that is what is depicted in icons of George, who now has a country named after him, many British kings, a State of the United States, and is the patron Saint of England, Palestine, and his eponymous Georgia.

Holy George, help us defeat the dragon!  Pray unto God for us!


GREGORY V of CONSTANTINOPLE (22n April, 1741-1821AD)
gregoryvThe Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is the first Bishop of the Orthodox Church, or at least has been so since the apostasy of the Bishops of Rome (the Popes) in the 11th Century.  Gregory V had the dreadful misfortune to be the Patriarch during the Greek uprising which was to result in the formation of an independent Greek state.  In retaliation for this, the Sultan decided to execute Gregory, despite the fact that he had, in an effort to protect the Christians in his See, denounced the uprising.  He was seized upon immediately after serving the Easter/Pascha liturgy, taken out to Saint Peter’s gate at the Phanar (the Patriarchal compound), and after the age-old enjoinder to save his life by declaring Mohammed the Prophet of God, and the inevitable refusal, he was hanged there for two days.

Saints of the Week (19th April)

MARTIN of ROME (13th April, c590-655AD)

Martin_IBefore Martin Luther King, before Martin Luther, there was Martin, a Saint no less worthy than his progeny in his labour against the zeitgeist.  As hard as it is to believe nowadays, once upon a time, Roman Popes were the last and greatest defenders of Christian Orthodoxy, even when other Bishops and Patriarchs would go wobbly.  Martin is one of the more famous examples of this.  At the time of his accession to the Papal throne in 649AD, much of the Roman Empire, of which he was technically a governor of its Italian territories, had fallen under the rule of an heretical Emperor and Bishops.  The heresy du jour was monothelitism – the idea that Christ had only a single, divine will.  Martin saw this as a great threat to the Church and its doctrine, and argued vigorously in favour of the traditional Orthodox view – that Christ had two wills – a human and a divine, and that to argue otherwise was to either make Him less than human, or less than God.

For daring to defend Orthodoxy, the Emperor attempted to dethrone Martin by charging him with heresy, and when this failed, he had him kidnapped and exiled to the Greek island of Naxos, where he was subject to torture and deprivation.  Eventually he died of starvation, the last Papal martyr of the Church to this day.


RAPHAEL, NICHOLAS and IRENE (14th April, d.1463AD)

Άγιος Ραφαήλ, Άγιος Νικόλαος κ Άγία ΕιρήνηThese three Saints were residents of the Greek island of Lesbos during the Turkish conquest of the Roman Empire – Raphael, the Abbot of a local monastery, Nicholas, one of his Deacons, and Irene, the twelve year old daughter of the Mayor.  They were brutally and viciously tortured at the monastery by the Turks – Raphael died after having his jaw sawn off, Nicholas through heart failure after torture, and Irene by being roasted and suffocated in a metal cask.

What makes this story even more interesting, however, is not so much the story of the Saints, but how these three were revealed to the world.  They remained unknown for nearly 500 years until 1959, when Raphael’s relics were uncovered by chance, and the three Saints began to appear to the people of Lesbos.  Soon, all three sets of relics were uncovered, and miracles of healing were reported at their visitation.



Thomas_the_ApostleThis Sunday, the Sunday after Easter/Pascha is the Sunday of Thomas, the Apostle.  Famed for doubting the resurrection until confronted face to face with Christ, Thomas more than made up for his reluctance in his subsequent preaching of the Gospel.  After persecution broke out against the Christians, he made his way east through Mesopotamia, Parthia, and all the way to India, preaching the Gospel, baptising, and founding churches along the way.  He is said to have met the Magi who were present at Christ’s birth, and finally baptised them.

Settling in India, the Orthodox churches he founded there remains to this day, and he is considered India’s Patron Saint.  It was there where he was martyred by the the local ruler of Melipur, for daring to convert the Prefect’s wife and son.

Orthodox tradition has Thomas being entrusted with Mary’s belt, miraculously offered to him upon her repose, although whether this actually happened or is merely a pious story is debated.

Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs He has granted Life!


If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast.  If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.

If any have laboured long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in no wise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing.

If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honour, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honours the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second! You rich and poor together, hold high festival! You sober and you heedless, honour the day! Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast! The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously! The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away!

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free! He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it! By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive! He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions.

It was embittered! for it was abolished!

It was embittered! for it was mocked!

It was embittered! for it was slain!

It was embittered! for it was overthrown!

It was embittered! for it was fettered in chains!

It took a body, and met God face to face! It took earth, and encountered Heaven! It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen!

O Death, where is your sting?! O Hell, where is your victory?!

Christ is risen! and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen! and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen! and the angels rejoice!

Christ is risen! and life reigns!

Christ is risen! and not one dead remains in the grave!

For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen!

– John Chrysostom

Saint of the Week (5th April)

Forgive the lateness, I was busy all weekend…


LAZARUS (d.33AD & 63AD)
Raising_of_Lazarus_by_logIconJust the one Saint this week.  The day before Palm Sunday is the Saturday of Lazarus, when Christ raised His friend from the dead.  In doing so, He forshadowed His own resurrection, and showed that He has power over all death, including our own.

After his revival, Lazarus, as living proof of Christ’s works, was forced to flee Jerusalem, and he travelled to Cyprus where he preached Christ and established the Church there.  Paul and Barnabas ordained him the first Bishop of Cyprus, where he led the Church and is regarded as their patron Saint.

He is famously reputed never to have smiled in the thirty years after his revival, except for one occasion where he saw a pot being stolen, smirking that “the clay steals the clay”