In Praise of Blessed Theodore, the Great Martyr, by Saint Gregory of Nyssa

You, the people who belong to Christ, a holy flock, a royal priesthood which had come from every place, city and the countryside, what is the source of that sign which brought you to this sacred place? Who are you who hasten here and planned this [journey] beforehand? Is it not the season of winter which is untroubled by war, when armed soldiers are not present, sailors set sail over the foamy [waves] and the farmer puts to rest the ox used for plowing in the stall? It is not clear that the holy martyr sounded the trumpet from among the roster of warriors, rouses people from diverse regions to a place of rest, proclaims a home, not in preparation for war but to a sweet and attractive peace for Christians? We believe that in the year when the barbarian invasion stopped and the horrible war against the savage Sythians came to an end we witnessed no frightening, terrible war, no triple crested helmet nor a brandished sword glittering in the sun, but the all-powerful cross of Christ which wards them off, the means by which he obtained glory through his suffering.

Furthermore, I ask you to consider closely those who keep blameless religious observance such as the martyrs who compose an outstanding assembly of the just as well as those deemed worthy of recompense while still in the world. Let me affirm that they are still with us. Their great honor is open for all to see: by recognizing the fruit of piety, you must strive to share in their reverence. Desire the honors which Christ dispenses according to the worthiness of his athletes. But if it pleases him that we may enjoy future benefits which a pure hope offers to the just when the judge of our lives comes to us, we may see the company of the saints which is so magnificent and glorious. For the soul which is ascending is fond of residing in its own inheritance and converses in an incorporeal manner with its own brethren; the body a deserving and immaculate vehicle for that purpose which never allows the harm originating from its own passions to reside with incorruptibility. Enwrapped with much honor and solicitude, it dwells in this holy place as an inestimable treasure reserved for the time of regeneration and shares the uniqueness with regard to other bodies. For this common death which is similar in nature has no comparison. There are other abominable matters, for example, no one should lightly disregard the tomb, but if this person opens himself to persuasion, he is liable to have no share in the repugnance of this present age, thereby avoiding the burden of the human condition.

Should a person come to a place similar to our assembly today where the memory of the just and the rest of the saints is present, first consider this house’s great dignity to which souls are lead. God’s temple is brightly adorned with magnificence and is embellished with decorations, pictures of animals which masons have fashioned with delicate silver figures. It exhibits images of flowers made in the likeness of the martyr’s virtues, his struggles, sufferings, the various savage actions of tyrants, assaults, that fiery furnace, the athlete’s blessed consummation and the human form of Christ presiding over all these events. They are like a book skillfully interpreting by means of colors which express the martyr’s struggles and glorify the temple with resplendent beauty. The pictures located on the walls are eloquent by their silence and offer significant testimony; the pavement on which people tread is combined with small stones and is significant to mention in itself.

These spectacles strike the senses and delight the eye by drawing us near to [the martyr's] tomb which we believe to be both a sanctification and blessing. If anyone takes dust from the martyr’s resting place, it is a gift and a deserving treasure. Should a person have both the good fortune and permission to touch the relics, this experience is a highly valued prize and seems like a dream both to those who were cured and whose wish was fulfilled. The body appears as if it were alive and healthy: the eyes, mouth, ears, as well as the other senses are a cause for pouring out tears of reverence and emotion. In this way one implores the martyr who intercedes on our behalf and is an attendant of God for imparting those favors and blessings which people seek.

From all this, oh devout people, learn that “the death of His holy ones is admirable before the Lord” [Ps 115.6], for all men comprise one and the same body; they share the same substance as one dough and are carried off to death. However, the martyr’s suffering bestows grace which is lovable, joyful and undeniable as the text above teaches. Therefore we believe that appearances hold out the promise of future blessings procured from trials endured in the world. Many are those who pursue [pleasures of] the stomach, vainglory and the rubbish of all this world’s charms while neglecting that which is to come; rather, such persons believe that death puts an end to all these things [Phil 3.19]. But a thoughtful person will learn about great matters from that which is small and about archetypes from shadows. To whom will the honor of kings go? Who will be remembered among men with regard to that arrogance resulting from visible reality? Which general who has captured fortified cities and has enslaved many peoples is celebrated as this soldier, poor man and conscript, whom Paul has armed [Eph 6.11] and whom the angels have anointed for combat and whom Christ has crowned with victory [2 Tim 4.8]? Since these words unite you to the martyr’s trials, follow the saint’s uncommon example and forsake any useless pursuit because everyone loves such things.

The fatherland is majestic by reason of beholding the sun. Job is noble because he came from the [land of the] sun’s rising and continued to observe those customs with which he was acquainted [Job 1.3]. On the other hand, the martyr possesses the entire earth and every citizen who dwells under the sun. However, a list of armed men is taken from that vicinity when their regiment is transferred to our region where its leaders post them to rest during the winter. But when war suddenly arises not by an incursion of barbarians but by Satan’s ordinance and decree which God opposes (for every Christian is put under the ban of a severe prescription and is condemned to death), the thrice blessed [Theodore] reveals his piety and gives witness everywhere to his faith in Christ in addition to being inscribed upon the forehead with a confession. He is no longer a novice nor untried by battle and combat, but has fortified his soul to resist dangers; he is neither afraid nor a coward reluctant to speak. The evil spirits have convened a court along with their leaders and taxiarchs which is reminiscent of Herod and Pilate who condemned the Lord to be crucified by a similar judgment. They said, “What is the source of your courage, you who dare to mock the king’s decree? Do you not submit in trembling to those royal decrees? Do you not worship the authorities who are in power?” Maximianus was then king whom these leaders served.

With stern countenance and resolute mind [Theodore] responded to their charges by saying, “I do not know the gods because they are false, whereas you err by honoring and addressing them, having been influenced by demons who have deceived you from [the worship of] God [cf. Jn 3.18]. But as for me, Christ is God, the Only Begotten Son of God. Therefore on behalf of the true religion and by confessing him, let him who inflicts wounds go ahead and cut; let him who strikes thrash; let him who burns lead to the flame, and let him who is grieved by my words cut out my tongue. Each member of the body needs patience bestowed by the Creator.” The tyrants were at a loss by these words and could not sustain the first refutation of his integrity because this youth was bursting with passion and sought death as if it were a sweet drink.

For a brief period the [persecutors] were at a loss and took counsel with regard to future action. One of the military leaders with a refined demeanor scorned the martyr by the following response: “Theodore, are you the Son of God? Was he born to suffer as a man? My god was not born for this purpose, but I believe that he is a son and that his birth befits his divinity. But you and your childish, pathetic reasoning should make you blush and hide due to your profession in an effeminate god whom, like a mother, you worship her twelve sons who gave birth to a multitude of demons just like a hare or a sow which effortlessly conceive and give birth!”

The tyrants mocked the saint by this two pronged attack of idolatry and under the guise of clemency said, “Give us a short time to consider such madness. Perhaps by giving him a brief rest he might change his mind for the better.” These [despots] called wisdom insanity, reckoned madness and labeled derangement eloquence just like drunks who vehemently berate sober persons. However, this pious man and soldier of Christ made full use of manly behavior in the respite allotted to him.

What did he do? You certainly have enough time to ponder over his tale with joy. The gods’ temple erected to their mythical mother was located in the capitol city of Amasea by a river bank where such mislead persons devised their folly. But the noble man remained fearless while his detractors watched for an opportune moment and a occasion because they yearned to accuse him of setting a fire and impatiently expected him to admit it. Once everyone learned of this incident (for a blazing fire started in the midst of the city), [Theodore] did not disclose the deed nor hasten to speak about it. However, it was certainly clear to [his accuser's] arrogance and to the confusion of their great joy that this incident was a source of distress for the temple and its graven image. It was reported to the magistrates that he was responsible for burning the temple and a judgment more fearful than the first resulted due to his provocation.

Once the [judges] took their seats in court, the magistrate eloquently questioned Theodore who stood in their midst and who quickly turned the interrogation into a confession [of faith]. Since they could not accuse him and their fearful threats had no effect, they changed their tactics and benignly attempted to withdraw the accusation by offering him promises. “If you wish to submit to our counsel,” they said, “we will at once reinstate your renown from such disgrace, change your ignominy into honor and will swear that you share in the glory which belongs to the office of chief priest.” When he heard of this honor, the thrice-blessed [Theodore] said, “I judge the priests of idols as wretched men and pity the attendants of such vain practices. I both greatly feel for and loath the chief priest. He is among the worst and most miserable of men, a fact which is more unimaginable than any unjust circumstance; he is the cruelest of murderers and is more wanton than any dissolute person. Therefore let your devastating actions run their course. Tell me, you who make such depraved promises, by choosing a life of piety and righteousness with respect to God, it is better to be a outcast in God’s house than to dwell in the tents of the wicked [Ps 83.11]? I pity the kingdom’s subjects to whom you continuously read the iniquitous law because its authority is considerable. They can keep the title of chief priest for themselves, cloth themselves with dark purple in imitation of evil chief priests and wrap their melancholy with bright dignity. When approaching the impure altar, [M.745] they sacrifice butchered birds before kings, examine the entails of wretched cattle, sell meat stained with blood and defile their clothing.”

After the just man had uttered these words, the leaders no longer feigned goodwill but accused him as being most disrespectful of the gods, contemptuous of kings and a blasphemer. First they tortured him by tearing his body which they had suspended upon a tree. While the executioners were vigorously at work, he remained steadfast, constant and sang about his torments from the Psalm, “I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise ever in my mouth” [Ps 33.2]. Those torments of the flesh diminished while he sang and were as though another man were being mistreated. In this fashion the prison sanctioned his punishment. Another phenomenon occurred with regard to the saint: at night he heard a multitude singing, and those outside saw their radiant splendor in the dead of night. This marvelous visitation troubled the prison guard and a sound emanated from inside the cell; no one was present except the martyr who remained at peace with the other sleeping prisoners.

After many such events, [Theodore] was strengthened by his confession and piety, and they brought a vote of condemnation upon him. He was ordered to be burned and in this way finished his wonderful, blessed journey to God. However, [Theodore] left behind a lesson from his agony: he summoned the people, taught the church, put demons to flight, brought angelic peace, implored benefits from God, healed various illnesses in that place, provided a safe haven for those tossed by afflictions, was a rich treasury for the poor, a quiet inn of rest for travellers and a continuous festal celebration. If we keep the yearly festival, an enthusiastic multitude will always be in attendance; the highway leading there bore them along like ants with some going and others departing.

Therefore, oh blessed anniversary graciously provided by the Creator, we flock to your festival with the martyrs’ holy band which worships a common God. By recalling the victory of our many struggles, you return to us, and when you arrive, you provide us with a day of celebration. We beseech you, whether you dwell in the air above or in some celestial circle or angelic chorus, that you assist the Lord or worship him as a faithful servant with the powers and virtues. Come from that place to those who beseech you, invisible friend! You have learned of his death, a means by which you might give double thanks to God who conferred this favor through one passion and one pious confession that you may rejoice in the blood he shed and in the grievous fire he endured. As a result you will have as worthy ministers those who witnessed the spectacle. We lack many benefactors. Intercede on behalf of the people that they may share one kingdom because the martyr’s country is one of affliction whose citizens and brethren and kinsmen have died and have been honored. We fear afflictions and expect danger because we are close to the ungodly Sythians who grieve us with war. As a soldier, fight for us; as a martyr, grant courage to your fellow servants. Since you have prevailed over this life yet are familiar with humanity’s sufferings and needs, grant peace that the festivals may continue, that the furious, insolent, mad barbarians might not triumph over the temples or altars and that they might not tread the holy place.

We who have been kept safe and unharmed ponder your beneficence and implore protection for the future. Should we experience stress and dishonor, let your people beseech the chorus of your fellow martyrs; the prayers of many just people will exonerate sin. Remember Peter, awaken Paul along with John the theologian and beloved disciple, who are solicitous on behalf of the churches which they have founded and on whose behalf they endured dangers and death. They did not engage in idol worship which was inimical to our Head [Christ] in order that heresy may resemble thorns to pluck out vines, that weeds might not suffocate wheat, that no rock hinder the true, rich dew and that anything without root may show the power of the fertile word [cf. Mt 13.25, 7, 20]. But by the power of your intercession and those with you, oh marvelous and most bright among the martyrs, the young shoot will return to you, the flourishing citizenship of Christians will endure to the end in the splendid, fruitful field of faith in Christ which always bears the fruit of eternal life in Christ Jesus the Lord. To him with the Father and Holy Spirit be glory, power and honor now and forever. Amen.