Christians have always been fascinated with the lives of saints. They give inspiration and show different paths. In many cases, they show the inner and outer struggles of people just like us. From the very first mention of the word ‘saint’ right unto this very day, the ones that draw most on our curiosity are the martyrs. In fact, the last day of June coming up is annually celebrated as ‘The First Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church.’
Martyrdom was a popular method of expressing ones faith during the earliest days of Christianity. It even became forbidden to teach it as a desirable conclusion to human life, because a great number of early Christians were attempting to sacrifice themselves. Too many volunteered for the honor.
The celebration of the first Roman martyrs is deliberately planned on the liturgical calendar to follow after the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul, Apostles (June 29, listed as a Holy Day of Obligation CCC #2177). There is a definite connection between the two. Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome sometime between the years AD64 and 67. It has long been proposed that they died in the same year, but not all scholars would agree. The celebration of the first martyrs recalls an event that definitely took place in AD64.
Nero began his fourteen years as emperor in AD54. His reign was never a joyous one for people of one God. Persecution of Christians and Jews increased annually at an alarming rate, which could not be tolerated by any sane people of the world. In the end, his mental instability and lavish eccentricities caused an open rebellion, foreign and domestic, that resulted in the emperor taking his own life.
However, during his term, Nero instituted one of the most heinous crimes against humanity that had yet occurred, when he practiced genocide on the Christian citizens of Rome over a week long massacre which resulted in a huge fire that destroyed much of Rome. The emperor convinced the pagan majority that the Christians had started the blaze, and at first, they condoned continuation of the persecution. Christians were rounded up and either thrown to wild beasts or lit up like matchsticks. It was so repulsive that the public, even those who despised the followers of Jesus, turned away from supporting the emperor’s agenda. He further drew their ire by building an opulent palace among the ashes and failing to end a revolution in Jerusalem. For this, we recall the nameless first martyrs of the Roman Church. Sometime soon after, Nero ordered the execution of Peter and Paul.
Eusebius is known as the Father of Church History. He wrote extensively, and one of his works was a compilation of the martyrs of the early Church. The popularity of this book lasted for centuries and guided the creation of a Roman Martyrology. Eventually, some of the names were stricken from the Vatican books because in the days of limited writing and reading skills, there simply wasn’t enough documented proof that they really existed. But make no mistake: the rabid persecution of Christians created many martyrs, and the interest in their stories was overwhelming.
Several ‘lives of saints’ stories began to circulate, written and orally. Legends built up about real characters, and reached their highest form during the hungry Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century, a Dominican friar by the name of Jacobus de Voragine compiled some of the best known tales, true or not, in The Golden Legend. He featured martyrs including the apostles, all of whom were executed except John, and the early Roman victims, and his book was a widespread, resounding success. Not all who died in faith were beheaded or eaten by lions; some simply perished in the demonstration of their beliefs.
Alexis, who is included in Voragine’s book, had beginnings similar to Aloysius Gonzaga, only more so. His father was a Roman senator, a member of the court, who wielded great power in the emperor’s council. Euphemianus was also a generous and faith-filled man who served the poor from tables in his own house and contributed greatly to the cause of widows and orphans. His compassion was not wasted on his son, who took up the cause and carried it to an even further extreme.
For appearances sake, Alexis married a proper girl, but they had an agreement. On their wedding night, he ventured out, shedding his wealth and recognition along the way, and ended up in Edessa, Syria, where he became a beggar. Believing the cloth of Veronica, that wiped the face of Jesus on the way to the cross, was at the Church of Mary, the Blessed Mother, Alexis took his place as a resident among the poor camped out there. He took what he needed to survive and gave the rest to other needy, and did so for seventeen years. At the end of that time a vision of Mary speaking through a statue called him a ‘man of God.’
Alexis took this revelation to be a calling to get further away, which he set out to do, but a wind took his ship off course and returned him to Rome, where he reluctantly journeyed to his father’s house. No one recognized him but were all taken by his piety. Euphemianus gave him work and quarters under a staircase. For another seventeen years of his life, the man went about his work, his commitment to poverty, and his total humility before God. Still, no one recognized him.
Euphemianus was alerted that there was a holy man in his house, and that he would be found under the staircase. He found his dead employee clutching a book but was unable to free the ledger. Finally, in the presence of two emperors and a pope beseeching with prayer, the hand of Alexis released the document, and his autobiography was read to a large crowd. As he later lay in state, many sick were brought forward to touch the body and were healed. An attempt was made to lure the crowd away with free money, but they remained in Alexis’ presence.
Even though most scholars agree that this legend never happened beyond, perhaps, a trip to Edessa where he lived and died and was attributed with healing miracles. Its significance to the people of the Middle Ages was to inspire heroic Christianity. Christ called his disciples to pick up their cross, and with that image, they become partners in his blood, as well. The cause of martyrs and the shedding of blood for Christ has not gone away, and persecution of Christians (and of many others) takes place somewhere in the world on a daily basis. Some are called to give of their bodies and others, their blood. The mission of the Lord is ours; we are the Blood of Christ.