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Elpidophoros: the Persian Martyr

When His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros came to America, it was the first time many of us heard the name Elpidophoros. We knew the name in Greek, meant “hope-bearer” but perhaps did not know it was the name of a great martyr. Even if there was a feast day it was probably unknown to many of us. 

Today, November 2, the Orthodox Church celebrates the five Persian martyrs: Acindynos, Pegasios, Apthonios, Elpidophoros and Anempodistos. These are all Greek translations from their original Persian names. Acindynos comes from ακίνδυνος which means “free of danger” or “safe;” Pegasios from πηγάζω, meaning “gush forth.” Aphthonios from αφθονία, “abundance;” Elpidophoros, meaning “bearer of hope” and Anempodistos  (ανεμπόδιστος) means unhindered. 

The meaning of these five names are attributes of a martyr. Akindynos faced mortal danger (κίνδυνος) but remained secure in his faith. His body along with Pegasios and Anempodistos were burned, yet, their bodies would not be harmed by the fire. Anempodistos’ faith was unhindered by the tortures he bravely faced. Pegasios, his bravery and faith in Christ gushed forth, was overflowing. Similarly, Aphthonios had an abundance of faith. Lastly, Elpidophoros bears hope that by martyrdom he will enter the Lord’s Kingdom. The hope is in the Resurrection and the life of the ages to come

These five martyrs bravely contested for the Faith in the year 330 AD. King Sapor II reigned for most of the 4th Century in Persia. These saints were secret Christians and Sapor’s personal courtiers. When King Sapor began his persecution of Christians, some of his pagan followers identified these five as Christians. Although by this time Christianity was legalized, that was in the Roman-Byzantine Empire. The Sasanian Empire or Neo-Persian Empire was a rival to the former. Christianity was not tolerated there.

Initially, Acindynos, Pegasios and Anempodistos were summoned by Sapor to appear before him for trial and so they bravely confessed their faith in Christ. As a result, Sapor ordered that they be flogged. It was witnessing the persecution of the three, that Elpidophoros and Aphthonios came to the True Faith. The word martyr in Greek is μάρτυς or μάρτυρaς. In both cases it means witness which is what a martyr does; bears witness to Christ, leading others to Him. 

Elpidophoros and Aphthonios were beheaded while Acindynos, Pegasios and Anempodistos were burned to death. Yet, as mentioned above, their bodies were not consumed by the fire. Sapor was so vile that he would not permit the burial of these five martyrs. In total, 7,000 believers were executed in Persia by Sapor. 

The bodies of Acindynos, Pegasios and Anempodistos not being consumed by fire is similar to the martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Rome. He was martyred in the 2nd Century during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Polycarp was burned to death but his body remained unharmed just like the former three. 

So they did not nail him [Polycarp], but tied him. And with his hands put behind him and tied, like a noble ram out of a great flock ready for sacrifice, a burnt offering ready and acceptable to God, he looked up to heaven and said: “Lord God Almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed Servant Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of thee, ‘the God of angels and powers and all creation’ and of the whole race of the righteous who live in thy presence: I bless thee, because thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, to take my part in the number of the martyrs, in the Cup of thy Christ, ‘for resurrection to eternal life’ of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit; among whom may I be received in thy presence this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as thou has prepared  and revealed beforehand and fulfilled, thou art the true God without any falsehood. For this and for everything I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Servant, through whom be glory to thee with him and Holy Spirit both now and unto the ages to come. Amen.” And when he had concluded the Amen and finished his prayer, the men attending to the fire lighted it. And when the flame flashed forth, we saw a miracle, we to whom it was given to see. And we are preserved in order to relate to the rest what happened. For the fire made the shape of a vaulted chamber, like a ship’s sail filled by the wind, and made a wall around the body of the martyr. And he was in the midst, not as burning flesh, but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace. And we perceived such a sweet aroma as the breath of incense or some other precious spice. (Martyrdom of St Polycarp) 

These three Persian martyrs and Polycarp were executed by flame, yet, miraculously their bodies were not consumed by it. God chose to keep their bodies intact. This miracle along with their steadfast faith bear witness to Christ. Similarly, the burning bush that Moses beheld was not consumed by the flames. This is a prefiguration of the Theotokos. She contained in Her womb, the Logos, Jesus Christ while maintaining Her virginity. 

Today the martyrs' choir of fivefold splendor illumines the faithful like a constellation of stars! It summons all to mystical joy! Today the servants of the spiritual Sun lead all to righteousness: They destroyed the traditions of the Persians who adored the material sun and worshipped fire! They filled to overflowing the cup of their suffering; they have been crowned with their blood shed for the sake of Christ! They call us, lovers of piety, saying: Come, feast as you behold our sufferings: Look upon our crowns and honors! For Christ has truly said: He who endures to the end is saved! Come, share our crowns and take us as intercessors before the Lord! (1st Doxastikon of Festal Vespers) 

A Blessed Feast Day to His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros

Εις Πολλά έτη Δέσποτα!

-John Athanasatos 

A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.

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