(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Mark of Arethusa, whose account is found in Volume 1 of the series.)
Saint Mark of Arethusa
In a startling departure from the script expected of asaint who has died in martyrdom, St. Mark miraculouslymanaged to survive an ordeal of torture to transform histormentors into compassionate human beings and go onto great glory in the name of Jesus Christ. Just when hewas about to die, a remarkable reversal of the customaryending of a saintly life served to make the invincible St.Mark unique among those who have suffered and died for the Messiah.
After the proclamation of Constantine the Great granting Christianity toleration, the transition from paganism to Christianity was not accomplished immediately. Markof Arethusa lived in a period of turmoil in the early fourthcentury, during which time he was of inestimable valueas a young priest who shouldered the responsibility ofbringing order out of religious chaos and conflict.
With the mandate from the emperor several priests came forward to replace pagans and temples with Christians and churches, but nowhere in the empire could they find a more capable promoter for the Prince of Peace than the ebullient Mark. He was a young priest with great promise when he emerged from his small parish near the city of Arethusa (in the province of Thessaloniki) to undertake the spiritually rewarding but ever hazardous chore of physically transforming pagan temples into Christian churches. He left the tranquility of his parish on the banks of the river Strymon, later called Rendina,to assume much more awesome and demanding duties in the name of the Savior. These duties brought him both glory and grief, but eventually brought him the highest in spiritual attainment. He was well into this laudable campaign when he was appointed bishop of Arethusa, an office whose influence he would bring to many other areas in the course of his holy work.
Specially appointed to direct the changeover, Mark countered the expected resistance in some areas with compelling oratory which won enough converts to acquire a strength in numbers sufficient to off set the last-ditch defenders of paganism. Then came the actual transformation whereby temples became churches with the replacement of the sacred cross of Jesus Christ for idols.When the architecture of a temple did not allow for conformity with a church, it was simply taken down piece by piece and rebuilt to Christian standards. Those edifices that posed too many problems were made into hospitals or places of refuge for the needy.
Mark showed not only a bold administrative capacity while these proceedings were taking place, but a genuine concern for the populace as a whole. Thus he acquired a reputation for generosity, compassion and humility which stamped him as a rare human being and dedicated servant of God and man. Even those who opposed him grudgingly admitted that for all of his quiet demeanor he was not a man to be trifled with, nor one who would slacken the pace of his mission.
Years of devotion to this procedure brought Mark and his Christian community a hitherto unknown tranquility.But this peace was shattered when the Emperor Julian the Apostate succeeded to the throne in 361 and disavowed Jesus to revert to paganism. Almost overnight the advances of Christianity were stemmed. With this shabby disavowal came a regeneration of ritualistic idolatry and a subsequent renewal of the persecution of Christians.
Mark found himself the target of the rabble he had put to rout. These people had been given heart by a perfidious ruler who was not the least interested in having his people live in harmony. Instead, he encouraged the pagans to vent their spleen on Christians once again. Mark was dragged into the streets by a frenzied mob who tortured him without mercy, again and again inflicting the cruelest of punishment they could devise. Their rage subsided in the face of the durability of the holy Mark, who summoned renewed strength and convinced the mob that the Lord had given him a seeming indestructibility. He went on about conversion until he died on March 28, 389.