(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's saint, Stephen of Antipas, comes from Volume 4 of the series.)
St. Stephen of the Church of Antipas
From the moment of his birth, it was known that the man now known to us as St. Stephen of the Church of Antipas was destined for greatness in the service of Jesus Christ. The birth of the infant son of Zacharias and Theophano was a very ordinary one, but he came into the world with a most extraordinary birthmark, if it can be called that, which offered tangible evidence that he was marked for a life of holy work. The mark was a sign of the cross, seemingly branded on the baby’s chest. Some speculated it was the kind of birthmark which would gradually disappear, but it remained on Stephen’s body throughout his long lifetime.
Zacharias was a priest who gloried in this mark of the cross on his son. As the years went on, he would remark that any cross suspended from his boy’s neck was welcome, but superfluous, since he carried one etched on his body. He would declare it could be seen by no one unless the boy bared his chest, but there was not doubt in the father’s mind the boy would be as much a part of the Church as his cross was part of his body. With this everpresent reminder, it can be assumed that Stephen would have approached God on the path of the Lord even if he had not been directed to it by his pious father.
Shortly after the birth of his son, Zacharias was appointed to serve in the grand cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the colossal house of God so painstakingly erected by Emperor Justinian as the religious center of the Christian and Byzantine world. A close friend of cleric and layman alike, Zacharias was particularly a ached to the hierarch Methodios, who was made patriarch and who assumed the spiritual leadership of the civilized world following the death of the iconoclast Emperor Theophilos. It came as a surprise to no one when the patriarch suggested that Stephen join his father at Hagia Sophia as reader and cantor. Thus, they formed a father-and-son combination whose voices praised Jesus Christ in the magnificent cathedral that stands to this day in the shadows of minarets as a symbol of Christian truth and Byzantine architectural ingenuity.
When his father died after a few short years at Hagia Sophia, Stephen so grievously missed him that he was allowed to leave Hagia Sophia to enter the Chapel of St. Peter for service, not as reader, but as an apprentice monk. Following a period of preparation, he was tonsured monk, and shortly thereafter he became a priest. But until he became a priest, he never ventured outside of the church, preferring to remain in austere seclusion to pray and meditate and thereby strengthen his spirit. He served honorably and inspiringly in the chapel until he was visited by a vision of St. Antipas bearing a message that he would be needed elsewhere in the very near future.
Soon after the divine visitation, which occurred during the reign of Basil the Macedonian, an earthquake struck the city of Constantinople and its environs, whereupon Stephen hurried to the Church of St. Antipas. But in its place he found a gaping hole that had swallowed up the beautiful church, leaving a void amidst the ruins of several buildings that had crumbled at the force of the earth’s tremors. Standing at the edge of what was now a crater, Stephen recalled that St. Antipas, who had been a student of St. John the Evangelist, had anticipated the tragedy and in his message had said that Stephen would receive spiritual assistance in serving the Savior away from the Chapel of St. Peter.
There have been many who have taken up a vigil above ground for Christ, notably St. Symeon Stylites, the pillar dweller, but Stephen chose to descend into a crater to live among the ruins and debris of what was once a beautiful church. He was to spend the next fifty years in this scene of devastation, a constant reminder to those who came to the crater’s edge to peer into the abode of a man whose Christian spirit and radiance symbolized the invincibility of the Christian spirit.
Not long after his descent, the visitors to the edge of the crater turned from curiosity-seekers to religious pilgrims when it was discovered that the sincere Christian was able to receive divine healing through the prayer of the holy man below. Over the course of years, the site of disaster became a virtual shrine. A generation made the visit, most of them unaware that a cross adorned the chest of the pious Stephen, who died peacefully on December 9.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikimedia.