Saint of the Day: St. Polycarp of Smyrna

(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, St. Polycarp, comes from Volume 1 of the series.)
Saint Polycarp of Smyrna

A spiritual song of lamentation equates the depths of misery with the lot of a motherless child, but such a child was St. Polycarp, who rose above the humble circumstances of his birth to glorify the name of Jesus Christ in the first century of Christianity and share honors with men of the magnitude of St. John the Apostle. He was privileged to know all of the apostles of Christ and because of this close association with the Savior’s inner circle, he was designated as an Apostolic Father, of whom there were seven and among whom he was most probably the youngest.

St. Polycarp’s beginnings were ignominious. He was born to a woman named Theodora, who had been imprisoned for her Christian belief and who knew her son for only a few weeks before being led off to be executed. Friends of the condemned Theodora took the child with the promise that he would be raised a Christian, a faith for which her husband had preceded her in death and to which the son would dedicate his life as well.

Polycarp was twenty-two years old when he met St. John as he preached in Ephesus. He had already been raised as a devout follower of Christ, but this encounter with St. John instilled in him a strong urge to serve with the apostle in his missionary work, a purpose which was encouraged and which he pursued with such zeal that within a few months he was ordained a priest. He remained with John, the only apostle of Christ to die of natural causes, until John was exiled by the Roman Emperor Domitian to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the last book of the New Testament (Revelation).

In the first weeks of John’s exile Polycarp was appointed assistant to the archbishop of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), and in that capacity served with distinction, taking care not to upstage the archbishop. Nevertheless, when a crisis arose, it was to Polycarp and not the archbishop that the people turned for help. During his first years a severe drought brought great suffering to the people of Smyrna and the pagans had exhausted all their gods in a vain attempt to induce the heavens to yield rain so desperately needed. Finally, Christians were allowed to call upon their leaders to alleviate a worsening condition.

St. Polycarp promised the people nothing but an earnest appeal to God for His divine intervention in their hour of trial and went into seclusion for a period of three days, during which time he fasted and prayed for the Lord’s help. At the end of the three days the clouds appeared, the heavens rumbled, and the rains came in answer to his prayers. The valleys once again became green and the trees brought forth their fruit, whereupon the name Polycarp, meaning “bearer of many fruits,” was applied to the orphan who had been called Pankratios by his foster mother, and the name Polycarp stuck with the holy man all the years of his life.

Among his many talents Polycarp had a gift for writing, and after the rain episode he wrote his powerful Epistle to the Philippians, considered a gem in ecclesiastical literature, one that set a standard for the many gifted writers who were to follow. He divided his time between writing and preaching, waging a constant battle against spiritual ignorance and bringing countless converts into the ever-increasing numbers of Christianity. With increasing converts came increasing issues, particularly in dogma, issues which had to be resolved by the Church Fathers, of whom he was one, forming the guidelines that were to be laid down for the generations of Christians yet to be born to follow in their worship of Jesus Christ.

During the reign of Marcus Aurelius the persecution of Christians was intensified, bringing about the arrest and imprisonment of St. Polycarp, who ran the gantlet in the tradition of the persecuted Christian. During this time he had a vision of his mother, Theodora, who bolstered his courage, and he calmly met a martyr’s death. He died for Christ in the arena at the hands of an enraged procurator.

Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.

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