(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. Akakios, whose account is found in Volume 1 of the series.)
Saint Akakios, Bishop of Melitene
Unnamed and unnumbered Christians of the third century met death by violent and inhuman means as perhaps in no other century. Unique enough to become a saint of the Church was the courageous bishop of the early Church, Akakios, bishop of Melitene, Armenia. Of those who laid down their lives by being tortured for the sake of Jesus, Akakios was tortured but somehow not killed. This departure from the classic stories of the saints has posed a never-to-be-solved enigma.
Nothing is known of Akakios’ life prior to his emergence as an eminent religious leader of his time. A man of God, a scholar, a philosopher, and a dauntless standard-bearer of Christianity, Akakios was elevated to the post of bishop of Melitene in Armenia. Church historians have credited Armenia with being the first country to establish Christianity as its national religion. In some measure this was due to leaders such as Akakios – leaders which Armenia provided and can point to with understandable pride.
Inevitably Akakios, who enjoyed wide acclaim as a spiritual leader among the Christian community, became bothersome to the pagan authorities. Emperor Decius was unalterably opposed to Christianity and condoned the atrocities commi ed against hapless Christians by his subordinates. By his order Akakios was arrested and put under the custody of Marcianus, the provincial governor of Cappadocia, for offenses against the state. This merely meant that Akakios was too good a Christian. When the dungeon door clanged shut behind him, Akakios knew what lay in store for him. However, he could never have anticipated the end result.
The governor was in no hurry to pass judgment, thus leaving him to the cruel devices of his jailers. Over a period of six agonizing months, Akakios was physically tortured to the point of near-expiration, allowed to heal, and thereafter tortured again and again and allowed to heal.
This vicious cycle of cat and mouse hardly left an area of his body without a scar. During the healing periods, however, Akakios wrote an impassioned and eloquent account of his faith in Jesus Christ. The script was a marvel of Christian devotion and was ultimately read by the emperor himself.
Called at long last before the governor, Akakios expected to hear the death sentence. To his great surprise and to the astonishment of all who heard, the governor declared that by the order of Emperor Decius he was free to return to his episcopal see at Melitene. The paradox has never been fully explained, although speculation has provided many versions. All accounts have some sound basis, but none has been proved. If nothing else, this turn of events served to mark Akakios as a unique saint in our ecclesiastical history.
The suffering of Akakios presaged the suffering of his fellow Armenians in years to come, years that have left emotional scars on Armenians right down to the present generation. Outnumbered and oppressed by a relentless enemy, they were the first to declare themselves a Christian nation in spite of – and perhaps because of – their miseries wrought upon them by a merciless foe. With men such as Akakios and St. Gregory the Theologian symbolizing Christian courage and durability, this tiny nation endured unspeakable genocide, suggesting that there has always been in their midst an Akakios sharing their torture. Akakios was certainly no stranger to inhumanity and it would appear that his courage and forbearance was in some way transferred to his countrymen and their descendants. Even though they are fully aware that vengeance belongs to the Lord, the cruelties of the past, not without some justification, have carried over so that the scars that were as visible on the tortured body of Akakios still sear the minds and hearts of those who have followed in agony, blinding them to exactly where revenge lies, taking it upon themselves to remind the world about the tragedy of the Armenian nation. On March 31, late in the third century, Akakios died of natural causes, still bearing the scars to remind the faithful that he lived and died for Christ.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Flickr.