(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. Athenogenes, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)
Saint Athenogenes, Bishop and Martyr
The lesser-known saints of the Church have been brought to light primarily through the efforts of studious monks and scholars after hours of diligent research and considerable shuffling of church papers from which the facts are gleaned. In the case of St. Athenogenes, it is quite another matter. He was of such inestimable value to the cause of Christianity and such an eminent and beloved churchman that his feats have been recorded not only by scholarly researchers, but by the great St. Basil as well. No greater tribute could be paid a man of the Church than to be recognized and acknowledged as a man of God by another later and better-known man of God. St. Basil’s honorable place in Orthodox history is assured for eternity.
All indications are that Athenogenes, who was born in the third century in Sebasteia and who served as bishop of Pidathoa in Armenia, was one of Christendom’s most compassionate clerics. He was a man whose gentle sincerity was evident throughout a lifetime of service to God and mankind in an outpouring of love and understanding, meriting the plaudits of his people and St. Basil. His short life was a fulfillment of a pledge to Jesus Christ when he was quite young, and his death in flames was a sacrifice which was made with the joy of the Holy Spirit in his heart.
Athenogenes has been immortalized in the hymns of the noted hymnographer Joseph who attests in liturgy to the quiet courage and enduring faith of one of Christianity’s most noble martyrs. Athenogenes is said to have gone to his death singing the evening Vespers hymn entitled “Phos Hilaron” (Joyful Light). The hymn he chose to chant as he was about to die has been sung for centuries in Vespers. Although sometimes chanted too methodically, the hymn has an added glow when we recall that one of the sweetest of martyrs voiced it with his dying breath.
Athenogenes would rather have been known for his pious work while alive, but he is best remembered for his courageous tribute to the Lord in his final moments. The entire hymn bears quotation, even though it lacks the solemnity of the chant. Its words are: “Joyful light of the Holy Glory of the Immortal Father, the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed Jesus Christ, we have come to the setting of the sun and beholding the evening light, praise God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is meet at all times that thou shouldst be hymned with auspicious voices. Son of God, Giver of Life; wherefore the world glorifieth thee.”
Of Athenogenes, the great St. Basil had this to say. “The people use these ancient words, and no one accuses them of blasphemy for singing ‘We praise Father, Son and God’s Holy Spirit.’ If you are familiar with the hymn of Athenogenes, which he left as a gift to his disciples as he went to his martyrdom by fire, then you know what the martyrs think concerning the Spirit” (Basil, On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 29).
When Athenogenes was arrested, the form of death prescribed for him was fire. But the fiery consummation is subordinated to the fact that he approached this ghastly end with a joyous countenance, praising Jesus Christ for whom he gave his life on July 16. Athenogenes was laid to rest in the Chapel of St. George in Kyparissia in a remote mountain region of Asia Minor. What ensued af-ter his death was a departure from the expected creation of a shrine. In fact, it was a highly unusual phenomenon that started when he was still alive.
It is said that when Athenogenes received prior knowledge of his death sentence, he went to warn his followers in a monastery which he found empty. As he was leaving, a young deer emerged from the woods and Athenogenes, surprised that the timid creature did not bolt as he approached, stroked the animal and blessed it as he left .
On the first anniversary of his death, a liturgy in his memory was being offered in the Chapel of St. George when a young fawn walked into the church and stood stock-still as though in reverence of the saint. It was assumed the creature happened to stray into the church, but that was not the habit of timid deer. When it occurred again the following July 16 and on subsequent anniversaries, it was a certainty that this was not an accident, but a divine sign which can be interpreted only as an act of God.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.