Saint of the Day: St. Philemon and his companions

(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 saints, Philemon and his companions, comes from Volume 4 of the series.)

Saints Philemon, Apollonios and Arrianos

The names of Philemon, Apollonios, and Arrianos are as linked together in ecclesiastical history like those
of the three musketeers, immortalized in fiction by Alexander Dumas. These three saints, however, were not a threesome brought together for chivalrous service, but rather were drawn together in a chain of circumstances that defy imitation.

Arrianos was a pagan magistrate of Antinoe in Egypt and a favorite of Emperor Diocletian under whom Christians suffered persecution. After officiating at the games, Arrianos brought the athletes to his house for a celebration, a part of which was the ritual of bowing before the Roman gods. It so happened that all the athletes were Christians in secret, who accepted the invitation not knowing what the reaction would be to their refusal to observe the pagan rites.

The foremost athlete and leader of these men was a man named Apollonios, whose Christian resolve was no less than his physical prowess. In order to avoid the fate that usually befell one who defied paganism, he prevailed upon his closest friend, Philemon, to take his place should he be summoned to head the athletic delegation. Philemon was not only an athlete but a court jester and singer as well, but he agreed to disguise himself, and if necessary give up his life for his friend. The others were content to go to the feast, believing that the magistrate certainly would not harm the best athletes to be found outside of Alexandria.

When the group had assembled, Philemon could not contain himself and, before anyone was called, he presented his bowed head to the magistrate and declared himself to be Apollonios, and openly avowed his faith in Jesus Christ. This so moved the rest of his friends that they all declared their faith in the Savior, which so unsettled Arrianos that he failed to recognize the man before him and sent out for Philemon. Even after Philemon had removed his hood to reveal his true identity, he still sent a courier for him.

However, Apollonios found the courage to go before the Roman ruler and ask that vengeance be visited on him alone, since he had insulted the King of Kings with his hesitation. Arrianos had different plans, however, and after ordering the remaining thirty-five to be taken to prison to await execution, he placed both Apollonios and Philemon against the wall to become special targets. He then called for the archers to loose their arrows, but only to inflict wounds, saving them for execution later. But when the arrows were released, they failed to find their mark. An errant arrow, however, struck Arrianos and blinded him.

When the Roman’s wounds were bound up, Philemon told the blinded man that he should take dirt from the graves of the executed men. After placing some dirt on his lids, his eyesight would be restored. This was greeted with derision from the soldiers, who thereupon killed Apollonios and Philemon. Shortly after they were given a Christian burial, a doubting Arrianos was led to the freshly-dug graves, and after scooping up earth to place on his lids, his eyesight was completely restored. This amazed the stricken magistrate; it made him a believer in Jesus Christ. He then ordered the release of the remaining athletes awaiting death.

In an about-face, Arrianos halted the persecution of Christians in his jurisdiction and governed with a benevolence that endeared him to a populace that had once hated him. But before long, pagan envy blurted out obscenities at the mere mention of the name of Arrianos, who ceased being a favorite of the emperor.

Stripped of his command and cast into prison, Arrianos was tortured before he was finally put to death. In a final ignominious gesture, his body was placed in a bag filled with sand and cast into the sea. Thereafter, the sack was seen carried on the back of a dolphin, from where it was retrieved by fishermen. He was brought ashore but his burial site remained a mystery. They are commemorated on the same day, December 14, as saints of the Church for all eternity.

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