Saint of the Day: St. Nikephoros the Martyr

(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. Nikephoros, comes from Volume 1 of the series.)

Saint Nikephoros the Martyr

“As in the nature of things, those which most admirably flourish, most swiftly fester, those that are most blooming are soonest turned into the opposite.” These words are taken from a naturalist of antiquity, Pliny the Elder, a Roman who was thirteen years old when Christ died. His observations can be applied to a pair of third-century men whose friendship did indeed admirably flourish, only to fester into a bitterness of feeling that makes for a story reminiscent of an ancient Greek drama. It is a study of the contrasting natures of two men named Nikephoros and Saprikios which culminates in a moment of truth in which each man reveals his true character in an unusual twist of stark reality.

Nikephoros was a deeply religious layman and Saprikios a prosaic priest who lived during the reign of the Emperor Valerianus, in Antioch, Syria, the city that first applied the term “Christian” to followers of the new faith of Jesus Christ. The two were close friends, despite a difference in their respective temperaments, and were given to verbal jousts on various subjects, usually religious in nature. On one occasion, the usual good humor was lost in a sea of acrimony which developed after an unusually heated exchange. Even after they had stormed away from each other it appeared, in view of their past relationship, that the rift would be only temporary and that when tempers had cooled their friendship would be resumed.

Such was not the case, however, and it was Nikephoros, the layman, who approached his longtime friend, the priest, only to be rebuffed. Nikephoros sought, with genuine humility, to regain the lost friendship, even accepting full blame for the incident and apologizing for having offended one who was not only his friend but a man of the cloth as well. Saprikios stubbornly refused to be reconciled, even refusing to speak to the unhappy Nikephoros, who retreated to wait out his wrathful friend’s displeasure, which he felt was sure to dissipate. But before this could happen Saprikios was seized in a new wave of persecutions and cast into prison to await trial and judgment.

When news of the priest’s imprisonment reached Nikephoros, he lost no time in arranging through a bribing of the guards to visit Saprikios in the expectation that he would, under these circumstances, be reconciled with his friend and be of some comfort to him. But the priest was as adamant as ever, refusing not only the comfort offered him but refusing even to speak to the visitor. No amount of pleading could sway the priest, not even when he was reminded that, should he be condemned to die, his lack of forgiveness could preclude his acceptance into the kingdom of heaven.

Saprikios was confident that his office of holy man would save him from the executioner, but he was included with all those who had been apprehended in a condemnation to be put to death. Nikephoros was in the crowd that watched as Saprikios was led to the execution block and noticed the priest’s pallor when the death warrant was read. In an act of cowardice rarely seen in priests, the condemned man pleaded for mercy and offered to disavow Christ in exchange for his life. Even the hard-bitten pagans were taken aback by this miserable act of wretchedness, and before they could react they beheld the other extreme in man’s nature when Nikephoros sprang to the block in a dramatic interruption of the sorry proceedings.

Nikephoros called upon Saprikos to withdraw his shabby offer and then announced he was willing to die not only for the salvation of his weakened friend but to die for Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He called upon all to witness his death as a triumph of the spirit of Christianity, and for those in the crowd who believed as he did, to find forgiveness in their hearts for a man of the cloth who would ultimately find the courage, through their support, to publicly reaffirm his faith in Jesus.

After a brief consultation, those officiating at this inglorious ceremony, content to let one man die in another’s place, called for the execution of the noble Nikephoros, who on Feburary 9, 259, went to a martyr’s death in what must be one of Christianity’s finest hours.

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