Saint of the Day: St. Julian of Egypt

(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. Julian, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)

Saint Julian of Egypt

Egypt is best remembered as a land of antiquity whose ancient civilization was responsible for the awesome pyramids and the inscrutable sphinx. Despite its association with the Middle East, Egypt lies on the African continent and not in Asia. During the reign of Diocletian in the third century, Egypt was a Christian wellspring. The land of the Pharaohs, which had sheltered the Virgin Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child when they fled from Bethlehem, also offered shelter to countless Christians in the years that followed. In this era the most noted Christian benefactor was Julian of Egypt.

Julian of Egypt was responsible for the founding of a spiritual haven consisting of a cloister of monasteries that possibly housed as many as twelve thousand monks, laymen and Christian refugees at one time. While not matching the colossal pyramids for sheer spectacle, this monastic retreat was nevertheless a marvel in Christian history.

A refuge for devout Christians fleeing persecution from all corners of the empire, the center was conceived and organized under Julian’s direction. For Julian, the viability of the Christian religion was his only purpose in life, a purpose which he fulfilled with great dedication.

The spiritual refuge was located in Antiopolis, which was governed under Diocletian by Marcian. Although Marcian’s political image was somewhat obscure, he seized the opportunity to make himself known by persecuting those seeking refuge from persecution. Lacking imagination, and with little or no regard for the consequences, he planned for the total destruction of the monastic center in one fell swoop.

Having received permission from the emperor to deal with Julian in his own way, Marcian plotted to set fire to Julian’s haven. Under cover of darkness, while the unsuspecting Christians lay asleep, Marcian deployed his soldiers at strategic points surrounding the cloister, and at a given signal the torches were simultaneously applied.

In the ensuing fire which raged with horrible devastation throughout the compound, hundreds of men, women and children were burned to death, many hundreds of others received severe burns, and the remaining hundreds who managed to escape the fire were captured and imprisoned. 

Among the survivors was Julian, whose heart was seared, if not his body. Even at the sight of the holocaust, Julian remained steadfast in his faith in Jesus Christ.

There were those in the state who held Julian in high esteem for his piety and indomitable spirit. Among his secret admirers was the young man Kelsios, the son of the tyrant Marcian. Deeply touched by the tragedy, Kelsios secretly visited Julian on a regular basis in his jail cell and in a very short time converted to Christianity.

Marcian was convinced that this was a spell cast upon his son. When the words had no effect on the youth, it fell to the ruler’s wife to talk her son out of the spell, and she spoke to her son with a mother’s love and understanding. To her husband’s surprise, she became a Christian convert herself.

But what sets St. Julian apart from many other religious figures is the fact that he concentrated on providing shelter for Christians fleeing persecution, the result being
one of the earliest and largest refugee sites in Christian history. The unknown who perished in the holocaust were as much martyrs to Jesus Christ as St. Julian. It was this knowledge that sustained Julian in the days that followed the tragedy and kept his hopes up until he too was called upon to make the supreme sacrifice for the Lord.

At this point, Marcian’s political ambition and warped pride gave way to madness. More concerned with his political image in Rome than his responsibilities as husband
and father, he ordered the execution of his own family, together with other Christians, chief among whom was Julian, who suffered a martyr’s death on June 21.

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