In this episode of our volunteer-driven research project “Walking The Way with The Saints”, we focus on Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, whom we commemorate on October 7 according to the Syriac Orthodox Liturgical calendar. Ronnie Kawak presents us with his research into the life of the two saints and how their story shows us that we must not conform to societal norms if it means betraying our Lord Jesus Christ.
The story of Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus occurred in the early fourth century. Sergius and Bacchus were Roman citizens and high-ranking Roman officers. These soldiers had become devout but covert Christians by the telling of this story. Their conversion to Christianity had clashed with their status as Roman officers when a high-ranking Roman official they were protecting planned to make a sacrifice at the Temple of Jupiter. Understanding that they would be violating their faith as Christians, Sergius and Bacchus attempted to avoid their bodyguard duty. However, this attempt was noticed and it escalated until the Roman Emperor (likely Emperor Galerius) ordered them to sacrifice at the Temple Jupiter. Sergius and Bacchus refused to do so, to which the Emperor ordered that they be arrested and publicly humiliated by being chained and dressed in female attire where they were paraded around the urban center.
Then the Emperor ordered that the soldiers be sent to Barbalissos in the Mesopotamian region of Roman Syria. There they would be tried by Antiochus, a Roman official who Sergius was friends with. Antiochus failed to convince the two soldiers to give up their faith. Relenting, Antiochus ordered Bacchus to be beaten to death. Hoping to convince his old friend, Sergius, Antiochus left him alive to give him the chance to give up his faith. However, Bacchus’ spirit visited Sergius encouraging him not to give up his faith. Sergius did not give up his faith and over the next few days, he was tortured until he was executed at Risafe. The year of the Saints martyrdom was either 303 or 312 CE.
The story of Sergius and Bacchus became incredibly popular amongst the early Christian Emperors. The location of the Saints’ death became a popular pilgrimage center and Bishop Alexander of Hierapolis renovated the shrine for the saints. Under Emperor Justinian, he renamed Risafe as Sergiopolis and he also built churches for Sergius in the Levant and Constantinople.
The narrative of Saints Sergius and Bacchus strike a chord amongst many Christians in our modern world. Sergius and Bacchus were expected to uphold societal norms such as sacrificing to a God they did not recognize. However, under pain of death, they refused and died in the name of Christ. For Syriac Christians in the West, like me, dying for our faith is not a sincere threat but in our increasingly secularizing society, our faith still suffers. Oftentimes we are discouraged from standing up for our values in the face of worshipping another god, the material world, and the luxury goods it can provide for us. In this society, we are expected to make a sacrifice at the altars of the markets and place our ethics to the sides. By deciding to choose God, we may literally be martyred. By remembering the story of the Saints, we may remember that we pray to one God. Unfortunately, the martyrdom that the Saints faced is still happening nonetheless. In the Middle East, extremists will humiliate and martyr Christians for not relinquishing their identity. In their deaths, they emulate Sergius and Bacchus 1,700 years earlier.
May their prayers and blessings be with us all, and glory be to God forever. Amen!
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Praise be to God for the lives of Saints Saints Sergius and Bacchus ..