It’s Monday, and that means it Weekly Saint Day!
The “saint” on most everyone’s mind this week is Patrick. That’s because St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, is now the “most global national holiday” (Janick, 2015; Time).
However, I’m going to be a little different. I’m going to tell you about Joseph, Akepsimas and Aethalas of Persia.
Way, way, way back in the early days of the church around the year 379 AD, these three church leaders were martyred by the emperor Shapur II.
Shapur II was a ruthless king who wanted nothing more than to conquer as much land and nations as possible. His main enemy was Constantine of the Roman Empire. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and made Rome a Christian state. Under Constantine’s rule, Christians enjoyed freedom of worship and freedoms afforded Roman citizens that they had not had under other persecuting Roman emperors.
Not to be outdone by Constantine, Shapur II wanted his empire to have a state religion. So he chose Zoroastrianism as the religion in which all citizens under the Persian Sassanid empire.
When the Christians living under Shapur II’s rule refused to worship the many gods of Zoroastrianism, the emperor persecuted them greatly. Shapur II took their refusal to participate in his declared state religion as a personal slap in the face, or a lack of loyalty to him as the king.
He taxed them double than any other citizen. When they couldn’t pay, he seized their property.
He ordered nuns to chose marriage or death.
He gave Christian priests a choice to bow and worship the sun or death.
Christians were imprisoned and held for months, even years and were subject to long periods of questioning.
Forced conversion to Zoroastrianism was used on many Christians. Those who refused were tortured or killed in very inhumane ways so as to set an example for other Christians.
Three Christians who refused to give up their faith in Jesus Christ were Joseph, Akepsimas and Aethalas.
Akepsimas, at 80 years old, was the first of the three church leaders to be imprisoned and tortured. Joseph and Aethalas were next and put in prison with Akepsimas.
For three years, the trio endured great sufferings, beatings, starved and questioned.
Shapur II, hearing of their long refusal, ordered for the prison guards to bring Joseph, Akepsimas and Aethalas to the temple of the god of fire.
Shapur II gave them one last chance to denounce their faith in Christ and bow to his gods. When they refused, he ordered Akepsimas to be beheaded, and the other two stoned.
“The execution of the presbyter Joseph was prolonged for several hours. A guard was placed near the place of execution, so that Christians would not take the body of the holy martyr. On the fourth night a strong windstorm raged near the city, lightning killed the guard, the wind tossed stones about, and the body of Saint Joseph disappeared. Deacon Aethalas was taken to the village of Patrias, where he was stoned. Christians secretly buried his body.” – Orthodox Church in America
(For additional reading about Shapur II and religion, I recommend: A History of the Jews in Babylonia, Part IV: The Age of Shapur II By Jacob Neusner; 2008 Wipf and Stock Pub.)
Time and time again, with each Weekly Saint, we see that Christians are presented with a choice: Give up Christ or else.
This has been the common tactic of all enemies of Christians. It’s was the tactic Satan used on Christ by Satan when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness.
For those 40 days, Satan wanted Jesus to denounce God the Father, even himself.
Shapur II persecuted Christians who refused to denounce God.
Thousands and thousands and thousands of Christians throughout history have been presented with the same choice, many of them following Christ’s example, and the example of others like Joseph, Aethalas and Akepsimas of Persia.
During this Lenten season, let us remember their example and learn how to stand firm in our faith just like they did.
Until next time, may God bless you, keep you and help you to stand strong in your faith.