Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Byzantine Golden Legend

Today is the older feast day of a Byzantine Saint called Simeon the Metaphrast, who is believed to have died on November 28th sometime towards the end of the tenth century, or within roughly the first decade of the eleventh. (He is now commemorated in most places on the ninth of this month.) Very little is known of his life, apart from the fact that he flourished in the days of the emperor Basil II, who reigned from 976-1025, and the patriarch Nicholas II (984-91). He has often been identified with a writer of the same name, Simeon the Logothete (the title of a class of high-level officials of the Byzantine court), who composed an important chronicle of world history, but this identification is now very much disputed. (Seventy years ago, it was more generally accepted, as noted in the revised edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints.)

The entry in the Menologion of Basil II for Christmas Day. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) “Simeon” was a very popular name in the period of Byzantine history known as the Macedonian Renaissance, roughly the mid-9th to mid-11th centuries; the Metaphrast and the Logothete (if they are not the same person) count among their namesakes of that era two of the illustrators of this manuscript, a famous monastic poet and writer known as “the New Theologian”, plus his spiritual father, “the Studite”, and the first emperor of Bulgaria.
Simeon was the author of many liturgical texts in the various Byzantine liturgical genres (of which there are very many indeed), and he compiled an anthology of patristic writings, but he is most famous for his Menologion, a ten-volume compilation of the lives of the Saints, put together to be read in the Divine Office. The Greek verb “metaphrazein” from which his epithet derives means “to paraphrase”, because he would update and improve his sources stylistically, and supplement them with new material. This compilation met with such tremendous success that in many cases, the older versions of the texts were completely displaced, and no version of a Saint’s life older than Simeon’s now survives. Over time, however, the Menologion itself has mostly fallen into disuse as a formal liturgical text, since the Hour at which it is read, Orthros, is already spectacularly long and complex. In monasteries, it is now often read in the refectory instead.

Medieval Christians of the Byzantine world believed in the omnipresence of God, and His constant, benevolent and miraculous intervention, especially in the lives of the Saints, no less than their Latin counterparts did. Simeon’s Menologion is often spoken of as an Eastern Golden Legend, the highly influential collection of Saints’ lives by the Dominican bishop of Genua, Bl. Jacopo da Voragine (1230 ca. – 1298). Like the Golden Legend, it is full of stories of miracles and wonders, many of them very astonishing, many of them stretching credulity to or well past the breaking point. And like Jacopo, Simon has very often, and for the most part very unjustly, been impugned for his uncritical acceptance of such legends. Better and more dispassionate scholarship has in more recent times had the good sense to realize that they looked at the world very differently than modern men do (and that does not always mean for the worse), but also that much of what they recorded was simply received tradition, accepted and loved without skepticism or cynicism.
However, in the Byzantine liturgy as we have it nowadays, today is dedicated to the most prominent martyr of the iconoclast persecution, Stephen, who is given the epithet “the New” to distinguish him from the Protomartyr. He was born in Constantinople in either 713 or 715, and as a teenager, placed by his parents in a monastery on Mt Auxentius, on the eastern outskirts of the city’s Asian side. At the age of thirty, he became abbot, but left this position to live as a recluse in a remote cell twelve years later.
A mosaic of St Stephen in the monastery of St Luke (Hosios Loukas) on the Greek island of Boeotia. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Not long before Stephen entered the monastery, Leo the Isaurian (717-41) had become the latest Byzantine emperor to invent a heresy and try to force it on the Church, the heresy of iconoclasm. And not long before Stephen became abbot, Leo was succeeded by his son Constantine V (741-75), an enthusiastic promoter of his father’s heresy. His traditional epithet, “Copronymus”, means “dung-named” in Greek, a reference to a diaper accident that occurred at his baptism; this was taken by those who honored the sacred images as a presage of his impiety. It occurs several times in the Roman Martyrology, in reference to the many Saints killed or otherwise persecuted by him for the sake of the holy images.
In 754, the emperor held a synod in the imperial palace at Chalcedon, across the strait from the capital, to confirm the iconoclast position, and formally condemn the cult of the sacred images; it is known from the name of the palace as the Synod in Hieria. As long as iconoclasm held sway as an official policy of the Byzantine government, this synod was legally recognized as a legitimate council. With its conclusion, there began a fierce persecution of the iconodules; in The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, Mons. Philip Hughes describes the 22 years from Hieria to Constantine’s death as a “reign of terror.” The stories of the treatment meted out to the orthodox rival those of the English reformation for shame and horror.
Throughout the iconoclast period, monks were the leaders of the opposition to it, and after some years, the emperor was very anxious to have Stephen approve Hieria, thinking, perhaps, that its acceptance by such a prestigious figure would go far towards persuading others of his order. Stephen refused absolutely to comply, and was persecuted in various ways for four long years. Among other things, he was accused of improper relations with a woman named Anna (variously reported as his own mother, or a widow under his spiritual direction, or a nun), who was whipped almost to death for proclaiming his innocence. He was banished for two years, then brought back to the city, where he had an interview with the emperor at which he successfully defended the veneration of images, and was therefore brutally scourged. The emperor, on hearing that he had survived the scourging, cried out (much like a later king would famously do in England), “Will no one rid me of this monk?” Stephen was then dragged out of his prison by a mob, and half-clubbed, half-stoned to death. In the Roman Martyrology, he is commemorated on this day along with three others named specifically, Basil, Peter and Andrew, and a company of 339 other monks.
The martyrdom of Ss Stephen the New, Peter and Andrew, also from the Menologion of Basil II. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The troparion of St Stephen Having struggled aforetime in asceticism upon the mountain, thou didst destroy the spiritual hosts of the enemies with all the arms of the Cross, o all-blessed one; but again, thou didst manfully strip thyself of them for martyrdom, and slayed Copronymus with the sword of the Faith; and for both hast thou been crowned by God, o holy renowned martyr Stephen.
The kontakion From a barren woman didst thou grow forth, the offshoot of a root, o venerable father, namesake of the Protomartyr; and thou wast shown to be a great instructor of monks, unafraid of the wrath of the emperor who did not wish to venerate the image of Christ. Wherefore, in dying thou didst receive the crown of martyrdom, o Stephen.

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