Commemorated on the 27 November
The great and ancient land of Persia has contributed much to the culture and civilisation of humankind, excelling in many fields and enriching us particularly with its exquisite arts, its gardens and its rich but sublime literature. It is a land of many contrasts and diverse peoples, but regretfully, this beautiful nation under God’s gaze, has a history that is not well known beyond its own borders, despite having had a direct impact and influence upon both Western and Eastern cultures.
Yet within this immense heritage, there is a story that is not well known even amongst Iranians today, or to the multitudes of Christians which inhabit this earth, and that is the Christian identity of Iran. This identity may be obscured by present-day circumstances, and the virtual disappearance of a peoples, who once constituted the second largest religious group after Zoroastrianism in pre-Islamic Iran. Like the Zoroastrians, the Christians of Iran have struggled to survive to our present times.
Under various shahs (kings) they have flourished, while under others, they have been persecuted and almost annihilated. Yet, in the most unexpected twists of history, these Persian Christians rose to prominence, and gained the respect and love of their fellow unbelieving countrymen. All this because of their sacrifices for the nation, their love for neighbour and devotion to Christ, they grew in numbers to the point where they virtually counter-balanced the Zoroastrian majority. Thus there was a time when one spoke of Persians and identified them as either Zoroastrian or Christian.
Not surprisingly, that from within this spiritual meadow, many flowers blossomed forth, some known to history and others which remain unknown, some which became saints and others who did not, but with every effort strove to carry their cross. Nonetheless, in the history of Christendom and in every nation or culture, there are inevitably figures which loom prominent and become ingrained within the collective memory and folklore of peoples, such is the case with our great athlete of Christ, James the Persian.
Context of the Era of Saint James the Persian
Like any prominent figure, or for that matter, any person who has lived, our valiant witness of Christ dwelt within a particular context and era to which we must become familiar with, in order to appreciate and understand his story. That context was a time of immense mass-migrations, political and religious upheavals, and socio-economic changes both globally and domestically within Persia. There are disputes over the exact dates of his life, but we know that he lived during the reigns of Shah Yazdegerd I, also called Isdigerdes (399-421AD), and his son and successor, Shah Bahram V, also known as Varananes, (421-438AD).
It was during this period that the Roman Empire was formally divided into two separate nations after the passing Emperor Theodosius the Great. Theodosius’ son Arcadius succeeded him in ruling over the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, while his other son Honorius reigned in the western sphere. It was during Honorius’ reign that the Great Sack of Rome occurred, but that was an inevitable outcome of the ever-present dangers of barbarian mass-migration and invasion coupled with the era’s religious controversies and political turmoil.
The same problems confronted the Sassanian Persians upon their frontiers with Afghanistan, Central Asia and Arabia. However, the Christians in Persia dwelt in a land where the domestic circumstances had a greater level of stability than their western counterparts. In the early years of Yazdegerd’s reign, there was relative peace and freedom, since he initially began his rule as one who possessed many virtues and was well regarded by the military, nobility and the general populace of the empire. The acceptance of his accession to the throne brought stability to Persia, especially given the circumstances of his father’s assassination (Shah Bahram the IV) as the preceding shah. Shah Yazdegerd avoided that same fate, since the army faction that had engineered the assassination approved of him due to his “excellent and fine disposition”. This same disposition, at least manifested itself by his peaceful foreign policy of coexistence with neighbouring countries, thus earning him the title of “Ramashtras” which means “the most quiet” or “the most firm”.
However the one blight upon his reputation in those early years of his reign, which was a precursor to his later, mercurial and tyrannical side, was his persecution of the segment of the Zoroastrian priestly caste, known as the Magi. The reason for Yazdegerd’s hostility towards the Magi is not entirely clear, while Persian, Byzantine and Jewish chroniclers of the time provide a myriad of explanations. What is clear, is that his persecution was not aimed at Zoroastrianism itself or its believers, if anything, he provided innumerable benefactions to Persia’s national religion.
Furthermore, it seems that Persian public opinion of the time, was quite supportive or indifferent to his harsh stance towards the Magi. Some of the explanations put forward about public disaffection and Yazdegerd’s heavy handed approach cite, internal religious politics, excessive zealotry and fanaticism, theological and liturgical changes or innovations, as well as interference in public affairs and political meddling. We do not know for certain, what role the Magi played in the politics of the court of Bahram IV when he reigned as Shah of Persia, or their role in his assassination.
Yet it was during 409-410AD that Yazdegerd, like Saint and Emperor Constantine the Great, issues an edict of universal religious tolerance, thus bestowing religious freedom upon groups like Christians and Jews. Consequently, these other religious groups were allowed to participate more freely within the public arena and hold public office, as cited particularly by Babylonian Jewish chroniclers. As for the cause of Yazdegerd’s edict of toleration, it seems that the reason is twofold. The first seems to be that it was an effort to subvert the power and influence of the Magi in order to “purify” Zoroastrianism, and ensure its spiritual vitality and future. The second reason seems to be of a personal and complicated nature, in that Yazdegerd had an interest and inclination towards Christianity, whose beliefs, devotions and clergy he held in great esteem.
Furthermore it is known, that he was an ardent follower of two prominent Christian bishops, whom he had taken into his private confidence and often sought their counsel in deciding with issues of domestic and foreign policies. The first bishop was Abdaas of Ctesiphon, while the second was Bishop Marutha of Mesopotamia who exerted great influence upon Yazdegerd, and was one of the key figures who insisted upon the need for an edict of toleration. In any case, there are some indications that Yazdegerd desired or sought to convert Christianity. The chronicler, Antiochus, asserted that this “predisposition” of the shah towards Christianity, and the newly gained freedom, fuelled rapid increases in conversions to Christianity. Previously, the restrictive legislation concerning religions, had made it difficult for people to be exposed to, or examine Christianity, let alone convert due on pains of execution.
Of course, there were some zealous Christians who did not look favourably upon these developments, because they would question the sincerity or steadfastness of the characters of the new converts. In their opinion, these prospective Christians would not make ideal brethren, since they converted after freedoms were granted, and had sought to avoid the hardships of persecution that the rest of the faithful endured. They would then question as to whether these newly-illumined could stand the test, if or when a new series of persecutions would be perpetrated upon the Christians. The question then arose as to whether they would apostasise during times of hardship and only become partakers within the Faith during peaceful times or times when Christianity was “popular”.
As harsh as these zealous critics were, they did recognise that in the cycle of time, circumstances could change easily and rapidly, and that one should not become complacent about the Christian life. They also recognised that the Magi were still a potent force within human life and politics, and had made strenuous efforts to regain public goodwill and support, in order to counter Yazdegerd’s persecution of their caste. Furthermore, they also knew that the Magi were sworn enemies of the Christians, and historically, had at every chance to harass and persecute the Christians using the sanction of state authorities. Therefore, it was not unreasonable to conclude, as they did, that there was a future possibility that the Magi would exact revenge for Yazdegerd’s policies from Persian Christians.
That stance jarred with Yazdegerd’s trust and respect of Christian clergyman and their faithful, as exemplified by his request to the Catholicos (Patriarch) of Seleucia-Ctesiphon to mediate in a dispute between himself and his brother, the governor of Pars province. And as indicated by the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, and the writings of the Byzantine historiographer Procopius, that the feeling was mutual, as Persian Christians believed that Yazdegerd’s “nobility of character” and “administrative aptitude” had gained him allies and renown. Yazdegerd’s financial and political support, as well as deference to Christians, inspired many congregations to insert into the petitionary prayer that asks God to bless the civil authorities of a land, to also grant safety to the “victorious and glorious shah”. One Christian account even relates the charitable works that the shah extended to all peoples of his realm by saying that “the good and clement Shah Yazdergerd did well to the poor and wretched”.
Nonetheless, to the Magi, the Shah remained as the figure that they dubbed as “the Harsh”, “the Wicked” or just plainly, “the Sinner”. In time, the rest of the nation and her various religious groups would share the same view. It was said that Bishop Marutha had denounced the Pagi purges, since indiscriminate, prejudicial and unjustifiable mass-killings desensitises a person to the humanity of another person, while inflame the egotistical pride of a ruler to become despotic and tyrannical. It also said of the noble bishop, that he had condemned such actions as unbecoming and contrary to the rule of a just and enlightened sovereign, which was a catalyst for his enemies to pounce upon him and destroy the nation via civil strife.
Many of these words of the noble bishop, in time became prophetic, because in Ctesiphon there arose an incident which set Yazdegerd upon his path of tyranny and widespread persecutions, alternating between one segment of society with another. The incident was the burning of one of the major fire temples of Zoroastrianism in Ctesiphon. The chief reason and culprit for this act of sacrilege was none other than the close associate of the Shah, Bishop Abdaas. It was said that the bishop was inspired and inflamed with excessive zeal by Yazdegerd’s hostility and persecution of the Magi who had brought much affliction upon the Christians in past times. Through his religious zealotry, the prideful bishop thought he would take matters into his own hands, believing that he was executing the will of Yazdegerd and delivering upon the Magi, God’s justice for their evil past actions.
We should highlight to the reader at this point, of how “religious zeal” can be perverted by the devil and by one’s own personal pride and insecurities, to the extent that one could easily commit shameful acts that are contrary to the message and teaching of the Gospel. Such accursed behaviour which is abominable in the sight of God, and to which many peoples of differing faiths and ideologies have arrogantly persisted in believing, is their delusion of doing the work of God or their utopian ideal. We could speculate though, that Yazdegerd’s persecution of the Magi may have been part of God’s divine plan to cleanse Zoroastrianism and Persia of some vile characters and open the way for a more permanent Christian presence within Persia. But then we could speculate God allowed the following Christian purges as a means to root out the false zealotry that had infected Abdaas from poisoning the Church of Persia.
Whatever the case is, we shall never know until the Day of Judgement when all is revealed. Suffice to say it, the sacrilegious actions of Bishop Abdaas display a lack of trust and patience with God’s intended salvific purpose for the Church of Persia, by trying to “pre-empt” or “direct” God’s will. If anything, it sets this example of distrust before the faithful and inspires within them hatred, violence and intolerance. In Christian terms, this state of being is a lack of spiritual maturity or regression. This is borne out by the fact that Yazdegerd offered Abdaas the opportunity to rectify circumstances, by calling upon him to finance and rebuild Ctesiphon’s destroyed fire temple.
Regretfully, the prideful bishop placed the safety, well-being and credibility of Persian Christians and their Church, as a mere second to his fanatical delusions. Even if the burning of the Zoroastrian temple were a sham engineered by the Magi, as some had suggested at the time, it would have been far less costlier to Persian Christians if Abdaas had paid the compensation than to object to it.
Whatever the case was, the desecration of one of Zoroastrianism’s prominent holy sites mobilised public opinion in favour of the Magi, against Yazdegerd’s purges and casued people to criticise the edict of toleration. Much like another Pilate or Herod Antipas, Yazdegerd cowered before the demonic demands for blood and retribution, while his suspicions and latent “Zoroastrian nationalism” was incited against all Non-Zoroastrian groups, first and foremost being the Christians. Although many amongst the Magi were pleased and gloated over their “triumph” against the Christians and Shah’s policies, but it was to be short-lived. Just as Marutha had asserted, the remainder of Yazdgerd’s reign was engaged in shifting between systematic purges of one community or class, as well as playing them off against each other, in order to ensure the absolute authority of the monarchy and peoples’ submission to it.
With specific reference to the Christians, we know that this period of terror witnessed widespread slaughter of the faithful, the expulsion of those who managed to survive into neighbouring lands of exile, the destruction of churches, and the confiscation of private and church lands. To the Persian faithful, it was a sharp reminder that we should never take anything for granted, and that our human existence is a most tenuous one which could easily be threatened by the fickleness of human character or politics. Yet it was also a reminder of the poisoned fruits which hatred and fanaticism bear, as multitudes of innocent people met their untimely end on account of one man’s indiscretion and refusal to correct. Yet it revealed a savage barbarism lying dormant within the hearts of many unbelieving Persians, who had allowed themselves to be blinded and consumed by hatred, showing no mercy or compassion upon an entire people for the sin of one man.
It was clear they were governed by their passions, but they failed to recognise that the Almighty was putting to the test, the Iranian sense of justice, and cause the nation to wake up to the reality of Yazdegerd’s tyranny and the machinations of the Magi. The Lord would put the unbelievers to shame and glorify His Church by raising true witnesses and martyrs to the Faith. Unfortunately this neither moved the Shah, nor many of the infidels to reconsider and desist from their inhumane actions. When Yazdegerd fell gravely ill and his sons fought over the imperial succession, the persecution of the Christians remained. And when Bahram V prevailed and ascended the throne, reigning with the guidance of his ill father, the persecutions increased in severity and in scope with the intention of eradicating Christianity from Persia.
However, Bahram did not continue his father’s policy against the Magi, thus gaining their support and endorsement, and who encouraged his bloodlust against the Christians who had gained adherents through mass-conversions. It is into this milieu, that our valiant soldier of Christ dwelt in.
The Martyrion of Saint James of Persia
Saint James of Persia, often known in the West as Saint James Intercisus (Latin for “cut into pieces”) because of the manner of his torture prior to his beheading, came from the ancient and cultured land of Persia. His martyrdom became quite well-known within his own era, because it brought to international attention the affliction of Persian Christians who were being systematically annihilated to the point of extinction and exile. Yet through his public death, it became a catalyst and key reason for war between Byzantium and Persia, so as to force the Persian Imperial authorities and their Magi supporters to end the merciless genocide of Persian Christians, thus bringing peace, stability and freedom to them.
On a personal level, what little we know is that he lived during the reigns of Shahs Yazdergerd I and Bahram V, and was martyred within that period (some say it was specifically during the sole rule of Bahram V in 421AD). He lived in Veethiavan of Persia, situated in the land of Elouzeesion. He was born and raised as a Christian from his earliest years by devout parents of noble standing, and was married to a most pious Christian noblewoman. He was a lord of considerable merit, who faithfully served his nation with great devotion and duty, and he was honoured and beloved by all due to his virtues, knowledge and wealth. It seems that he belonged to the class of nobility who served in the prestigious cavalry regiments of Persia, and had gone on various campaigns in defence of the nation against barbarian invaders.
As a consequence of all these qualities and his sense of duty, he was considered first within the palace, and the Shah exceedingly loved him. He bestowed upon him great importance and abundant gifts. So much did Yazdegerd and his son Bahram love James, that they did not wish to be separated even for one hour from him. They displayed such favour, that they had him as a brother, for he was well-mannered and his family prominent. But this was so that they could cunningly lure him to impiety away from his Christian Faith. So, these villains tried hard to estrange him with gifts and gratuities. They chose to be good-natured and discreet, and to persuade him with benefits and flatteries, rather than with threats and torments. However, this marvellous James, who resisted at first, eventually succumbed to their innumerable generosities and favours. And so it came to pass, that he denied our most sweet Lord and came to worship the fire cult, and thus become one in spirit with the shah.
To the believer, this sad state of events, is a constant reminder that without vigilance or steadfastness it is possible for one who has the rock of faith to be hollowed out over time, and converted by deceit. The heart and soul can be numbed from realising what treasure it holds, and sacrifices that of value for that which is of no value, because of being converted by the gratification of ease and expediency, rather than temporarily weather difficulty and remain patient. Yet the all-seeing and all-knowing God does not abandon us as orphans without allowing us the opportunity to re-evaluate and correct our short-sighted mistakes.
In our valiant martyr’s case, that opportunity was afforded by the circulation of the news of his apostasy throughout the land of Persia. His denial of Christ fell upon the ears of his mother and devoted wife, who were deeply wounded in their hearts upon hearing this unexpected tiding. Since they were not present alongside him at the shah’s court at that time in order to censure by tongue, they sent him a letter, saying thus:
“It was not proper to your nobility to exchange falsehood for the Truth; to defraud the Faith for the honour of men and temporary rewards, which pass by as a dream and disperse like smoke; and to love the perishable and temporary kingdom, and abandon immortality and eternity. For this violation you would elect to be cast into the inextinguishable fire and endless torment? You, who are unworthy of His love, denied Christ, in order to gain one worm-eaten man? O the mindlessness! What are you able to benefit by them, when you go together into torment? We have been greatly distressed by you and pour forth many tears and, with all our hearts, we pray to the true God not to desert you, as He is compassionate, but to receive your return. So recognise the mischief that you have created to become a son of darkness, instead of light, which you were formerly. Recover and revert again to godliness. And, if you do not repent speedily, know this: you no longer have any relation with us. But we wish to be as strangers and foreigners to you, and you will inherit nothing from us, so as to be completely separated from our society. Because not one particle has the light with the darkness, and the faithful with the faithless. So make a good return. Whereas, you departed badly; but the Master, Whom you denied, will receive you with open arms and rejoicing. If you disdain our advice and tears, when you reach the divine trial, you will be punished in torments endlessly and your crying will be in vain.”
These things James read in the letter, and he remained in a stupor; indeed, as if from sleep and drunkenness, he was roused, realizing the treasure of faith of which he was destitute, and the evil of error into which he had tumbled. The pain was made worse by the knowledge that to him who has received much, much more will be expected of him by the Lord. Yet James also knew, that for one who did not know the Faith or had accepted it, was a person who remained in ignorance and would be shown greater mercy by God, than the believer like himself who knew the Faith but chose to deny it. Naturally he cried bitterly over his error and with great pain he repented from his very heart of the former things he did, beating his breast, lamenting and crying before the compassionate Lord to forgive the iniquity of his apostasy and subsequent actions. In imitation of Manasseh and Peter’s repentance, he studied the Holy Scriptures and recalled the bitter punishments. He was not able to cease the tears, but it was evident that in all sincerity he repented of his former impiety. Wherefore, certain idolators perceived and learned the reason for his disquiet. They of course, betrayed him to the shah. The shah’s heart was wounded on hearing such things. Infuriated, he summoned James for questioning and inquired if he were a Nazarene. James answered boldly and eagerly:
“Yes, I am a servant of my Lord Jesus Christ.”
The shah’s rage grew, but he remembered their previous friendship, so he did not make a display or an outburst of anger. As in preceding times, he tested him with flatteries and by promising gifts; but at other times, with threats of hideous punishments and torments, to see, perchance, if he would waver. But the coward was not effective, because the saint thirsted for martyrdom.
The blessed James, in order to avoid a long drawn out effort to try and deceive him to return to being an apostate, he decided to cause the tyrant to slay him quickly, and so he answered him thus:
“In vain you labour, attempting with feeble means to sow wheat in the guff, or to hold back the winds in a net. In this way, it is not possible any longer to change my belief from piety. So then, lay aside all hope, so as not to conceal your wrath any more. Cut my body into pieces, punish, burn it, do with it as you will, but my soul you will not be able to turn to godlessness.”
Again, the king tempted him with flatteries to ensnare him. Hiding his anger, he said to him with feigned love:
“James, pity your body, your blossoming manhood, remember our immeasurable friendship. Be not deprived of any worldly pleasures in this sweet life, in order to receive harsh pains and the bitterest death for these uncertain good hopes. I promise you that you will have wealth and power in my kingdom, greater than before. Yes, my beloved and dearest friend, I entreat you not to have contempt for our great friendship and appear before me ungrateful, because, if you disobey, it is necessary – although I do not want to – that you be taught a lesson. But do not think that I will be lenient later: no, it is not true, but I will change the love that I have for you now, into hatred that is commensurate with your disobedience. And I will deliver you to unheard of, horrible torments.”
James boldly replied:
“O shah, do not waste time importunely. Do not try to frighten me with torments, nor insincerely compliment me with tributes and gifts, because I despise from my heart all temporal enjoyments, vainglory, decaying riches and bodily sensuality, in order to inherit the true wealth, honour, inexpressible delight and bliss that the Lord bestows. Wherefore, gladly I divest myself of wealth and glory, friends and relatives, mother, wife and all the pleasures of the body. And not only these things, but I am prepared to receive 10,000 deaths, so as not to injure my beloved Messiah, the Beautiful One among the sons of men, Who fashioned the sun, moon and the remainder of creation, and His divine will is equal to His power. He who denies Him goes to endless death.”
This, in addition to other things, uttered the blessed James. And the shah flew into a furious rage, realising it was impossible to pervert him. Wherefore, he took counsel with a certain senator, who recommended such severity, that upon hearing it, the shah shuddered. The inhumane affliction that was recommended for James’ chastisement was the dissevering of all his joints, first starting with his fingers and then proceeding to all other remaining joints. Of course, what other unsparing tyrant ever revealed such pitilessness towards a close friend, for clearly the shah showed himself to be a savage judge and merciless soul, and for what, a mere affront caused by a personal decision regarding a personal matter of conscience! Yet within the realm, when news of the shah’s decision to chastise James, both faithful and unbelievers alike, felt great empathy and shock at the shah’s barbarism, and wept at such a ferocious verdict. But our true martyr did not shrink back upon hearing such a sentence; rather, he hastened to the stadium with excessive joy and eagerness at the opportunity to make an offering of himself as an expiation of his sin, while bear witness to Christ before the unbelievers and shame the shah for his unjust persecutions.
A large portion of the population assembled in the stadium in order to witness the hideous spectacle that was to take place. But we must remember that it was not only human spectators who were present to witness this abominable sight, but also the angels and demons were present in order to witness this mighty contest and violent duel between good and evil. Yet the angels were present also, so as to assist the saint invisibly to receive the crown of salvation, while the demonic adversaries sought to prevent him from attaining the crown of salvation if possible, and to frustrate his purpose. Also, the word of the apostle was fulfilled: “...for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men” (I Cor. 4:9). For even the Great Promoter of contests and Heavenly King, Jesus Christ was there, and stood above him to strengthen him in this match and, in the end, to grant him the imperishable crown of salvation.
As the admirable and magnanimous James observed the fierce executioners and the forbidding instruments with which they were to cut him into pieces, he did not fear those devices prepared. Every kind soul, seeing another suffering thus, would feel sorrow and pity for him as a man. But he did not show any gloom and never uttered anything foul, nor did he suffer to do anything unworthy of his valour. But, as if his flesh was insensible, he stood with a joyous glance and cheerful face.
The executioners tied the hands and feet of the martyr and after, they placed his right arm on the anvil, saying to him:
“Behold what will happen to you for your disobedience. We have been instructed to cut off your members one by one. First your fingers, then your hands, feet, arms, ankles, knees, and finally your head. Therefore, reason before you taste these horrors and do that which is for your own good, for there is no repentance afterwards.”
Certain of his friends and acquaintances who observed the deliberations and hearing the words of the executioners, implored him with tears to have pity on himself, and not voluntarily receive such a horrendous and evil death.
The saint answered them:
“Weep not for me, O wretched ones, but lament for yourselves and your children, as you will go to eternal damnation with your gods for these temporal pleasures. I, for a day’s pain, will inherit the Kingdom of my Lord Jesus Christ and, also, indescribable joy and everlasting bliss.”
After saying this, he noticed that the executioners were readying their tools to cut off his limbs. Consequently, he asked time to make a prayer to the Lord, and he prayed that Christ would strengthen and assist him to complete the contest and receive the crown of martyrdom.
As they began the martyrdom, the executioners cut off his thumb. And he turned toward heaven and said:
“O Lord Jesus Christ, the Help of all those who are helpless, the Hope of all the hopeless, and the Strength of all the weak: receive the first branch of this tree by Thy mercy. For as the vineyard gives forth leaves even when it is trimmed, thus will I appear before Thy judgment seat, safe and upright on the Day of Resurrection.”
When they cut off his second finger, he said, “Receive, O Lord, the second branch of the tree that Thy right hand hath planted.”
His face was joyous and festive, as if he perceived our Lord’s future endowments. Then, they cut off his third finger, and he said, “With the three youths in the furnace, I sing to Thee and honour Thee, O Lord; with the choirs of martyrs, I sing praises to Thy holy name.”
As they cut off his fourth and fifth fingers, his mouth was filled with praise, and he said, “In my five senses I bless Thee, O Lord; wherefore, receive the good pains of my right hand as a blessed fruit, O Master.”
Then they severed the fingers of his left hand, one by one, and he was grateful at each, saying an appropriate praise and hymn.
Certain of his friends who stood by said to him, crying bitterly:
“Beloved brother, have pity upon yourself, for they will administer upon you an evil death, and in losing your life, you will be deprived of your mother, wife, and the rest of life’s enjoyments. Do not grieve for your fingers, as we have doctors here capable of curing them. You have sufficient wealth and do not require the use of your hands. So listen to us, for your own good, and just say one small word with your mouth, so that it will appear as if you obeyed the king’s command and, thereby, you will be delivered from the evil torturers. But in your heart, you believe in God and, when you return again to your country, you can repent and ask forgiveness of Him.”
And he answered them:
“God forbid! I will not commit such a pretence. One cannot serve two masters. Whosoever puts his hand to the plough and turns back, is not worthy of the heavenly bliss. It is not right for me to love my mother and wife more than I love my God and Saviour. Whosoever does not lift up his cross to follow Christ, is an unworthy servant. For these small pains, I go to my Master to receive the laurel of martyrdom. Therefore, I pray thee, do not sorrow for me, but rejoice and be glad with me.”
As the executioners heard this, they cut off the toes of his feet one by one, in order to submit him to even more pain. But he was firm and adamant, thanking them at each toe, singing a hymn. At one point he was heard to say, “The afflictions of the present are not worthy of the future glory.”
At other times, he encouraged himself, saying, “Why is my soul saddened?” and many other like verses.
Then, they cut off his feet at the ankles. And then, they severed them again at the knees. Afterwards, they mercilessly cut off his hands and arms. But the resolute one endured with a great soul, as he saw his fingers, hands and legs on the ground. He did not utter one angry word at the executioners or the judge, but only prayed incessantly, in order to comfort and encourage himself, with verses from the Old Testament, such as: ‘I will sing unto the Lord throughout my life, I will chant to my God for as long as I have my being. May my words be sweet unto Him, and I will rejoice in the Lord.”
Behold a true martyr’s valour! How did the blessed athlete of Christ withstand such rigorous pains and afflictions? O you listeners, are you not awe-stricken, or your souls grieving at the thought of such an unprecedented mutilation? All those who were present at this fearful and horrid sight, faithful, unbeliever, persecutors, and the very senseless rocks, were moved by pity.
And yet only one whose soul was unbending, that friend of Christ, James did not weep, but withstood those terrifying and awful tortures with a serene and upright face. For such is the love of God, when it is present within a noble soul, for it empowers it to overcome nature and not to fear pains and punishments. Without this power, it would have been impossible for the blessed James to bear so many torments as did others who, for the loss of an arm or leg, died instantly, being unable to bear the excruciating pain. But the praiseworthy and ever-blessed one did not experience three or ten deaths, but twenty or thirty. The blood ran as rivers, the flesh fell, the veins were severed, the nerves plucked out, the arteries destroyed, the members were scattered. The audience fainted and the executioners grew weary. The demons, having been vanquished, were horror-stricken and panicked. The angels marvelled. But he that endured, seemed joyous, and his eye was not morbid, but cheerful, and he looked merry, rather than dismembered.
Then they cut off the thighs of the martyr, and the pain was so acute, that he cried out saying, “Christ, help me!”
And the executioners said to him: “Did we not tell you that you will suffer extreme pains and tortures, and you did not believe us? Now ask your God to save you from these punishments.”
And he answered: “I do not ask Christ to rescue me from the torments, but to strengthen me till the end, so that I may receive the laurel, O senseless ones. I felt pain, in order to prove that I am in the flesh. But earlier, my mind was in my Lord Jesus Christ, Who lessened my pains, and I did not feel anything. Truly, just as the anvil is struck by the hammer and feels nothing, also I felt nothing, as I was being tormented. Therefore, I thank my God, and beg of you not to feel sad for me, but do dissolve this old structure of my flesh, that a new and brighter one will be raised up. Since you have cut off the branches, do not hesitate to chop down the tree also, that I may receive the heavenly bliss. For just as a deer wishes to reach the rivers of water, so I desire in death to attain my Creator.”
Even though he was dismembered thus, the invincible one safeguarded his piety and won trophies against all of them, with the aid of the Holy Spirit and his unsurpassed desire for God. He remained, therefore, only with his head and torso, a dreadful sight to behold. Alas! But the villainous rulers, seeing that, even though he was dismembered, he was not afraid, but, rather, they were frightened. They had no further hope for him, so they ordered his honoured head to be cut off, as the other members of his body. They ordered this, not because of any merciful sentiments or sympathy, but from their excessive shame, so that it would not seem that James defeated them, dismembered thus, and that the invisible power of the Lord might not be confessed in the Saint.
After the decision to cut off his head was issued, the Saint was solaced somewhat. He moved his honoured head with difficulty, and prayed thus to God:
“O Lord, Father Almighty and Lord Jesus Christ and Most Holy Spirit, I thank Thee that Thou hast enabled me to endure these torments for Thy Holy Name. But I pray Thee, make me worthy to complete this contest, for ‘the pangs of hell came round about me‘ (LXX, Psalm 17:5). They have severed all my limbs. I have no legs to stand on and worship Thy Majesty, nor hands to lift up to heaven to pray and call Thy Name. They left me neither knees, nor arms, the merciless ones, but I remain as a branchless tree without roots. Therefore, I beseech Thee, O Most Holy King, abandon not Thy servant, but take my soul out of the prison of my body, and place it among Thy holy martyrs, so that we may glorify forever Thy Majesty in the ages to come. Amen.”
After he said these things, they cut off his honourable head, and thus, he achieved all those indescribable blessings: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God bath prepared for them that love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
If then, as Saint Paul says, each one of us will receive a reward according to his own labour, how great will be his reward, who died a myriad of deaths and witnessed suffering above all human endurance? In all truth, just as the pains and anguish were atrocious, so will the pleasures be painless, the rewards countless, the delights unutterable, and the crowns glorious. The blessed James received his martyrdom in Babylon, on Friday, November 27. Immediately afterwards, certain Christians, beloved of God, approached the guards and offered them money, in order to permit them to take part of his holy relics. But out of fear for the shah, they did not wish to consent to this. Then the pious ones left, as if to depart, but actually they hid nearby and awaited till it was dark to procure at least a part of the relics. And as the night wore on, the guards fell asleep, the pious Christians crept forward, quietly, and carried away the precious relics of the martyr. They buried them devoutly and with honour, as an everlasting memorial and remembrance to the glory and praise of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom is meet honour, song and worship, with the Father and the All-Holy Life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
A Further Reflection Offered By St. Nikolai Velimirovich
When the executioners severed the thumb of St. James’s right hand, he said: “Even a vine is pruned in this manner, so that in time a young branch may grow.” At the severing of his second finger, he said: “Receive also, O Lord, the second branch of Thy sowing.” At the severing of his third finger, he said: “I bless the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” At the severing of his fourth finger, he said: “O Thou who acceptest the praise of the four beasts [symbols of the four evangelists], accept the suffering of the fourth finger.” At the severing of the fifth finger, he said: “May my rejoicing be fulfilled as that of the five wise virgins at the wedding feast.” During the severing of the sixth finger, he said: “Thanks be to Thee, O Lord, Who at the sixth hour stretched out Thy most pure arms on the Cross, that Thou hast made me worthy to offer Thee my sixth finger.” At the severing of the seventh finger, he said: “Like David who praised Thee seven times daily, I praise Thee through the seventh finger severed for Thy sake.” At the severing of the eighth finger, he said: “On the eighth day Thou Thyself, O Lord, wast circumcised.” At the severing of the ninth finger, he said: “At the ninth hour, Thou didst commend Thy spirit into the hands of Thy Father, O my Christ, and I offer Thee thanks during the suffering of my ninth finger.” At the severing of the tenth finger, he said: “On a ten-stringed harp I sing to Thee, O God, and thank Thee that Thou hast made me worthy to endure the severing of the ten fingers of my two hands, for the Ten Commandments are written on two tablets.” Oh, what wonderful faith and love! Oh, the noble soul of this knight of Christ!
HYMN OF PRAISE: The Holy Martyr James the Persian
By St. Nikolai Velimirovich
The Creator does not lose repentant souls:
He loves a true penitent the most.
James denied Christ the Living God
For the sake of the godless emperor, his flatterer.
His mother reproached him as did his wife:
“All the riches of the earth are as transient as foam.”
James repented, and bitterly repented,
Then openly spoke about what he had kept secret:
“A Christian I was, and again I am a Christian:
Foolish and weak are your idols!”
This James said, as he stood before the emperor;
This he said openly and remained true to it.
The emperor took all his imperial gifts from him,
And clothed the wondrous James with torture.
James was reddened with wounds and blood,
And like eagles on a carcass, men attacked him!
They dismembered the body of Christ’s hero,
And cut St. James into bits.
Now James prays before God in Paradise
That all Christians overcome all attacks.
Apolytikion in the First Tone
James the martyr, the sprout of Persia,
drowned with his task the sly dragon in the springs of his blood,
for he, cut limb by limb for the faith of truth,
was viewed to be a trophybearer, a soldier of the Savior,
who unceasingly intercedes for our souls.
Kontakion in the Second Tone
O stout-hearted James, persuaded by thy noble wife, and fearing the dread tribunal, thou didst scorn all fear of the Persians with their profane decrees, and thou wast shown forth to be a most wondrous martyr of Christ, when all of thy body was pruned like a vine.
According to St. Nikolai Velimirovich: “His head is to be found in Rome and a part of his relics in Portugal, where he is commemorated on May 22.” Portions of his relics are found in many other shrines throughout the world, including the Great Cave Monastery in Kalavryta, Greece as well as the Barlaam Monastery at Meteora.
I would like to dedicate this article to Phillip the Iranian and to all the Iranian faithful of the Orthodox Church, past, present and future, whether saints, clergy or laity. I also dedicate this article to my esteemed lecturer in Middle Eastern history and politics, Adam Tarock and his beloved wife Sally; your humility of character and the temperate way of your life, is an inspirational example for the youth of today, who dwell in an era deprived of sound role models who are truly human and compassionate. Yet I also dedicate this article to a nation and people who are dear to my own heart, and who have taught humankind many things and bestowed innumerable treasures upon civilisation. Yet what has always marked out this honoured people despite any other failings, has always been their virtue of resolve and steadfastness, which is their greatest lesson to other nations. –V.M.
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 In all likelihood the shah who questioned him and gave command for his torture was Bahram, since Yazdegerd lived in semi-retirement due to his illnesses and served as an advisory regent to his son who discharged most imperial duties.