Saint Anastasius was a Persian, at a time when the Persian Empire was the greatest enemy of the Christian Roman Empire. He was a Zoroastrian, but converted to the Christian faith when he encountered the true cross where Jesus was crucified. This cross was captured by the Persians in a raid. Saint Anastasius was baptised and became a monk, but was later captured by the Persians and put to death in the year 628 for his faith.
God is glorious in his Saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate St Anastasius the Persian
Saint Anastasius was a Persian, the son of a Zoroastarian sorcerer. In his day the Persians were the greatest enemy of the Christian Roman Empire. In one military campaign, the Persians were able to capture the true cross where Jesus Christ was crucified. In encountering this cross, Saint Anastasius onverted to the Christian faith, where he became a monk, and later a martyr. Let us read an account of his story and that of his relics from the website of the OCA
The Monk Martyr Anastasius the Persian was the son of a Persian sorcerer named Bavi. As a pagan, he had the name Magundates and served in the armies of the Persian emperor Chozroes II, who in 614 ravaged the city of Jerusalem and carried away the Life-Creating Cross of the Lord to Persia.
Great miracles occurred from the Cross of the Lord, and the Persians were astonished. The heart of young Magundates was inflamed with the desire to learn more about this sacred object. Asking everyone about the Holy Cross, the youth learned that upon it the Lord Himself was crucified for the salvation of mankind. He became acquainted with the truths of the Christian Faith in the city of Chalcedon, where the army of Chozroes was for a certain while. He was baptized with the name Anastasius, and then became a monk and spent seven years in one of the Jerusalem monasteries, living an ascetical life.
Reading the Lives of the holy martyrs, Saint Anastasius was inspired with the desire to imitate them. A mysterious dream, which he had on Great and Holy Saturday, the day before the Resurrection of Christ, urged him to do this.
Having fallen asleep after his daily tasks, he beheld a radiant man giving him a golden chalice filled with wine, who said to him, “Take this and drink.” Draining the chalice, he felt an ineffable delight. Saint Anastasius then realized that this vision was his call to martyrdom.
He went secretly from the monastery to Palestinian Caesarea. There he was arrested for being a Christian, and was brought to trial. The governor tried in every way to force Saint Anastasius to renounce Christ, threatening him with tortures and death, and promising him earthly honors and blessings. The saint, however, remained unyielding. Then they subjected him to torture: they beat him with rods, they lacerated his knees, they hung him up by the hands and tied a heavy stone to his feet, they exhausted him with confinement, and then wore him down with heavy work in the stone quarry with other prisoners.
Finally, the governor summoned Saint Anastasius and promised him his freedom if he would only say, “I am not a Christian.” The holy martyr replied, “I will never deny my Lord before you or anyone else, neither openly nor even while asleep. No one can compel me to do this while I am in my right mind.” Then by order of the emperor Chozroes, Saint Anastasius was strangled, then beheaded.
After the death of Chozroes, the relics of the Monk Martyr Anastasius were transferred to Palestine, to the Anastasius monastery.
The uncovering of the relics of Saint Anastasios of Persia (January 22) took place in 638, ten years after his martyrdom. There are three traditions regarding his relics.
According to the first, which is also accepted by the English historian Saint Bede (May 27), the relics were transferred to Rome during the reign of Emperor Flavius Heraclius Augustus (reigned 610-645) and deposited in the Greek Monastery of the Three Fountains (“Tre Fontane”).
The second tradition states that the transfer of the relics to Constantinople, also during the reign of Heraclius, took place during the time of Pope Theodore I, who may have been from Jerusalem, and of Greek descent (see May 18).
The third tradition indicates that the relics were transferred to Venice from Constantinople in 1204 when the Doge Henry Dandolos removed them and placed them in the church of the Holy Trinity in Venice.
Today the Saint’s holy relics are in the Roman Catholic Church of Saint Francis in Venice. They survive in the form of a headless body, clothed in the garments of his time.
Metropolitan Sophronios Eustratiadis of Leontopolis declares that a Roman bishop transported the relics to Caesarea in Palestine, and later they were moved to Constantinople. His head is in Rome, where it is still kept.
There are many accounts of the martyrdom of Saint Anastasius. Let us read a scholarly summary of one of them, from the article Two foreign saints in Palestine by Pauline Allen and Kosta Simic (this is a chapter from a monograph titled Memories of Utopia: the revision of histories and landscapes in late antiquity)
From 581, several acts of the Martyrdom of Anastasius the Persian were com-
posed (Flusin 1992/1: 9). The one we are dealing with here was seemingly writ-
ten by one of the monks in the monastery outside Jerusalem where Anastasius
eventually embraced the ascetic life. The hagiographer claims to have been
commissioned to write the work (ch. 5; 45–7), which significantly opens with
a summary of the Nicene creed, rather than the creed of Chalcedon. From the
narrative it appears that Anastasius, like Peter the Iberian, was a foreigner, a
Persian born south of modern Teheran, who later changed his birth name from
Magoundat (‘created by the magi’). He himself, like his father, was a magus,
and went to Seleucia-Ctesiphon where he joined the army of Shah Chosroes
II (r. 591–628 CE) (ch. 6: 47). About this time (614 CE) the Persians sacked
Jerusalem, destroying many religious sites but keeping the Cross, which they
took back to Persia with them (ch. 6–7; 47–9). It was this encounter with the
Cross in Persia that introduced the Zoroastrian Anastasius to Christianity, an
episode which, together with the veneration of the Cross especially in Pales-
tine, helps to explain the centrality of this sacred relic to the entire hagiogra-
phy. We can also note that the restoration of the Cross by Emperor Heraclius
took place in Jerusalem in 630, two years after the martyrdom of Anastasius
(Flusin 1992/2: 293–319; Drijvers 2002: 175–90). The march with Chosroes’s
army reputedly took the troops as far as Chalcedon, which may be a utopian
adumbration of Anastasius’s subsequent religious life in what we suppose was
a Chalcedonian monastery outside Jerusalem. When the army took a U-turn and
went east to Hierapolis (Syriac: Mabbug, in eastern Syria), the saint took the
opportunity to desert and take lodging with a Persian Christian there who was
a jeweller (ch. 8; 49). Shortly thereafter Anastasius asked his host to arrange
for him to be baptised, at a time when baptism was a capital offence in the
region, and he was then inspired by seeing icons of martyrs in the local church
(ch. 9; 51). After Hierapolis, the martyr went to Jerusalem to another jeweller,
and was finally baptised with the permission of Modestus, who was to become
the patriarch of that city for a short tenure in 630 (ch. 10; 51). In an interest-
ing aside, the biographer relates that Anastasius did an eight-day retreat after
his baptism before going to the monastery of St Anastasius near Jerusalem to
become a monk (ch. 11; 53), probably in 619–20 CE. Here he was taught Greek
and the Psalter, combining his religious duties with looking after the kitchen
and the garden (ch. 12; 53), a task that reminds us of a story in John Moschus’s
Spiritual Meadow (ch. 226; Nissen 1938: 360; Wortley 1992: 204), where a
newly recruited brother in Egypt performed these duties for seven years. Enter
the demons. They torment Anastasius and tell him to return to his Zoroastrian
religion and his calling as a magus. Naturally Anastasius refuses, being sup-
ported by the abbot of the monastery, and shortly afterwards begins his trav-
els, sojourning in Caesarea Palestine, where he goes to pray at the Church of
St Euphemia, a significant detail since she was the patron saint of the Council
of Chalcedon (ch. 16; 57–9; Schneider 1975). Along the way he encounters a
group of magi performing their rites in a house. To them Anastasius says, ‘Why
are you astray and leading others astray by your acts of sorcery?’ and in reply
the magi ask him not to divulge their secrets to anyone. Possibly this encounter
is the catalyst for Anastasius’s arrest and three-day incarceration by Persian sol-
diers and his subsequent trial before the marzban, or governor, who insists that
he reject Christ (ch. 19; 61) and prostrate himself in the manner of the Persians.
The prisoner refuses to do either. The ensuing interrogation is as follows:
MARZBAN : Where are you from? Who are you?
ANASTASIUS : I am a true Christian. But if you wish to know also from where I
come, I am a Persian by birth. . . . I was a soldier and a magus: I left the dark-
ness and have come into the light.
MARZBAN : Leave this error, return to your first religion, and we shall give you
horses, silver, and protection.
This is the first of several occasions when the martyr refuses to reject Christ, a
tenacity that is probably meant to contrast with the apostle Peter’s three denials
of Christ. Anastasius’s smart talk enrages the marzban, who incarcerates him in
a garrison where he is forced to transport rocks while being chained to another
prisoner and bearing chains around his neck and feet. Upon being beaten and
interrogated, for the second time the martyr refuses to deny Christ (ch. 21; 63–5),
an act which culminates in the marzban’s order for him to take the instruments
of the magi, in particular the collection of sacred lengths of wood used in Zoro-
astrian fire worship, and to sacrifice, upon which Anastasius provocatively asks
what god he is supposed to sacrifice to—the moon, fire, a horse, the mountains,
the hills, or the rest? There follows a third confession of the Christian faith by
Anastasius (ch. 23; 65–7). In prison he says Psalms all night and is observed by
a Jewish prisoner, who has a vision of angels around the martyr-to-be and com-
municates this to another prisoner, a Christian governor of Scythopolis (chs 25–6;
67–71). When for the fourth time Anastasius refuses to deny Christ, the marzban
announces that the Shah has ordered the recalcitrant to be taken to Persia (chs
27–8; 71–3), and accordingly Anastasius and two other Christians (presumably of
Persian origin) leave Caesarea with one of the monks. The deportees, we are told,
were farewelled by ‘citizens, Christians, Persians and others’ (ch. 31; 75), a detail
no doubt intended to reinforce in the reader’s/hearer’s mind the impact which as
an ex-Zoroastrian Anastasius had in a foreign country. On the way back to Persia
the entourage and its escort travel through Hierapolis, and then possibly to Nisi-
bis, before arriving at Dastagerd, the residence of Shah Chosroes II, north of mod-
ern Baghdad (ch. 32; 77). During his interrogation by one of the Shah’s officials
Anastasius refuses to speak Persian and also, for the fifth time, to deny Christ,
despite on this occasion again being promised high honours, golden belts, and
horses (ch. 33; 77–9). The rest of the hagiography encompasses the saint’s sixth
refusal to deny Christ, his removal to another prison, and finally his execution
(chs. 36–40; 81–7), just before the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius arrived in Persia
on campaign on 1 February 628, where the hagiographer, who had been sent by
the abbot of their monastery in Palestine to accompany the martyr, addressed him
in Greek (ch. 43; 89–91). After travelling back to Byzantium through Armenia
with the emperor, a journey which is said to have taken one year, the hagiographer
brought back one of the martyr’s tunics to Anastasius’s monastery in Palestine
where, we are told, it effected a miracle (ch. 44; 91).
The writer of the Martyrdom of Anastasius the Persian was, as we have said,
apparently an intimate of the martyr. In addition, as we are told that he was Greek-
speaking, this goes some way in explaining the structure of the work, because the
author was acquainted with the tropes of martyrs’ acts. These tropes included the
repeated interrogations by an official, usually a pagan or at least someone hos-
tile; the questions to the accused persons about their provenance and religion; the
demands to sacrifice; details of the torture of the condemned, and so on ( Delehaye
1966). Unlike most other hagiographical works of this period, that concerning
Anastasius has a different goal—namely, responding to religious conflict between
Christianity and Zoroastrianism. In this account, as in the near-contemporary Life
of George of Choziba, the preoccupation of the writers is the Persian menace, and
the usually all-dominating Council of Chalcedon is in the background, although
from reading between the lines it becomes clear that Anastasius was a convert to
the Chalcedonian faith and to its monastic life.
The Persian empire would soon after meet its demise, conquered by the Muslims. Iran, the successor state of the Persian empire, is a Muslim dictatorship. The Zoroastarian religion still exists, but in very small numbers. There are more than 1 million Christians in today’s Iran, most of whom are from the country’s ethnic Armenian minority. Ethnic Persians who convert to Christianity face severe persecution, as they did in Saint Anastasius’ time. Let us read an account of the Christian persecution in Iran, from the website of Open Doors, and organization dedication to helping persecuted Christians.
Almost everyone in Iran is Muslim – there are believed to be about 1.2 million Christians in a population of more than 86 million.
Iran is ruled by an increasingly strict Islamic regime, which views the existence of Iranian house churches as an attempt by Western countries to undermine Islam and their authority. Christians who have converted from Muslim face the greatest risk.
Iranian Christians may be banned from education, lose their jobs and find it very difficult to get back into employment. For women, the situation is even more precarious because Iranian law grants women few rights. If discovered as a Christian, they are likely to be violently punished or divorced by their husbands and have their children taken away from them.
There is an ancient history of Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Iran; these are protected by the state, but treated as second-class citizens. They are not allowed to let Christians from Muslim backgrounds attend their services, nor are they allowed to worship in Persian, the national language.
It's no surprise that many Iranian believers feel forced to leave Iran and try to start a new life elsewhere.
When people from Muslim backgrounds become Christians, they can only meet in secret house churches. They are at great risk of being monitored, harassed, arrested and prosecuted for 'crimes against national security' – an accusation that is notoriously poorly defined, and can be abused.
Ali grew up in a Muslim family. He was in the grips of a drug addiction when he met Jesus in a dream. After speaking to various people, he eventually chose to risk everything to follow Christ – and so did his wife, Zahra. That’s when persecution began. “In Iran, when someone becomes a Christian, their family becomes defensive,” he explains. “The family rejects the person. If someone like me becomes a Christian, I am seen as defiled. My life is considered filthy by them.”
Ali and Zahra lost all their friends and were disowned by their families. When their new faith became more widely known, Ali lost his job. But as everyone and everything fell away, their love for Jesus only grew. They joined the ministry team of a network of underground house churches – and that’s why, like many house church leaders, they were arrested.
Once imprisoned, the couple lived in separate cells and endured days of interrogation. “They asked questions about other believers,” says Ali. “Their goal was to identify underground churches. They wanted to infiltrate the churches.” And it wasn’t just verbal abuse. “During the interrogation I was beaten a lot. Since I was blindfolded, I couldn’t tell where the punches would land.”
Even after being release, Ali and Zahra faced constant harassment. Ali was fired from every job he got, and his sons weren’t allowed to go to school. “Every day was suffering and torture,” he says. In the end, the family had to flee Iran – the country and home that they love. But their faith has remained strong. “It doesn’t matter where we are from,” Ali adds. “The only thing that matters is that we are part of the same Body. When we were in solitary confinement, the only thing that strengthened us was prayer. Only God can go to those dark places.”
Persecution has worsened slightly in Iran. The amendment and tightening of the penal code in 2021, which is also used to prosecute Christians, continues to be part of a wider development towards Iran becoming a totalitarian state. State surveillance is on the rise and the authorities are exerting an increasing grip on daily life and activities, an attitude reflected in the harsh responses to the protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022.
Saint Anastasius’ feast day is on January 22 in both the Eastern and Western church. Saint Anastasius, pray for us, and pray for the persecuted Christians of Iran.
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Your holy martyr Anastasius, O Lord, / through his suffering has received an incorruptible crown from You, our God. / For having Your strength, he laid low his adversaries, / and shattered the powerless boldness of demons. / Through his intercessions, save our souls!