St. Irene The Great Martyr of Thessaloniki
Irene the great Martyr of Thessaloniki
Celebrated May 5th
A Christian in fourth-century Persia could scarcely hope to lead a peaceful life in the midst of various factions which leagued together in their common hatred and harassment of the followers of Jesus Christ. One woman who came to know the full wrath of the Messiah’s enemies was Irene, whose name in Greek means peace. In choosing to follow Christ in this extremely hostile land of soothsayers and snake charmers, she chose to ride out the storm in a manner that brought her sainthood.
Born during the reign of Constantine the Great in the Persian city of Magydus, Irene was the daughter of Licinius, governor of the region. Licinius was a ruler of little humor, with even less understanding and with an iron will that was in the tradition of the Medes and the Saracens. He reared his only child, Irene, in an ornate palace. At the age of eight she began to be tutored in the grand manner of the times. Accordingly she studied for ten years under the tutelage of Apelanios, an educator renowned for his wisdom and intellect.
According to Apelianos, who was also Irene’s biographer, and angel of the Lord appeared to Irene in a dream when she was a young woman and told her that she had been chosen to be the voice of the Messiah among her own people. When she told the venerable Apelanios of her dream, he stood in awe. When he saw it in its proper perspective, he warned the girl that the road ahead would be strewn with obstacles and that the journey would be an arduous one. She knew that her faith would sustain her.
Licinius at first attributed her new eagerness for Christianity to the whim of youth, and he advised her to give up this madness. When her declarations for Christ continued unabated, he sternly warned her that he could tolerate no more. When she failed to comply he flew into a rage, threatening to have her trampled in the arena by wild horses. Apelanios related that while Licinius was at the arena arranging the stampede to take his daughter’s life, he was somehow accidentally trampled himself.
Irene hurried to the side of her father, and as he lay mortally wounded she prayed to the Lord that he be spared. Her prayer was answered. Licinius recovered, repented, and was baptized into the Christian faith. For this he was promptly removed from office by the Persian King, Sedecian.
Turning to Irene, whom he considered a sorceress, Sedecian stated that he would restore her father to his post and allow her to go free if she disavowed Christ. She declined and was thereupon cast into prison. There she was subjected to inhuman torture and was given just enough food to sustain her until the next flogging. After Sedecian’s death, she was released.
Miraculously regaining her health, she carried the message of the Messiah throughout the land, converting thousands to Christianity. Three consecutive successors to Sedecian: Savor, Numerianus and Savorian, all failed to halt Irene’s advancement of Christianity. Further imprisonment, torture and abuse of mind and body having failed, it was decided that Irene should be put to death. She was beheaded on the 5th of May, 384.
Although St. Irene is not known to us as a biblical scholar, her very nature is an expression of the Scriptures as displayed in every aspect of her life on earth. She not only turned the other cheek, but went to the aid of the parent that would have destroyed her and except for her intervention would have thereby destroyed himself. She saved her father’s life in order that he might save his own soul thereafter, by becoming a Christian himself. While preaching the word of Christ she encountered the ever present dangers, yet managed to outlive three emperors. In the days when women were decidedly second class citizens, she commanded the respect of men and women alike, ultimately becoming a mother figure to Christian converts drawn from ranks of the worst enemies of Jesus Christ.
From “Orthodox Saints” by George Poulos