Reflection - The Two Holy Doctors
Today is the feast day of two saints who are generally unknown and ignored today but, in the past, were widely venerated throughout the Church, in both the East and the West, Saints Cosmas and Damian. Although little is known about these two men today, they nevertheless stand out both for the quality of their lives and for the manner of their deaths, providing through both a vibrant witness to the power of the Christian faith.
According to some reports, these two men were brothers. Regardless, however, as to the veracity of this account, they were certainly brothers in the Lord, being dedicated to love of God and neighbour through their Christian service and the witness they gave, which contributed so forcefully to the rapid and extensive rise of their cult. They were physicians of native lineage, practising medicine in Syria during the late third Century. At that time part of the Roman Empire, Syria was noted for its many Christians. Although technically illegal, for much of the time the Church was unmolested and left in a relative degree of peace, with only localized and sporadic persecution.
Noted for their charitable works, chiefly through providing services to the poor for no fee, for doctors were rare and consequently expensive, the two men would have been widely known and almost certainly known as being Christians. Therefore, when a much more systematic and universal persecution under the Emperor Diocletian arose, the two would have been an easy target. For the most part, the authorities were content that Christians sacrifice to the gods and to the Emperor, thus providing assurance of their loyalty. A certificate testifying compliance with the law would then be issued. The Church, much stricter then than now, would immediately excommunicate any of its members who attained a certificate, thus placing believers in a quandary: comply with the law and live but be cast into Hell or be true to their Christian beliefs and die, but get into God’s Kingdom. What a choice!
To be fair, many Christians did comply with the law and hoped to have an opportunity to repent and be reconciled with the Church later, although that was generally fairly impossible. Many, however, elected to accept death (if they could not hide) and Cosmas and Damian were among these. We do not know exactly when or how these two men met their end, but devotion to them as martyrs rose very rapidly indeed, which signifies that the manner of their deaths and the courage with which they met that fate impressed themselves firmly on the minds of their fellow-Christians and devotion to them spread far and wide. So great was their fame that even in Rome itself they were honoured. Indeed, by the 6th Century at the latest, according to the liturgical texts that we possess, their names were inserted into the Roman Canon of the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer that I still use on occasion.
These two saints teach us, by their manner of life, that loving service to one’s neighbour by using one’s God-given talents appropriately is a central part of the Christian life. In an age which places a high priority on making money and on a ‘wealthy’ lifestyle, their commitment to providing their service free of charge reminds us that material goods, which in moderation are certainly necessary, are subservient to the service of God through service of others. We should use our talents not primarily to enrich ourselves but for the benefit of others. Payment, if you like, will be made in Heaven!
Moreover, the willingness to serve Christ through martyrdom is not something which is confined to the past. Many Christians today live with the daily possibility of being called to lay down one’s life. This may take place through being singled out in such a way that one consciously confesses Christ in the face of proffered death, yet it may as a consequence of the simple act of going to church and that church being targeted by a terrorist bomber or gunman! In many places in the world, that is the risk one takes to go to church – yet go Christians do, knowing that it may cost them their lives! That certainly raises questions for us in the relatively safe West!
Admiration for the martyrs is all very well, but if it stops there then when we are called to the bar of judgement, as we all shall be within a few short years, the martyrs will look on us with pity. All we are required to do, for the most part, is to support our fellow Christians who are suffering with our prayers and our material help. This may be through giving money, which is certainly useful but also, in the main, an extremely easy thing for us in our society to do. There are other, better, ways in which we can help and I know many of you have actively supported the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide through writing of cards and letters in support of those being persecuted, either to individual Christians or to our leaders and representatives on their behalf. To do this is easy BUT is also one of the best things we can do.
Although perhaps not called to witness to our faith by being persecuted ourselves (although who knows what the future may bring?), we can nevertheless associate ourselves with those who are. By doing so we do a truly good work and, although reward is not our chief motivation, we can rest assured that we will not go without one and that the martyrs and confessors will intercede for us at our judgement, adding their gratitude to the scales in which our lives will be weighed by God.
St Francis of Assisi, whose own feast day we keep next Sunday, had a strong devotion to Cosmas and Damian, in common with most people of his age. We should not forget that his early work in supporting God’s Church was dedicated to restoring the church of San Damiano to the fitting service of the Lord – and San Damiano is the Italian for St Damian, today’s saint! Let us associate ourselves with him in service to God through service to all ‘who are called to be saints’.