St. Christina of Tyre (July 24)

AMONG THE MANY MARTYRS commemorated in the Byzantine Churches, some are given the added designation Great (or Megalo-) Martyr. What makes one martyr “great” in contrast to the others?

In general the term “Great Martyr” refers to the leading martyrs who suffered during the Age of Roman Persecutions, before the Edict of Milan (313) officially ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. They were widely revered for their courageous witness in the face of severe torments and were widely venerated in Churches throughout the empire.

Among these Great Martyrs are the soldier-saints George (April 2), Dimitrios (October 26), Theodore the Commander (February 8), Theodore the Recruit (February 17), Phanourios of Rhodes (August 27) and Procopios of Scythopolis (July 7). As agents of the Roman Empire, soldiers were subjected to particularly brutal tortures when they refused to honor the Roman gods.

There are a number of women martyrs who have been given this title as well. In societies where women were expected to obey men without question, those women who preferred to follow Christ rather than their husband, father or ruler were singled out for torture with particular zeal, often by members of their own families. Saints Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara, Euphemia, Irene and Paraskevi, as well as St Christina of Tyre, are among the women from this era revered as Great Martyr in the Byzantine Churches.

Where Is Tyre?

A leading maritime and mercantile center since Phoenician times, Tyre was also known for developing a particularly precious dye, Tyrian purple, which was often reserved for the use of the aristocracy. Under Rome since 64 BC, Tyre was a semi-independent federated city, a sign of its prominence in the region.

There have been Christians in Tyre since the time of Christ Himself who healed the daughter of a woman whom Mark calls “a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth” (Mark 7:24). St Paul passed through the city on his way back to Jerusalem and, “Finding disciples, we stayed there seven days” (Acts 21:4).

The principal religious center of the city in Roman days, however, was the temple of Heracles, the son of Zeus, identified as “Tyrian Heracles.” Scholars today consider this god to be a hellenized version of the even older Phoenician deity, Melkart, the Ba’al Sur, (Lord of Tyre), worshipped there for a thousand years before Rome ruled the area.

A Lebanese city of some 125,000 today, Tyre is the proto-throne of the Melkite patriarchate. Its archbishop is second in rank to the patriarch of Antioch.

St. Christina of Tyre

We do not know precisely when St Christina was born, only that she lived and died in the middle of the third century. Neither do we know her given name – the name “Christina” (little Christ or anointed one) was given by believers who witnessed her martyrdom. She was the daughter of a high ranking pagan official – some say he was the “urban prefect” or governor of the city. Others mistakenly identify him with Urbanus, the governor of the Palestine and Phoenicia who was a fierce persecutor of Christians at the beginning of the fourth century.

According to the tradition Life of this saint, the child blossomed into a beautiful young woman who had many men seeking her hand. Her father kept her secluded with several maidservant-companions because he had other plans for her: he wanted her to serve as a priestess, presumably in the temple of Tyrian Heracles.

In Greek mythology Herakles had intercourse in a single night with the fifty daughters of Thestios, except for one who refused to have him. Herakles, thinking that he had been insulted, condemned her to remain a virgin all her life, serving him as his priest. Thus the priestess in the temple of Heracles was always a life-long virgin.

Despite her father’s plans, Christina learned about the Christian faith in the one true God. Some versions of her life say that she was taught by an angel, others by the Holy Spirit Himself. All agree that her journey to faith began through her meditations on the beauty of creation. Her father had placed idols of Roman gods in her quarters. Christina came to believe that no idol could have created the universe since they themselves were the work of human hands. She destroyed the idols and prayed that the true God might reveal Himself to her.

When her father learned that she was not offering sacrifices to the Roman gods he tried to persuade her to do so, lest she anger them and bring down their wrath on the family. When his words failed to change Christina’s mind her father resorted to beating her into submission. When that did not succeed either, he had her imprisoned and tortured further, but Christina would not relent. Christina’s mother pleaded with her to obey her father for the family’s sake but the girl was adamant. As we pray in the service of this feast, “You spurned your impious father; and loving the Jerusalem on high as your mother, you rejected your mother’s overweening love…”

Christina remained in prison during the rule of two successive prefects, Zienus and Julian. Finally she died from a volley of arrows shot by the governor’s troops.

St Christina’s Relics

St Christina’s remains were buried by an uncle. Devotion to her spread beyond Tyre and at an unknown date her relics were brought from Tyre to Constantinople and enshrined in a church dedicated to her near the imperial palace. This church’s throne feast was kept on July 24, the date observed in honor of this saint both in Eastern and Western Churches.

During the Crusader sack of Constantinople in the thirteenth century the relics were taken to Italy and housed first in Torcello, then Murano and, finally, Venice. They are now said to rest in the Church of St Francis “della Vigna” (“in the vineyard”), in Venice. The cathedral of Palermo also claims her remains, but these relics may be those of St Christina of Bolsena, often confused in the West with St Christina of Tyre.

Discovering God Through Creation

St Christina’s discovery of God through creation is also the experience of others, both in the ancient world and today. Marjorie Corbman, raised in a secular Jewish family, joined many of her generation in nature-worship while in junior high school. Here she describes how she moved to worship of the Creator.

“One of the truest things I ever read was the oft-quoted passage in Augustine’s Confessions: ‘When I asked the earth, it responded: I am not God. When I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars, they said: Nor are we the God you seek. I said, ‘Speak to me of my God. Loudly they exclaimed: It is He who made us. The heavens, the earth and everything that is in them tell me to love You.’ When I read this I stared at the words with a simple joy, knowing that this was exactly what had happened to me. Nature had been my answer – and my generation’s answer – to the stifling reality of human evil, of artificiality, of the modern age. And nature’s answer to me had been God” (A Tiny Step Away from Deepest Faith, p. 45).