The Choir of the Holy Unmercenaries

ON THE FIRST SUNDAY in November a number of Byzantine Churches keep a special remembrance (Synaxis) for All the Unmercenary Healers: those who cared for the sick or aged in the spirit of Christ, without concern for gain. These physicians and other medical workers understood their skills in the spirit of St Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts (“To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” – 1 Corinthians 12:7). 

A Christian’s skills are given, according to Paul, not simply to enhance the person who receives them but chiefly to benefit the entire Body of Christ. St Paul lists several of these spiritual gifts: “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:8-11). Any of these gifts – and of the countless others manifested in the Church – is God’s gift to the entire Church given through the one who manifests them.

The Unmercenary Physicians adopted this teaching as the guiding principle of their professional lives to a heroic degree. In an age when health care, as rudimentary as it often was, was exclusively for those who could afford it, the Unmercenaries stood out by their compassionate attention to the sick poor. When Christians were still suspect in the pagan Roman Empire, the witness of Holy Unmercenaries led people to see that Christians were living by a higher standard than the leaders of their own culture. Not surprisingly, Unmercenaries took the occasion of caring for the sick as opportunities for preaching the Gospel as well. The ideal of physicians serving without pay for Christ inspired many in the Church to follow their example.

The Great Martyr Panteleimon

Front and center in the icon of the Holy Unmercenaries is the most revered of these saints in the Christian East, St Panteleimon. He was converted to the Christian faith by St Hermolaus, one of the survivors of the great persecution in Nicomedia. Panteleimon achieved renown by tending without expecting payment to wounded and imprisoned Christians in Nicomedia during the last Great Persecution of Christians in the fourth century. Panteleimon effected many cures by prayer alone which brought him the love of his fellow-Christians and the unwanted attention of the imperial authorities. Executed by order of Emperor Maximian on July 27, 305 St Panteleimon is remembered on that day in the Byzantine calendar.

Cosmas and Damian

The hymns for our feast of the Unmercenaries speak of “three pairs of divinely wise saints Cosmas and Damian, who shared the same names and the same ways” (Verse at the Lamp-lighting Psalms). Two of these pairs of brothers were martyred, one at Rome and the other at Aegea (Ajass today) in the region of Cilicia.

The other Cosmas and Damian, who lived in the third century, came from Asia Minor but lived and ministered to the poor in Mesopotamia where they reposed in peace. After their pagan father’s death, their Christian mother Theodotia raised them in the faith and saw to their medical education. Under her guidance they used their medical knowledge to heal the sick without expecting any payment. Miracles accompanied their activity in this life and were frequently said to take place at their tomb in the city of Cyrrhus, capital of the Roman province. An imposing basilica was built over their tomb; its ruins may still be seen there.

In the sixth century Emperor Justinian sumptuously restored the city in the saints’ honor and erected an important church in Constantinople dedicated to them, which became a celebrated place for pilgrimage.

About the same time a basilica was constructed in Rome in honor of the Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian of Rome (July 1). This church still exists and contains some remarkable mosaics and frescos from before the era of iconoclasm. Raised in a Christian family, these brothers flourished in the late third century at Rome, where they became known for their skill at healing the sick. Since they cared for Christians and non-Christians alike, they became known in the wider community and attracted many to the Church. Accused of sorcery before Emperor Carinus (282-285), they rejected the charge: “We have done evil to no one, we are not involved with the magic or sorcery of which you accuse us. We treat the infirm by the power of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and we take no payment for rendering aid to the sick, because our Lord commanded His disciples, ‘Freely you have received, freely give’ (Matthew 10:8).” These saints are commemorated in the Canon of the Roman Mass and in the Litany of the Saints, some of the oldest Western prayers still in use.

The last set of brothers came from the Roman province of Arabia (parts of Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia today). They practiced their art in Aegea on what is now the coast of Turkey. They were executed along with their brothers Anthimus, Leontius, and Euprepius during the persecution of Diocletian at the end of the third century.

Devotion to all these Unmercenaries spread from the place of their death throughout the empire.

Other Unmercenaries

Among the twenty saints honored on this feast are St Sampson the Hospitable (June 27), an Unmercenary Healer, who on his parents’ deaths, began taking in the poor, sick and homeless. The patriarch of Constantinople ordained him a priest and the emperor established a hospice for the sick poor and entrusted it to him.

Other saints commemorated today include martyred physicians Luke the Evangelist (October 18) and Diomedes of Tarsus (August 16). Other saints whose tombs became sources of miraculous healings like St Antipas (April 11) and St Spyridon (December 12) are also commemorated.

God continues to be glorified by unmercenary healers. Some of them, like the sainted Mother Theresa of Kalikut, are known all over the world. Others, like St Luke of Simferopol, the unmercenary physician who became a Ukrainian Orthodox bishop during the worst days of Communist persecutions, are not as widely known. They all have received gifts of healing and all have shared these gifts as freely as they had received them from God.

Today we praise the blessed choir of the holy unmercenary physicians: the Apostle and Evangelist Luke, the excellent healer of the infirm; the most honored hieromartyrs Antipas, Charalampos and Blaise, Spyridon and Modestus, the all-splendid luminaries of the Church; the three pairs of divinely wise saints Cosmas and Damian, who shared the same names and the same ways; Cyrus and the glorious John; the divine Panteleimon and Hermolaus; Diomedes and Sampson; together with Mocius, Photius and Anicetas, Artemius, Thalalxus and Tryphon.

(Sticheron at Lord to You I call…)