Today the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates the martyrdom of St. Philopateer Mercurius. Usually such commemorations are impersonal, but for my wife and I, we had the opportunity to come face to face with the emperor who killed him: Decius.
My wife’s gift to me: “The Church History” written by Bishop Eusebius
It all started with my wife’s gift to me. Imagine a bishop who sat to the right of emperor Constantine during the famed council of Nicea in AD 325. Now imagine that bishop went to a library in existence at his time so he could write about the history of the Church. Bishop Eusebius was his name, and if you are going to get any version of it, you must get this one by Paul L. Maier, who provides for us “A New Translation with Commentary Full-Color Edition with Charts and Maps.” When I read through the book, I saw a page depicting a bust of Decius, who was emperor for only two years, but then I realized the time span of his reign coincided with Abu Sefein’s martyrdom in AD 250. Could it be that I was looking at the face of the man who ordered his death? Sure enough, I confirmed that the saint’s hagiography actually mentions Emperor Decius by name, along with the infamous emperor’s mention in the Coptic doxology of the martyr.
Coming face-to-face with emperor Decius
I knew that during our visit to Rome and the Capitoline Museum, we would have to see the emperor’s bust. As we made our way through the maze of rooms and hallways in the museum, I paused in awe when I realized what my eyes were beholding.
I couldn’t believe I was staring at the face of the emperor who ordered the death of the famed Philopateer Mercius, the saint whose intercessions I credit for God’s answer to a particular prayer request which was fulfilled and formalized on a day he is commemorated; I also had the privilege of visiting a convent named after him in Egypt, which is associated with numerous miracles occurring at his behest (see post here, experience #11)
To understand the historical context and significance of Emperor Decius and the martyr Philopateer Mercurius, read further below:
EMPEROR DECIUS (AD 249-251)
Around AD 250, the Roman emperor Decius published an imperial edict to arrest every single Christian. Why? Simply put: in his view, the decline of the Roman Empire was caused by the Roman gods who were punishing Rome because its subjects were not devout enough, and particularly because people were converting to Christianity. Thus, in order to revive the empire, Decius decided to force all Christians to express allegiance to the gods of Rome (including the emperor himself, who was regarded as divine). The emperor’s edict ordered all citizens to perform an act of worship in the presence of Roman commissioners—often no more than throwing a pinch of incense into a votive lamp burning in front of the emperor’s bust—after which they would receive a certificate (libellus) that they had sacrificed. Prison, slavery, torture, and death awaited those who refused.
Philopateer Mercurius (also known as Abu Sefein (c. AD 224–250)
One notable young Christian man, revered by both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians, who has become particularly popular in recent times in the Coptic Church, boldly defied emperor Decius to his face. At the age of 25, he was highly acclaimed for his military efforts on behalf of the emperor, so much so that he was promoted to a significant army rank. After watching him display his skill on the battlefield, some fellow soldiers gave him the name Mercurius (quite possibly an allusion to the Roman god Mercury). Philopateer Mercurius was asked by Decius to join him and his elite guests to pay homage to the gods for his recent victory in battle. Philopateer publicly refused the emperor’s request and as a consequence suffered imprisonment, excruciating torture (e.g., a red hot iron instrument was thrust into his members, and afterward blazing torches were applied to his sides), and eventually he was killed.
May the intercessions of the martyr St. Philopateer Mercurius be with us, and glory be to our God forever. Amen.