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St Euphemia the Martyr and Paul the Octopus

11 July 2010

The gist of a sermon preached at St Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church in Brixton, Johannesburg on Sunday 11 July 2010 [1]

Most people in South Africa who have been following the football World Cup know about Paul the Octopus, who lives in an aqarium in Germany and is said to predict the winners of the football matches. He is given his lunch in two boxes, each marked with the colours of one of the teams playing, and the first box he opens is said to be the team that will win. In this way he correctly predicted that Netherlands would beat Uruguay and that Spain would beat Germany in the semifinals, and that Germany would beat Uruguay in the 3rd/4th place play-off. We have yet to see whether his prediction that Spain will beat the Netherlands in tonight’s final will prove accurate.

A similar story is told about one of today’s saints, St Euphemia the Martyr.

The Martyrdom of St Euphemia, from Decani Monastery, Kosovo

She was killed in the town of Chalcedon (in what is today Turkey) during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian in 304. A few years later, in 313, the Emperor Constantine declared a policy of religious toleration, and Christians were free to worship again, and so the Christians of Chalcedon built a church over the tomb of the martyr Euphemia.

Nearly 150 years later an important church Council was held in the church where St Euphemia’s tomb was, in 451. An Archimandrite in Constantinople, just over the Bosphorus from Chalcedon, by the name of Eutyches, taught that our Lord Jesus Christ was not both God and man, having a divine and a human nature, but that he was only of two natures before the incarnation, but afterwards he had a single divine-human nature. This teaching was known as “monophysitism” (one-naturedness), but many said it was wrong, and so the Fourth Ecumenical Council was held at Chalcedon to decide the issue. The arguments went back and forth, with neither side giving way, and eventually the bishops at the council decided to ask St Euphemia for her view. She had died for Christ, so which Christ had she died for — the God-man, or the monophysite man become god. Each party wrote its statement of faith, and sealed it and placed it in St Euphemia’s tomb, and the tomb was sealed and guarded for three days while the bishops attending the council fasted and prayed. At the end of the three days the tomb was opened, and the statement of faith that said Christ was of two natures was found in her hand, while the monophyside statement was found at her feet. This was taken to mean that she accepted the first and trampled upon the second. The Council of Chalcedon adopted a definition that said that Christ was of two natures, though some still did not accept it, including Dioscuros, the Patriarch of Alexandria, and eventually the dispute split the Alexandrian Church.

On a superficial level, this story may seem a bit like Paul the Octopus, but a football match is here today and gone tomorrow. The winners rejoice and the losers are sad for a while, but they will go on to play other matches and the result moves into the statistics books. St Euphemia’s choice, however, affected the teaching of the church for all the following centuries.

I don’t want to go into the details of the Definition of Chalcedon (you can read about that here) but rather to see what this story about St Euphemia tells us about the Orthodox Church. There is a sense in which the church is democratic. Bishops met in councils, and they represented their churches, and they voted. But councils of bishops were not necessarily accepted as reflecting the mind of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit. Some councils were rejected by the Church as a whole.

G.K. Chesterton, in his book called Orthodoxy, once wrote[2]

I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy, in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity. If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only pause for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange…

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or
arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is  generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.

And we can see what Chesterton tells us working out among the fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. They consulted St Euphemia, even though she had been dead 150 years. And I’m sure you could find some German historian who would declare that the story of St Euphemia and the statements of faith being placed on her tomb is simply a pious legend, but, as Chesterton says, it has the awful authority of a mob.

Another saint we commemorate today is Saint Olga, Princess of Kiev, Equal-to-the-Apostles.

St Olga of Kiev

In St Olga’s time what are now Russia and Ukraine were a number of small principalities whose rulers were connected by family and other ties, but who also squabbled a lot among each other. Some were of Varangian descent, that is, their ancestors came from Scandinavia, and the original form of Olga’s name may have been Helga.  She was the wife of Igor, the prince of Kiev, and though there were Christians there, the majority of the people were pagans, and expected their rulers to be pagans too. Igor was killed by pagan rebels, and Olga, who ruled in his place, since his son and heir Svyatoslav was only three years old, punished the rebels with great severity.

Olga’s policies did much to strengthen Kiev and bring about greater unity among the Russian principalities in the middle of the tenth century. It became a centre for trade, with many foreign merchants passing through, and became a power to be reckoned with by neighbouring states.

The time came for Olga to pay a state visit to the powerful neighbour to the south, the Roman empire. She set off across the Black Sea to Constantinople with a large naval escort, which, as intended, impressed the emperor Constantine, who soon realised that he wasn’t dealing with the naive ruler of a minor state, but a capable diplomat, who in their political negotiations pushed a hard bargain.

While in Constantinople Olga visited several churches, and eventually she was baptised, with the Emperor himself as her godfather, and so she returned home as a Christian. It was not until the time of her grandson Vladimir that there was a mas movement of the people of Kievan Rus towards Christianity, but the Church, in recognising the foundations that she had laid, calls her “Equal-to-the-Apostles”.

So today we remember two women saints, who were separated by nearly seven centuries.

Western Christians, especially Protestants, sometimes regard the Orthodox Church as “sexist”, because we do not have women as bishops, priests or deacons, and so, some say, we are opposed to “women’s ministry”. But there are many more ministries in the Orthodox Church than those of bishops priests and deacons, and these two women illustrate some of the variety and the extent of that ministry.

We can read about synods of Protestant bodies in our time deciding to have women as bishops (though their understanding of “bishops” is different from the Orthodox understanding). Their synods often vote democratically, in the sense that they have representatives of different parts of their organistion and they vote on the issue. But the Orthodox approach is different because it is based on tradition. The Church, in the Orthodox view, does not just extend geographically to every place where Orthodox Christians now. It extends back in time too, over the centuries, going right back to the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit fell on 120 gathered disciples of Christ, and we read that those who were baptised then “continued in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” And we believe that the Orthodox Church has continued in those four things from that day to this. We cannot make arbitrary changes to the faith we have received, and the way in which the bishops of the Fourth Ecumenical council consulted St Euphemia bears testimony to this.As Chesterton says, we should not neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father or grandfather. We believe that to assume that we are wiser than all preceding generations just because we happen to be walking around is rather arrogant.

It cannot be said that there is no women’s ministry in the Orthodox Church, because these two women most certainly did have a ministry, and one that might shock many Protestants, since St Euphemia was not only a woman, but she was dead. And St Olga is called “Equal to the Apostles”. The Orthodox Church may not have women bishops, but it does have women apostles, going back to St Mary Magdalene, the “apostle to the apostles”.

The important point here is that the Church is united in time as well as in space. We are not wiser in our generation than all preceding generations. So when we look back at the lives of fourth-century martyrs, fifth-century bishops, or tenth-century princesses, we do not have to regard them as flawless models of perfection, because they were sinners as we are, but we are members of the same Church, and we should take their ideas and conceptions at least as seriously as we take our own.


  1. Father Athanasius Akunda, the parish priest at St Nicholas asked me to put my sermon on the web. This isn’t exactly what I said, because I didn’t write it down at the time, and didn’t record it, but it is the gist of it.
  2. Chesterton was not himself a member of the Orthodox Church. When he wrote his book he was an Anglican, and later became a Roman Catholic, but his remarks on this point illustrate the Orthodox view.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 July 2010 6:21 pm

    Really interesting post.


  1. Women’s ministry « Khanya

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