IT IS NOT OFTEN that the Byzantine, Coptic and Roman Churches commemorate saints on the same day. This is particularly true in the case of saints like the holy martyrs Cyrus and John, who are remembered on January 31. They were not Apostles who brought the Gospel to new lands or Church Fathers whose thought influenced Churches all over the world. Who were they and what does their witness have to say to us today?
Cyrus the Unmercenary Healer
Nothing is known of the early lives of these saints. We do not know whether either or both of them were born into Christian families. We first meet them later in life, during the persecution of Diocletian (303- 305), which was particularly fierce in Egypt. At that time Cyrus was a physician in Alexandria who treated the sick with potions he developed in his workshop, a place later transformed into a shrine.
Cyrus is celebrated as one of the great “Unmercenary Healers” – those who would not accept payment for their services, seeing their skill as a gift from God. This practice attracted many of his patients to Christ and, consequently, brought Cyrus to the attention of the authorities. Denounced to the city prefect, Cyrus fled and took refuge in the Roman province of Arabia (southern Jordan and northwest Saudi Arabia today). There he abandoned the practice of medicine and adopted the monastic life. When the persecution waned, Cyrus returned to Egypt.
John, a young Christian soldier from Edessa in northern Mesopotamia was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, when he heard of the physician-become-monk, Cyrus. He sought him out, becoming his companion and disciple.
The Great Persecution
Diocletian abdicated on May 1, 305. His successor, Maximinus, renewed the persecution of Christians the next year. The contemporary Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Martyrs of Palestine, writes that tens, twenties, even hundreds of Christians were put to death on a single day in Egypt, making it the region which suffered the most during the persecutions.
According to one report, 660 Christians were killed in Alexandria alone between 303 and 311. To this day the Coptic Church structures its calendar around this persecution rather than the birth of Christ.
Maximinus had revised the procedure for registering citizens to include women and children. This enabled the authorities to summon even children and infants to offer sacrifice to the Roman deities. It happened that at Canopus, on the outskirts of Alexandria, officials arrested a Christian family and brought them to the city to sacrifice. Along with their mother, Athanasia, three youngsters had been arrested: fifteen-year old Theoctista, thirteen-year old Theodota and eleven-year old Eudoxia.
At that time in Egypt Christians were often mutilated and exiled to work in mines, if not killed outright. When Cyrus and John heard of it, they were concerned that the girls might not be strong enough to preserve their faith. They resolved to go to Alexandria to comfort and encourage these youngsters. When their presence became known, they too were arrested and beheaded together with the others on January31, 311. They were buried at the Church of St Mark in Canopus.
Their Wonderworking Relics
Cyrus and John had put themselves in mortal danger to sustain the faith of Athanasia and her daughters. As a result they personified the Lord Jesus’ teaching, “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). The witness of Ss. Cyrus and John would come to be spread far beyond the place of their martyrdom.
In 414 St Cyril of Alexandria had the relics of Ss. Cyrus and John brought to Menouthis, a city northeast of Alexandria. Menouthis was sacred to the pagan deities Isis and Serapis. At that time there was a temple at Menouthis famed for its oracles and cures which attracted even some simple Christians. St. Cyril thought to replace this cult by establishing a shrine to St. Cyrus the Unmercenary Healer. As Cyril explained in a homily, he had a vision in which an angel instructed him to bring the relics of St Cyrus to Menouthis in order to do battle with Isis.
When the floor of St Mark’s was opened, two graves were found and the story of Cyrus’ companion John came to light. Both bodies were brought to Menouthis with much fanfare, an event commemorated in the Byzantine Churches on June 28. As St Cyril described it, “The holy martyrs, Ss. Cyrus and John, came forth ready to do battle for the Christian religion… As their reward for their love for Christ, they received the power to trample upon Satan and expel the force of evil spirits” (Homily 18, 3).
St Cyril knew that it would be futile to forbid Christians to visit “the Mistress,” as Isis was known; he did, however, insist that they first visit the relics of Ss. Cyrus and John. This expression of Christian devotion caused the priests of Isis to refuse them entry to her shrine, effectively bringing its popularity to an end!
Entrusted to the care of the Pachomian monastery of Tabennisi, the shrine of Ss. Cyrus and John became known throughout the Middle East and beyond for the healings reported there. This in turn spread the fame of the saints and the city eventually became known as Aba-Kyr (Father Cyrus).
Perhaps the most famous healing attributed to these saints was that of St Sophronios of Jerusalem who was cured of ophthalmia, an inflammation of the eyes which often led to total blindness. In gratitude he composed an encomium in praise of the saints recounting a number of miracles attributed to them. In English this work is generally called The Seventy Miracles of Ss. Cyrus and John.
It is thought that St Sophronios was to some extent responsible for the rise of devotion to these saints in the West. In 634 Sophronios sent a copy of his Miracles along with some relics of Ss. Cyrus and John to Pope Honorius in Rome. Sophronios was seeking the pope’s support in the doctrinal controversies of the day. In time three churches were erected in Rome in honor of these saints, mistakenly called “St Passera” (Pa Ser = Aba Kyr).
In the tenth century the relics remaining at Menouthis were relocated to a church bearing their name in Old Cairo, the new center of Coptic Church life. In 960 this church was destroyed in a riot and the relics moved to the nearby Church of St Barbara where they remain in a chapel dedicated to their memory. A portion of their relics is also enshrined in the nearby monastery of Deir Tadros.
O faithful, with canticles of praise let us magnify Cyrus and John, those brothers in spirit who were of one mind concerning the body. Let us praise, together with them, the generous Athanasia and her daughters Theodota, Theoctista and Eudoxia, the victorious martyrs who preserved their virginity. They always intercede before Christ for our souls.