IN SEPTEMBER, 2013 the Free Syrian Army backed up by [al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat] al-Nusra forces, attacked the Syrian Christian town of Maaloula, some forty miles from Damascus. Christian properties including churches were looted and destroyed. Twelve nuns from the Orthodox Monastery of St Tekla were taken captive and held for ransom. One church which sustained heavy damage was the Greek Catholic Church of Ss Sergius and Bacchus, which may have existed since the early fourth century, before the liberation of Christians by Emperor Constantine in 313. Among the hierarchs mentioned at the First Council of Nicaea (ad 325) was Eutichios, “the bishop of St. Sergius in Maaloula.”
Who Were These Saints?
The story of Sergius and Bacchus (Sarkis and Bakkos, in the local tongue) is found in a Greek work, The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus. This work, dating from the middle of the fifth century, tells the story of two Roman army officers during the reign of Emperor Galerius (305-311) who were martyred for their Christian faith.
According to this Passion, Sergius and Bacchus, close companions, were secret Christians in an age when the Roman army was most inhospitable to Christians in its ranks. When they refused to accompany a Roman official into a pagan temple where a sacrifice to Jupiter was to be offered, their hidden faith was discovered. Ordered to partake of the sacrifice themselves, they refused to do so and were subjected to humiliation and torture. Bacchus was beaten to death and Sergius was force-marched to Resafa, near the Euphrates, where he was executed.
Sergius and Bacchus were among the earliest Christians celebrated as martyrs in the Church. A martyrium (shrine) was erected in Resafa at the site of St Sergius’ death. This shrine was enlarged in the next century and became a popular pilgrimage destination, which it remained until the thirteenth century. The ruins of Resafa, near Raqqa, are an archeological site today.
The Maaloula church mentioned above was noteworthy for having the oldest altar in the world still in use (until the rebels destroyed it in 2013). It was built in the style of the pagan altars used in the area for animal sacrifices, suggesting that a distinctive Christian style had not yet been devised.
Other churches from this period in honor of these saints which remain in use to this day are the Abu Serga Church in Old Cairo, one of the oldest Coptic churches in Egypt, and the Assyrian Church of Mar Sarkis near Urmia, in Iran, which has been dated by some to the third century ad.
The fifth and sixth centuries saw the spread of devotion to these saints. The Byzantine emperor Justinian I (482-565) changed the name of Resafa to Sergiopolis, in honor of St Sergius, making it an archdiocese, and he had churches built at Constantinople (a mosque since the sixteenth century) and at Acre in Palestine. It is thought that the saints’ church in Constantinople was a preliminary study for the Great Church of Aghia Sophia, built a few years later.
These saints are celebrated in all the Eastern Churches (Armenian, Assyrian, Byzantine, Coptic, etc.) as well as in the Latin Church. Their feast day on the Byzantine, Roman and Syriac calendars is October 7.
Challenging The Passion
Several historians prior to our own day challenged the historicity of the story of Ss. Sergius and Bacchus, dismissing it as fiction. Some did so simply because The Passion reports healings and other miraculous occurrences as part of the tale. Others have criticized the Scriptures in the same way, because they do not accept the possibility of miracles.
Historians have challenged the claim that the martyrs were attached to the soldiers of Emperor Galerius, who would have been campaigning in the Danube at the time specified in The Passion. They suggest that Galerius’ successor, Maximinus II (308-313), an implacable foe of Christians, was responsible for the region at that time.
Some critics found certain anachronisms in the document, pointing to a later era. The Passion, for example, tells how the emperor had Sergius and Bacchus stripped of their armor and dressed in women’s clothing as a public humiliation. Scholars have noted that the only recorded example of such a punishment took place over a century later, when the emperor Julian the Apostate punished army deserters in this way, the only emperor known to have done so. The archaeological evidence of the early churches noted above affirms that, while The Passion may have incorporated later material, the saints it describes were already being venerated in the Church by the time of its composition.
The “Hijacking” of These Saints
Father Edward Pehanich, a Carpatho-Russian Orthodox priest in Pennsylvania, writes of his experience while searching on line for an icon of the saints to put in his parish bulletin. “I was shocked to discover that some elements in our society have proclaimed [Sergius and Bacchus] Patron Saints of Same Sex Marriage and that icons of these holy martyrs have been distributed at Gay Pride events…
“The popularity of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus in the gay community stems from a controversial and discredited book by Yale professor John Boswell, Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. In his study Boswell claims he discovered evidence that homo-sexual marriages took place in Eastern Orthodoxy, especially in the late Byzantine period (9th through 15th centuries) and that Sts. Sergius and Bacchus were united in such a marriage. He maintains that a rite known in Greek as adelphopoiesis was actually a same sex marriage that was blessed by the Church. The use of this rite of adelphopoiesis, is documented in ancient Byzantine manuscripts. The texts of the prayers are clear that the ceremony is asking God to bless the uniting of two men as spiritual brothers – pneumatikous adelphous – not carnal, sexual brothers. Orthodox theologian Father Patrick Viscuso notes that the rite is a union that is closer to that of adoption and that adelphopoiesis should be translated as ‘adopting a brother’ or ‘brother adoption’.
“While some in our society cannot imagine an intimate relationship between two men without a sexual aspect, television and movies have popularized the concept of a ‘bromance’. This type of relationship is a close, intimate relationship between two heterosexual men that is clearly non-sexual. Sts. Sergius and Bacchus are 4th century models of men who were intimate friends and also devoted disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and were willing to die for their faith in him.”
Almighty Lord, You made man after Your image and likeness, granting him everlasting life. You made the renowned standard-bearer Peter and Andrew, with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, as well as Philip and Bartholomew to be brothers to one another – not so much by bonds of nature as through the imprint of faith and the Holy Spirit. Likewise You joined Your holy martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, Cosmas and Damian, Cyrus and John to one another by the brotherhood of charity. Grant that these Your servants love one another all the days of their lives without discord or failing. Let nothing disturb their brotherhood, by the power of Your all-holy Spirit, through the intercession of the Theotokos and of all the saints. For Yours is the kingdom…