On September 12th, our Church celebrates the Coptic New Year (Feast of the Nairouz), which is the calendar of the Church. The Coptic New Year is the calendar of the martyrs. Our Church offered thousands of martyrs. Since the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian was one of the harshest periods of persecution, especially in Egypt, the Church chose the year 284 AD, which is the beginning of the reign of Diocletian, to mark the beginning of the Coptic calendar. This year, September 12th, marks the beginning of the year 1716 in the Coptic Calendar or the Calendar of Martyrs.
Amongst the martyrs during the reign of Diocletian (284-305) and his contemporary ruler, Maximian (286-305), we chose the martyrs of the Theban Legion and their leader, St. Maurice.
The Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion:
St. Maurice is a Coptic saint from Thebes (Luxor). He enlisted in the Roman army and was gradually promoted until he became the leader of a legion consisting of approximately 6600 soldiers in Thebes, thus the name “Theban Legion”. During the reign of Emperor Maximian (286-305), the Roman Emperor for the Western Empire, the Berbers invaded the western borders of the Roman Empire. Maximian asked for the help of Emperor Diocletian, the Roman Emperor for the Eastern Empire. He sent the Theban Legion headed by Maurice to restrain the revolt of the Berbers. The legion camped all along the defense line on the western border of the empire, from Germany in the North to Italy in the South, passing through Switzerland. The defense center of the legion was in the area of Agauman, which lies close to the city of Lausanne in Switzerland. When the legion and its leader where asked to offer sacrifices to the idols and worship them, they refused and publicly confessed their Christian faith. Emperor Maximian was disturbed by the attitude of the legion’s leader and its members. He came and camped close to the legion’s leadership center and ordered the torture and killing of one tenth of the legion’s members, thinking that the rest would be afraid. But St. Maurice encouraged the soldiers to keep their Christian faith. As a result, the emperor ordered another tenth to be tortured and killed. During their torture, many miracles occurred and others started confessing their belief in Christ. St. Maurice sent a letter to the emperor declaring in it the legion’s loyalty to him, but at the same time their strict observance of their Christian faith. He explained that they were not rebelling against him as emperor. As a proof of this, the members of the legion gave up their weapons. The emperor was angered by St. Maurice’s perseverance and the loyalty of the legion’s members to their Christian faith. He ordered that St. Maurice be tortured and then killed, along with the members of the legion. Thus St. Maurice and members of his legion were martyred in Lausanne and along the defense line which extended from Germany to Italy.
The Church celebrates the martyrdom of St. Maurice on Toot 25th. In the current edition of the Coptic Synxarium, the life of St. Maurice is not mentioned. However, I presented a request to the Holy Synod’s Committee of Rites, which reviews the Synxarium, to add the life story of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion, as well as the life story of St. Verena. They agreed to the request, and their life stories will be included in the new edition of the Coptic Synxarium.
Beneficial Lessons to be learned from the Life of St. Maurice:
1. St. Maurice offers a living example of one who is faithful to Christ until the end. Like all martyrs, St. Maurice preferred to be tortured until death rather than deny Christ and worship the idols.
2. Although the Roman Emperor was not Christian, yet St. Maurice and the soldiers of the Theban Legion were loyal to him; they were faithful and fought courageously against the enemies of the emperor and the empire. However, when a conflict arose between their loyalty to Christ and their loyalty to the emperor, the choice was very clear for them, and they acted without hesitation. Therefore, the Christian person is patriotic to his country and its rulers, so long as this is not in conflict with his Christian faith. When a conflict arises, then God ought to be obeyed more than man.
3. St. Maurice and members of the Theban Legion were born in Egypt and lived there. Yet, they were martyred in Europe, which was pagan at that time. The stories of their torture and martyrdom caused many to believe in Christ. Thus the presence of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion was not only for a military duty, but actually they became missionaries by the way they lived, how they kept their Christian faith, and finally martyred. They give an example of missionary work in a foreign land.
We, too, can learn from this example. The Copts immigrated for economic, social, family reasons, or as a result of certain pressures they faced. But none came for missionary work. However, this doesn’t preclude the Copts from witnessing to Christ in the society in which they live. Missionary work can be accomplished by living in purity and holiness and being faithful to Christ even to death.
The life of St. Maurice reminds us of our responsibility to witness to Christ in the society, in which we live. St. Maurice’s missionary work depended on:
1. Complete understanding of the value of his Christian faith, to which he sacrificed everything, even his life.
2. His willingness to endure hardship and torture, even to death.
3. His pure life.
Witnessing to Christ requires understanding the Christian faith. The deeper we comprehend our Christian faith, the happier we become and the more proud we are of our faith. On the other hand, those who have a superficial understanding of the Christian faith find it easy to leave the true faith. The true understanding of the faith is actually one that is based on a life of purity and holiness. The true missionary person is the one who lives in holiness. Witnessing to Christ requires paying a price, and the one who witnesses must be ready to pay the price in full.
Whereas missionary work requires effort and sacrifice even to the point of shedding one’s blood, evangelism, which is accompanied by advertisement and praise, is easy and is deceiving to the soul. It makes the beginners in spiritual life think that they are evangelists like St. Paul, when in fact they only carry the name of a missionary.
St. Maurice and the members of the legion witnessed to Christ by their loyalty to their faith and by enduring torture and death. There weren’t any newspapers to write about them, nor were their pictures taken or movies made about them. Yet, their missionary work was effective. That is why many believed in Christ. Despite the elapse of hundred of years, their life story still gives forth fruit. On the other hand, evangelism, which is media-oriented, gives forth-minimal fruit and does not last long.
May our Lord grants us the ability to follow the example of St. Maurice in witnessing to Christ in a sacrificial way, which is accompanied by true knowledge.