Mike Aquilina

Spare Tyre

Monday July 24th 2006, 3:04 am

Among the many sad reports coming in from the Middle East is news of the bombing of certain “cultural heritage” areas. In these lands where Christianity first grew that often means the damage or destruction of some portion of our story, our means of self-understanding, the relics of our ancestors, the ancient saints. As the saints of our own time die in the explosions, we lose much of our living memory as well, the Church’s tradition that has been handed down in these lands through millennia. It seems that ancient Tyre, in Lebanon, is especially endangered.

Tyre was the home of Christina, a saint traditionally honored on this day, July 24. Christina lived in the third century and was martyred in the very early years of the fourth century, during the persecution of Diocletian. We have early but sketchy records of her life and cult, including a sixth-century mosaic at Ravenna and a fifth-century papyrus that tells her tale (probably embellished, however).

The story goes that her father, Urbanus, was governor of Tyre and environs, and so was charged with enforcing the empires laws regarding religion. The family was, of course, pagan. When Christina was eleven, she was already very beautiful, and many sought her hand in marriage. She was also very virtuous. Some stories say that young Christina was attracted to Christianity, and this enraged her father; others say that he wished her to become a pagan priestess. But most versions agree that he had her locked up, where her solitude gave time for contemplation, which drew her closer to the true God. She began to convert her attendants one by one.

Finding out about this, Urban beat his daughter and had all her servants put to death. She would not renounce the faith. Nor would she recant when she was brought to trial, and then put to torture by fire and thrown into the sea — all of which she survived. Returned to prison, she was something of a celebrity, attracting crowds of gawkers and genuine seekers. To all she preached Christ. Her father was replaced by a new governor, and then he was replaced by another, who ordered Christina thrown into a furnace, another ordeal she survived. She was then taken to the arena, where the torturers cut out her tongue, so that she might no longer speak of Jesus Christ. And there, in God’s time, she was executed by arrows or by sword — again depending on which version of the story we read.

We know little (or nothing) with certainty about the life of St. Christina or the lives of many of her fellow martyrs in Lebanon. But we know that they are intercessors now before the throne of the Lamb, and that they cry out, “How long?” (Rev 6:10).

St. Christina and all you martyrs of the Middle East, pray peace for your lands today!

And as for you, gentle reader: You might consider reading William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain. It’s a moving (though far from perfect) account of his travels among the vanishing Christian peoples of the Middle East.