Augustine Sokolovski

On August 25, orthodox Churches of the Julian calendar celebrate the memory of the martyr Alexander the Coalman. The saint was bishop of the city of Comana Pontica and suffered for Christ during the reign of the Roman emperor Aurelian (270-275). According to the place of his ministry and suffering, the saint is also called Alexander of Comana.

Information about Alexander came to us thanks to the sermon about the life of St. Gregory the Wonderworker, written by Gregory of Nyssa (335-395). Gregory the Wonderworker was Bishop of Neocaesarea. The great Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa considered themselves his disciples. It is important that Gregory of Nyssa himself came from Neocaesarea and was named after this holy bishop by his parents.

In the first centuries of the Christian era, the city of Comana was closely associated with the cult of one of the female deities. In honor of her, ritual orgies were performed, a significant part of the population consisted of a huge number of priests of this idol. Recall that these areas were located in the historical region of Pontus in the northeast of Asia Minor. Comana was in the church metropolis of Gregory of Neocaesarea.

According to the life, Alexander was a philosopher. In adulthood, he was converted to Christ through the reading of the Scriptures. Being a native and resident of Comana, he, as a Christian, could no longer live by teaching. Then he radically changed his former way of life and began working as a coal miner. His face was black with soot. Those around him laughed at him. “If you are so smart, then why are you so poor,” - following this proverb, they believed that Christianity was the cause of such social collapse.

Evangelization was a constant feat of Gregory of Neocaesarea. While preaching Christianity, he was not afraid to proclaim Christ in places that seemed cursed to other people. That is why he came to Comana to found a community and decided to leave behind a bishop. Here a disagreement arose between him and a few local Christians.

The fact is that one of the fundamental duties of a bishop in the Ancient Church was to help those in need. Even though officially Christianity was forbidden, the bishop, as a rule, was known and had a certain social status. 

This elevation also meant that at the moment of the persecution of Christians, it was the bishop who was destined to die first. In this sense, one should understand the exclamation "Axios" - worthy of the martyr’s crown - which has been preserved in the Orthodox liturgy. It is no coincidence that it is not pronounced before the ordination, but after, as a prophecy pronounced by the people.

In peaceful times, when the persecution of Christians was quickly forgotten, a tempting dilemma arose whether a bishop should be a wealthy person in order to be able to help and influence, or whether his most important feature at all times was impeccability. In a dispute with Gregory, local Christians asked Gregory to supply them with a rich man. But he was looking for moral dignity and knowledge of the Scriptures.

As a result, such sacred stubbornness caused general indignation. “If you want to live according to the commandments, then put Alexander!”.

Apparently, by that time the “coal miner” really managed to become forgotten and no one remembered his previous biography. Contemporaries saw in such a loss of their own social significance a harbinger of death. But for the ascetics, the departure from public life into total obscurity meant the re-creation of the likeness of God, whom, according to Scripture, "no one has ever seen" (cf. John 1:18).

However, what sounded like a mockery to those around him became a clear acclamation for Gregory. According to this seemingly incredible practice of the Ancient Church, the universal popular proclamation of the candidate's name, not motivated in advance, was considered the voice of the Holy Spirit, and meant election through a sign.

Gregory, in a prophetic gesture, ordained Alexander a bishop. His tenure at the head of the local small church was evangelical. A few years later, when the Christianization of the city, thanks to his work, became apparent, he was seized by a mob and subjected to torture. Failing to get him to renounce Christ, the pagans burned him alive. So, the profession of a coal-burner, which the philosopher, who became a Christian, perceived as an exercise in asceticism, turned out to be a prophecy about the glorious fate of martyrdom that awaited him as bishop.