Augustine Sokolovski

On October 5, churches following the Julian liturgical calendar commemorate St. Phocas of Sinope. The saint was a man of a very righteous life, a seer, and a bishop. He lived an apostolic life and for his confession of faith in Christ he suffered under the emperor Trajan (117-138). In ancient times, in Asia Minor, Antioch, and later in Rus', Phocas was highly revered as a helper in trouble and a miracle worker.

Phocas is one of the few martyrs of the early Church whose names are preserved in the Orthodox Menologion. Precious details of his life are preserved in the eulogy of Bishop Asterius of Amasea (350-410). Like other narratives of ancient lives, they are sparkling, addressed to the very essence and very short.

We find additional brief information about the saint in a sermon of John Chrysostom (349-407), some menologies and works of other authors. It is from them that we also learn that Phocas was the bishop of the Christians in Sinope. In this city, which exists to this day on the Black Sea coast in the north of Anatolia, there was a large port in those days. The preaching of Christianity, as in apostolic times, was facilitated by the crossing of many roads and trade routes. According to his life, he had knowledge in navigation, perhaps for some time he was engaged in port work.

Like Paul (Acts 18:3), who, while preaching the gospel, earned his living by making tents, Phocas' occupation was the craft of a gardener. The church of that time did not know monasticism, so Phocas simply lived alone. As Voltaire (1694-1778) once dreamily spoke of such a way of life, he simply "cultivated his garden." Like all Christians of that time, in deed and word, according to the commandment of the Apostle, he always preached the good news about the Lord (cf. 2 Tim. 4:2).

For the first two centuries of the history of the Church, the Roman Empire did not systematically persecute Christians. Those who believed in Christ suffered with the Jews in the beginning. When the latter renounced any relationship with the followers of Jesus, moreover, they themselves began to contribute to the persecution of the "new faith", Christians were persecuted for confessing the One God and believing in Jesus as Lord. Often death came in the frenzy of the crowd, and the accusation took place based on a denunciation.

According to the life, in a mystical vision, Phocas foresaw that such an accusation was soon to fall on his head. Not wanting his disciples and those whom he converted to Christianity to suffer along with him, the saint himself, on the road leading to the city, met his slanderers. Like the biblical Abraham, but this time not for wandering angels, but for demons in human form, Phocas hospitably treated the friends of his last minute. “I will bury the grape seed in warm soil, and kiss the vine and pick ripe bunches; and I will call my friends, I will set my heart on love,” as it is sung about in the song of the Poet Bulat Okudzhava (1924-1997) in the image of the Last Supper of Jesus.

In order not to bother the visitors, Phocas first dug his own grave and prepared a place for burial. Having discovered that the lonely gardener was indeed a Christian, the enemies closed him in a red-hot bath and, leaving him to die, left. The body of the saint was seen off by the disciples and mourned by the birds in the garden. Previously, they did not know worries, because the saint, like the Heavenly Father, fed them (cf. Mt. 6:26).

Centuries later, the relics of the saint were found and in the time of John Chrysostom they were laid in Constantinople. Two churches were dedicated to him in the capital. Preaching about the bringing of the relics of the saint, Chrysostom describes the sea of fires and light that then shone at night over the Bosporus!

Phocas is commemorated several times a year, which testifies to his significant veneration in antiquity. Due to the circumstances of his martyrdom, Phocas was revered as the savior of the drowning, those in distress on the water and the protector from fires.

There is an amazing succession among the saints. Like philosophers, and poets, they, and, before, even biblical prophets (1 Sam.19-20), they, listening to the voice of grace, learned from each other. In his simple way of life, Phocas became a prototype for St. Spyridon of Cyprus (270-348), and, in proximity to people and help to sailors, he helps us to understand St. Nicholas (270-343). Being close to Phocas in terms of time and places of service, they, and many others, were undoubtedly inspired by his example. The theology of the holiness of the saints is a source of inspiration.

It is significant that Phocas’ summer memory day in the orthodox liturgical calender coincides with the celebration in honor of Mary Magdalene. According to the Gospel, when Mary saw the Risen One, she did not recognize Him and mistook Him for a gardener who took the Body of the Lord from the community (John 20:11-18). This amazing coincidence of the days of memory of Mary the Myrrhbearer and Phocas the Gardener, as he is called in some menologies, is deeply symbolic. Others saw before them a solitary gardener, the people of God a miracle worker, the princes of the Church a bishop of equal rank to them. But Phocas of Sinope himself, by the power of grace, revealed the image of Jesus - the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, a man named Resurrection.