By St. Dimitri of Rostov
The holy virgin-martyr Cecilia was born in Rome to honorable and wealthy parents. Hearing the Holy Gospel preached, she believed in Christ and resolved to preserve her virginity for Him, but contrary to her will, her parents betrothed her to a noble youth, an unbeliever named Valerian, and compelled her to array herself at all times in costly apparel and golden ornaments. Beneath her rich garments, however, she wore a rough hair shirt. Her heart burned with love for Christ God, her beloved Bridegroom, and she ever entreated Him with fervor of spirit that He preserve her chastity as He knew best, keeping her free of the entanglement of wedlock. When her wedding day arrived and the sound of piping could already be heard, she sighed from a broken heart and cried unto the Lord, "Let my heart be blameless in Thy statutes, that I may not be put to shame." Weeping bitterly, she besought Him to send an angel to defend her virginity.
After night fell, the newly wed couple was led into their room, and the maiden said to her bridegroom Valerian, "Beloved youth, I have a secret I wish to reveal to you. God’s angel, whom you cannot see, has been given me as guardian of my virginity. If you touch me, he will slay you at once, for he stands here ready to defend me, his handmaiden, from assault."
Hearing this, Valerian was terrified, and with good reason, because an angel had indeed been sent from heaven to preserve Christ’s bride undefiled. Valerian asked the maiden to show him the angel, but she replied, "You do not know the true God and will remain unable to see the Lord’s angel until you are cleansed of the impurity of unbelief."
"And how may I be cleansed of it?" asked Valerian.
Cecilia replied, "There is a man called Bishop Urban who is able to cleanse the impious by Holy Baptism, thus enabling them to see holy angels. If you wish to be washed clean and behold God’s angel, go and relate to him everything I have told you. When he has cleansed you, return, and you shall see the angel and receive whatever you desire of him."
"Where can I find this elder?" asked Valerian.
"Take the Appian Way," replied the maiden, "and when you come upon paupers, say to them, ’Cecilia sent me to you, asking that you take me to the elder Urban. She wishes me to relate a secret to him.’"
Valerian took the Appian Way, as his bride had instructed him, and found paupers who knew Saint Cecilia well, for she often gave them alms. They took him to Bishop Urban, who was hiding from his persecutors in graveyards, caves, and deserted temples. When Valerian told him what the holy virgin had said, the Bishop was filled with joy. Falling to his knees and lifting his hands unto heaven, Urban wept and said, "Verily, 0 Lord, Thy handmaiden is like a labour-loving bee that bringeth nectar to Thy Church! This youth entered her chamber like a lion, but she hath sent him to me a meek lamb. Had he not believed her words, he would never have come here. Wherefore, 0 Lord, open his heart to know Thee and to renounce Satan and his works."
After Urban had prayed thus, a venerable elder appeared, clad in a robe white as snow and holding a book in his hand. The elder stood before Valerian and opened the book for him to read. Overcome by the vision, Valerian fell to the ground. Then the honorable elder raised him up and said, "Read what is written in this book, my son, and you shall be granted cleansing and behold the angel that your bride promised to show you."
Valerian looked at the book and read these words, written in letters of gold, "One Lord, one faith, one Baptism; one God and Father of all, Who is above all and through all and in you all. Amen."
The elder then asked him, "Do you believe, child, that these things are true, or do you still doubt?"
Valerian answered with a mighty voice, "Truly, there is nothing beneath heaven more certain than this confession!"
Immediately, the elder disappeared. Then the blessed Bishop Urban began to instruct Valerian, expounding upon those words. After baptizing him, the Bishop sent the young man back to his holy bride.
Valerian found Cecilia at prayer, and beheld a most radiant angel of ineffable beauty standing beside her. The angel held in his hand two garlands made of red roses and white lilies, from which came a fragrance surpassing description. He placed one garland on the maiden’s head, the other on Valerian’s, and said, "Guard these wreaths by keeping your hearts pure and your bodies undefiled. I have brought them to you from God’s paradise. They never wither, nor do they lose their fragrance, and no one can see them save those who, like you, are lovers of chastity. It is because you have agreed to guard your purity that God has sent me to you, Valerian. He wishes you to have your desire."
Valerian bowed down before the angel and said, "There is no one in the world so dear to me as my brother Tiburtius. Therefore, I entreat the Lord to deliver him from demonic perdition and to convert him as He did me. May He grant us both to attain perfection in the confession of His holy name!"
"Your request is pleasing to God," said the angel, his face radiant, "and He will grant you the desire of your heart. The Lord will save your brother Tiburtius through you, as you were saved through the maiden, and together you shall undergo martyrdom."
After saying this, the angel became invisible. The blessed Valerian and the holy maiden rejoiced in Christ and continued to meet and converse about things profitable to the soul.
Shortly thereafter, Tiburtius came to Valerian and said to him, "I smell the fragrance of roses and lilies here. Where does this wonderful smell come from? I find it so delightful that my soul seems somehow renewed!"
"You can perceive this sweet fragrance, my beloved brother," said Valerian, "because I have prayed to God for you, asking that you be deemed worthy to receive an unfading crown and come to love Him Whose blood is like a red rose and Whose flesh like a white lily."
"Am I dreaming, or are you truly speaking with me, brother?" asked Tiburtius.
Valerian replied, "Until now, we lived as though in a dream, worshipping false gods and unclean demons; but now we walk in the truth and the grace of God."
Tiburtius asked, "Who taught you these things?"
Valerian answered, "It was an angel of God that taught me. You will also see him, if you cleanse yourself of the defilement of idolatry."
Tiburtius wished to see the angel, but Valerian told him it was necessary for him first to believe in the one, true God and to receive Holy Baptism, and that after this he could expect the angel to appear. The holy virgin Cecilia began to instruct Tiburtius in the holy faith, demonstrating to him that the gods of the pagans are false and their lifeless idols impotent, and revealing to him the might of the true God, our Lord Jesus Christ. So powerful was the divinely wise teaching of the holy virgin that Tiburtius straightway turned from unbelief and cried, "I believe there to be no God other than that of the Christians! From this time forth I desire to labor for Him alone."
When she heard this, the maiden was filled with ineffable joy and instructed Tiburtius with even greater zeal, telling him of the Incarnation of the Son of God and of His miracles, Passion, and death, which He endured out of love for the race of man. Hearing her speak of these things, Tiburtius’ heart grew contrite and was set afire with love for the Lord. Sensing the warmth of his faith, the virgin said to him, "If you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, go with your brother to our Christian Bishop and be baptized by him. Then, cleansed of your sins, you will be worthy to behold the angel."
Tiburtius looked at his brother in amazement and asked, "To whom do you wish to take me?"
"Let us go to the man of God, Urban," Valerian replied. "He is the Bishop of the Christians, an old, wise, and righteous man. His face is like that of an angel, and he speaks only the truth."
"Is this the same Urban I have heard was twice condemned to death and now is in hiding, hoping to escape his sentence?" asked Tiburtius. "If we go to him and those who seek him find us with him, they will slay us also."
Cecilia replied to Tiburtius’ words by telling him of the life eternal and unchanging in heaven that awaits those who die as holy martyrs for Christ. Then Tiburtius, burning with divine desire, said, "Let those who have been deprived of their senses love this fleeting life: I desire life eternal! Take me to the Bishop quickly, brother, so that he may cleanse me and make me a partaker of everlasting life."
Valerian took his brother to the blessed Urban and told him everything that had occurred. Urban rejoiced greatly over Tiburtius’ conversion and gladly baptized him, keeping him for seven days to instruct him fully in the mysteries of the holy faith. After his Baptism, Saint Tiburtius was deemed worthy of such grace that he saw holy angels and conversed with them, and received everything he asked of God. He and his brother worked numerous miracles, healing the sick, and distributed their possessions among needy Christians, orphans, and widows. Many were the prisoners whom they ransomed, and they reverently buried a multitude of the holy martyrs who were slain for Christ in those days.
All these things were reported to Almachius, the Eparch of the city, who in obedience to the Emperor’s command was mercilessly shedding the blood of God’s servants, torturing and executing the faithful. The Eparch commanded that Tiburtius and Valerian be seized and brought before him. Almachius asked them, "Why do you dishonor your noble estate and give burial to those who, in accordance with the Emperor’s command, have been put to death for their numerous transgressions? So doing, you have squandered your wealth on outcasts. Can it be that you have fallen into the same error as they?"
As the elder brother, Tiburtius answered, "May God deem us worthy to be counted among His servants, who have renounced that which seems to exist but does not, and have found that which would seem not to exist but does!"
"What do you mean, speaking of what seems to exist but does not?" asked the Eparch. "I do not understand you."
Tiburtius explained to Almachius that everything this transitory world possesses and promises merely appears to be, but in reality is nothing, because it quickly vanishes. But the life to come, which those who love this world imagine does not exist (for they cannot see it), truly exists and abides unchanging unto the ages. At the end of time the good and faithful shall receive a rich reward, but the evil and unbelieving shall inherit eternal fire and torments. The Eparch spoke with the brothers for a long time, and they offered him an explanation of the holy faith and told him the value of renunciation of the world. He did not accept their teaching, however, and demanded that they offer sacrifice to the gods.
Since the saints refused to obey his command, the Eparch ordered that Valerian be beaten mercilessly with a staff, but the saint rejoiced and said, "The time I have awaited has come! Today is my day of rejoicing!"
Meanwhile, a herald cried, "See and beware! Do not show disdain for the gods and goddesses!"
"Citizens of Rome," the holy martyr Valerian addressed the people, "do not let the torments I suffer turn you away from the truth! Make bold to destroy the idols of wood and stone, for all who worship them shall burn in fire eternal!"
Then a senator named Tarquinius came to the Eparch and said to him in secret, "If you do not hasten to put these men to death, the other Christians will give to the poor everything they possess, and nothing will remain for you."
The Eparch therefore ordered that both martyrs be taken to the place called Pagus, near the temple of Jupiter. If they did not consent to offer sacrifice there to Jupiter, the saints were to be beheaded. A chamberlain named Maximus was sent with the executioner and the soldiers to witness the beheading. On the way, he began to weep as he looked upon the holy passionbearers and said, "0 precious blossom of youth! 0 union of brotherly love! 0 comely pair of noble and honorable youths! Why do you voluntarily choose death, hastening as though to a great feast?"
Saint Tiburtius answered, "If we were not certain that eternal life awaits us, we would not rejoice at the thought of losing our lives in this fleeting world."
"What sort of life follows this life?" asked Maximus.
"As our flesh is covered by clothing, so our souls are clad by flesh. After death, the body returns to dust, but in time like a phoenix it will come to life. Moreover, if the soul is holy and righteous, it is straightway translated unto the good things of paradise, there to await the resurrection in joy."
Maximus was moved to compunction by these words and said, "If I knew for certain that I would inherit the life of which you speak, I also would renounce this fleeting life."
Saint Valerian said to the chamberlain, "If you wish to be certain to gain life everlasting, then vow to us that you will sincerely repent, turn away from error, and be converted unto the God Whom we preach; and we promise you that when we are beheaded and depart from the body, God will open your eyes, and you shall behold the glory of the life we inherit."
"May I be consumed by fire if from this hour I do not believe in the one God, Who grants us life eternal after this temporal life," vowed Maximus. "I ask only that you fulfill what you have promised."
"Order your servants not to hinder us from going to your house and remaining there for a short time, and we will attempt to bring to you someone who can enlighten your soul, so that you see clearly that which we have promised you," said the saints.
Maximus joyfully led the martyrs to his home, for none of the soldiers dared contradict his orders. There the saints preached the word of salvation, teaching the members of his household to believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. All those present listened attentively until nightfall, and Maximus, his entire household, and many of the soldiers came to believe. That night, the holy virgin Cecilia came to them, accompanied by priests. Everyone who believed was baptized, and passed the night in prayer and conversation about life eternal.
When the morning star appeared, the holy virgin said to Christ’s passionbearers, "Be brave, 0 soldiers of the Lord! Darkness has lifted and dawn has come; put on the garment of light and go forth to complete your contest. You have fought the good fight and finished your course; depart now to receive the crown of righteousness which the Lord shall bestow upon you."
The saints hastened to the place of execution, and as they passed the temple of Jupiter, the priests sought to compel them to offer incense on the god’s altar, for no one was permitted to pass by the temple without sacrificing. All those who entered or left the city were stopped by the priests and led to Jupiter’s altar, but the martyrs refused to obey, and mocked the priests’ foolishness. Because of this, their sacred heads were promptly cut off.
Immediately after the saints’ execution, Maximus swore before everyone present, saying, "I behold God’s angels shining like the sun! They have taken the souls of the martyrs to heaven in great honor, escorting their blessed spirits to a place of repose as though they were fair maidens being led into a bridal chamber." At this, many of the heathen believed in Christ.
The Eparch learned that Maximus had accepted the Christian faith, and commanded that he be beaten mercilessly with rods. While this was being done, the martyr surrendered his soul into the hands of the Lord. His body was taken by the holy virgin Cecilia, who buried it with the remains of the holy martyrs Tiburtius and Valerian. She had the image of a phoenix depicted on Maximus’ tomb since he had come to believe in the resurrection of the dead after hearing it likened to the rising of a phoenix.
Later, the Eparch ordered that a search be made for the possessions of Tiburtius and Valerian. Nothing was found, however, because Saint Cecilia had already distributed everything to the poor. He therefore sent his servants to seize the blessed maiden. When they came to take her away, she said to them, "Hear me, brethren: although you are servants of the Eparch, I do not think you find pleasure in his unbelief. It is my desire to suffer and die for my Christ, and I wish to have no further part in this fleeting existence, because I seek life everlasting. Take me away, so that I may depart unto heaven more quickly! Have no pity for my youth, but deliver me unto death!"
The servants felt compassion for the saint, marvelling at how such a fair, wise, and noble maiden could so desire death. They entreated her not to destroy her beauty by voluntarily accepting torments, so she said to them, "I do not destroy my youthful beauty but exchange it for something better, trading filth for gold, clay for precious stones, and the worldly habitation of the body for the most radiant palaces of heaven. Do you truly suppose this is a poor exchange? If only you would make it also!"
Cecilia spoke for a long time about the reward that awaits the righteous, and everyone who heard her was moved to compunction. Indeed, a great multitude of people, both men and women, had gathered in her house to hear her teaching. The saint then cried out to all with a loud voice, "Do you believe that everything I have told you is true?"
With one voice they replied, "We believe that the Christ Whom you preach and serve is the true God!"
The holy virgin was filled with unutterable joy and at once sent for Bishop Urban, who came to her house and baptized the four hundred men and women who had come to believe. Thus did Cecilia’s house become a church of Christ.
After these things had taken place, the unjust Eparch Almachius had Christ’s righteous handmaiden brought before his judgment seat. He began by questioning her concerning the faith and heard her preach the name of Christ. Then he said to her in a harsh voice, "Where did you acquire such boldness?"
"From a pure conscience and undoubting faith," replied the saint.
"Do you not know, wretch, that the Emperor has given me power to destroy you or to grant you life?" asked the judge.
The saint answered, "You lie when you say that you have power to grant life. You ought to have said only that you have power to put to death, not to give life, for while you can slay, you can give life to no one!"
The judge insisted, "Sacrifice to the gods and renounce Christ, and you will be set free."
But Cecilia declared instead that she was prepared to die for Christ, so the persecutor commanded that she be taken to her home and put to death in an overheated bathhouse. She was tormented by the flames and smoke for three days and nights, but the grace of God cooled and revived her. When Almachius learned that the martyr was still alive after remaining so long in the blazing bath, he ordered that she be beheaded by the sword. The executioner came and struck her neck thrice but failed to sever her head. Leaving her thus, he departed. The faithful gathered up her blood with a sponge and cloth, and the saint remained alive for another three days, speaking plainly and confirming the believers in the faith. Finally, while praying, she delivered her soul into God’s hands and was buried with reverence.
A Church was later erected in her name at the place of her martyrdom, in her house in Rome, and her memory was honored in the catacomb of St. Kallistos. Her tomb was discovered in 817, and when it was opened in 1599, her Holy Relics were uncovered—intact and unharmed, in a state of incorruption.
The original Latin text of the martyrdom of St. Cecilia relates that during her wedding, while the melodies of worldly music resounded, the Saint sang hymns of love in her heart to Jesus, her true Bridegroom. Perhaps this is why St. Cecilia is associated with music in the West, where she is considered its Patron Saint.
To read about the discovery of the relics of St. Cecilia, see here.
HYMN OF PRAISE: The Holy Martyr Cecilia
By St. Nikolai Velimirovich
Cecilia-strong in faith, rich in faith -
Her faith is more beautiful than the stars, more precious than gold.
She nailed herself to the Lord, as to the Cross,
And sacrificed youth, joy, marriage and honor for Christ!
The cruel demon could steal nothing from her;
And when only her body remained, she gave it to Christ.
For the love of Christ, she gave the whole world -
Even two worlds: her body and her pure soul.
Thus does the flame of faith burn, and the flame of love,
And by that flame, Cecilia glorified herself.
Kontakion in the Fourth Tone
In godly wise let us, the hosts of the faithful, sing hymns to her wedded to Christ of her own will, Cecilia, whose pure heart with virtues was adorned; for she wholly put to shame the conceit of Almacius, and she shone bright as the sun amidst them that pursued her and then appeared to those upon the earth as a divine staff that strengthened the holy Faith.