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October 14, 2010

Four Martyrs of Milan - Nazarios, Gervasios, Protasios and Celsus

Sts. Nazarios, Gervasios, Protasios and Celsus of Milan (Feast Day - October 14)

Among the Lives of Saints which have come down to us from the dawn of Christianity, we are fortunate to have the story of the four martyrs: Nazarios, Gervasios, Protasios and Celsus. Their holy memory is preserved not only by the Orthodox Church but also by pious Catholics in Milan where their relics are kept in the Basilica of St. Ambrose.

St. Nazarios was born in Rome. His father was a Jew and his mother, Perpetua, was a Christian who had been baptized by the Apostle Peter. No doubt it was thanks to her prayers that Nazarius, upon coming of age, chose to embrace the Christian faith, He was baptized by St. Linus who succeeded the Apostle as Bishop of Rome.

Nazarios showed himself to be desirous not only of his own salvation but also that of others. He was very generous in almsgiving and in leaving Rome for Milan he gave away his possessions to the poor and used his inheritance to ease the lot of those Christians suffering in prison as a result of Nero's persecutions.

Among those who benefited from Nazarios' devout conversations and material aid were the twin brothers Gervasios and Protasios who longed for a martyr's crown. Nazarios felt such love for these zealots that he regretted having to part from them and would have preferred to die in their place.

The regional governor, Anulinus, soon heard of Nazarios' activities among the prisoners and commanded that he be brought to trial. Learning that Nazarios was a Roman by birth, Anulinus tried to persuade him to respect his ancestors' idols which Romans from antiquity had honored with sacrifices and obeisances. Nazarios made bold to reproach the governor and ridicule the pagan religion, whereupon the governor ordered that he be beaten on the mouth. When Nazarios persisted in confessing the One True God, he was beaten still more and banished from the city in dishonor. St. Nazarios was grieved over his separation from his friends Gervasios and Protasios, but he rejoiced that he had been found worthy to suffer for Christ and found comfort in His words: "Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for My sake" (Matt. 5:11).

The following night his mother appeared to him in a dream and told him to go to Gaul, and there to labor in spreading the Gospel. Nazarios willingly journeyed westward, preaching Christ and enlightening many with knowledge of the True God.

In the city of Melia he received from the hands of a certain noble and believing woman a three year-old boy by the name of Celsus. Nazarios had him baptized and educated him in piety. His efforts were crowned with success, for when the boy grew older he worked alongside his preceptor in preaching the Gospel. Their mutual zeal made them a vulnerable target. In Trier they were seized by idol-worshipers and taken to Nero himself who tried all manner of torture before finally having them thrown into the sea to drown. But the Almighty God was pleased to show favor towards His beloved confessors, and He caused them to walk upon the water as on a flat field. Seeing this miracle, the Emperor's servants believed Christ to be the true God and accepted baptism from St. Nazarios. They did not return to Nero's court but began to serve their new Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.

St. Nazarios returned with his disciple to Milan where he resumed his preaching of the Gospel. On this account he was brought once again before the governor Anulinus who, on learning that Nazarios had been in the hands of Nero himself, marveled that he was still among the living, for he knew Nero's tyrannical cruelty. In vain did the governor try to force Nazarius and Celsus to worship the pagan gods. Thrown into prison, they were overjoyed to find themselves in the company of Gervasios and Protasios. In time, however, Nero learned of Nazarios' and Celsus' miraculous escape from the jaws of death; greatly angered, he sent a decree to Anulinus ordering their immediate execution, and the heads of these two martyrs were cut off with a sword.

A Christian living in the city environs secretly obtained their holy remains and brought them to his home. Upon his arrival, his ailing daughter rose up from her bed as though she had never been ill. The family rejoiced at this miracle and reverently buried the bodies of the martyrs in a fresh grave in their garden.

Shortly after the beheading of Nazarios and Celsus, there arrived in the city of Milan the military leader Astasios who was anxious for a victory in the war against Moravia to the north. The pagan priests suggested that to win the favor of the gods Astasios force Gervasios and Protasios to sacrifice to the idols. Gervasios died under the beatings, and Protasios was finally beheaded. And so they joined their beloved friends Nazarios and Celsus in the choir of martyrs. A Christian by the name of Philip took the martyrs' bodies and buried them at his home.

The relics of all four martyrs lay hidden in the earth until they were discovered late in the fourth century by St. Ambrose of Milan. The finding of the relics of St. Nazarios is described by the presbyter Paulinus in his Life of St. Ambrose:

"We saw in the grave...blood as though it had just flowed out of the body. The head with hair and beard was so preserved that it was as if it had just now been placed into the grave. The face was radiant..." The relics of the martyr Celsus were found nearby and the remains of both martyrs were solemnly transferred to the Cathedral of the Holy Apostles in Milan.

St. Ambrose himself describes the vision which led to the discovery of the relies of the holy martyrs Gervasios and Protasios.

One night, during a time of prayer and fasting, St. Ambrose fell into such a state that, he says, "although wanting to, I did not sleep, nor did I feel anything. I then saw two youths in white garments, raising their hands upwards and praying. Possessed with drowsiness, I was unable to speak with them, and when I came to myself they were no longer visible." Not knowing if this were a revelation from God or a delusion sent by the devil, St. Ambrose intensified his fast and begged God to make it clear to him. A second night the youths appeared to him as before. The third night they appeared again together with a man resembling the Apostle Paul as he is portrayed in his icons. Pointing to the youths, he said to St. Ambrose: "These are those who, hearing my words, despised the world and its riches, and followed our Lord Jesus Christ ... Their bodies you will discover lying in a tomb beneath the very place you are standing and praying. Remove them from the earth and build a church in their honor."

Summoning his brother bishops, St. Ambrose related to them his vision, and they began to dig. They found the bodies of the martyrs, which emitted a most wonderful fragrance. In the grave near their heads was a small book written by the slave of God Philip who had preserved for posterity the names of these martyrs and certain details from their life. Their parents, Vitaly and Valeria, both died as confessors of the Faith. The orphaned twins sold their belongings, freed their slaves, and for ten years gave themselves wholeheartedly to prayer, fasting and spiritual reading. In the eleventh year they were imprisoned by Anulinus and suffered the death of their bodies for the sake of eternal life with Jesus Christ.

When their holy relics were taken from the earth, the sick began to receive healing, demons were driven out of people, the blind received sight. Then the holy Ambrose remembered that in the city was a well-known blind man by the name of Severgnus; as soon as he touched the edge of the garments on the martyrs' relics, the darkness of the blind was scattered and he saw the light of day. [This particular miracle is mentioned also by St. Augustine in his book The City of God].

Through the prayers of Thy Saints, O Lord, enlighten our spiritual eyes that we may walk in the light of Thy Countenance and in Thy Name rejoice forever. Amen.


Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
Thy Martyrs, O Lord, in their courageous contest for Thee received as the prize the crowns of incorruption and life from Thee, our immortal God. For since they possessed Thy strength, they cast down the tyrants and wholly destroyed the demons' strengthless presumption. O Christ God, by their prayers, save our souls, since Thou art merciful.

Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
Let us praise the fourfold company of martyrs: Nazarios, Gervasios, Protasios and Celsus. For they preached the Trinity to all and by their contest dispelled the worship of idols. Through their prayers, O Christ God, have mercy on us all.

Kontakion in the Second Tone
In shedding the light of miracles like shining lamps, O Martyrs of God, ye make the whole creation bright, at all times dispelling the deepest night of sickness and maladies and without cease pleading with Christ, the only God, that He grant His mercy to us.