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October 9, 2014

"Cephalophore" and "Self-Cephalophore" Saints

By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos
of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

Nowadays we are also experiencing this great barbarity, where journalists and other people are publicly decapitated and the camera captures this barbaric act. At the same time there takes place something shown by the cameras, where jihadists hold the severed head, and so they are "cephalophores" [head-carriers]. No one is able to write about something like this.

An Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, when he was a prisoner of jihadists in Afghanistan seven years ago, experienced the decapitation of two of his co-workers who were Afghans, and he described the tragic moments that one experiences at this time, as well as the days and hours prior to the decapitation. "For one to spend such a long period of time with a fanatical army who despise him, but at the same time take care of him as if he were a great treasure, means that this man constantly lives with death. Only when darkness falls and silence covers everything can he experience a moment of respite. He is calm and not drowning while awaiting trial for his time, the time he will find himself before his executioner. Anxiety still remains. He knows he can die, but he doesn't have time to think, he doesn't have time to see his life like a movie, he doesn't have time to imagine the horror and pain of a knife cutting his neck. He wants to continue to live." While the victims with their eyes wide open await their beheading, according to the Italian journalist, they cannot see anything except death. "At that time you are paralyzed by fear. You don't know what will come to pass. You cannot scream, rise up, move or react against the death that awaits you" (From Days of Fear: A Firsthand Account of Captivity Under the New Taliban).

One is horrified reading such descriptions of events that take place in the 21st century, an age in which the world boasts of progress, science, respect and human rights.

Yet, while reading such things, I thought of the Christian martyrs of the early persecutions, among whom many were decapitated in the same inhuman and barbaric way as they are today, such as St. John the Forerunner, the Baptist of Christ. Reading the synaxaria of the saints, we encounter the phrase "perfected by the sword", as well as other similar expressions that denote their beheading.

One also thinks of the serenity of the martyrs during their imprisonment and martyrdom, the prayers they made on behalf of their tormentors, and the love they had for God, awaiting the moment to be born in heaven and have communion with God, the Panagia and the saints. And the Church celebrates the day of their martyrdom as the day of their birth.

In Orthodox iconography there is a category of icons that depict the martyrs who were beheaded, beginning with the Honorable Forerunner, holding in their hands their head severed from their body and offering it to Christ. These saints bear the title of "self-cephalophores". There is a wonderful thesis by Alex Orphanos titled Αὐτοκεφαλοφόροι ἅγιοι-μάρτυρες καί κεφαλοφόροι ἁγίων-μαρτύρων στήν Ὀρθόδοξη τέχνη (Self-Cephalophore Holy Martyrs and Cephalophore Holy Martyrs in Orthodox Art) that refers to such subjects. What a wondrous act for someone to offer their head, where the most sensible organs of the body are, to Christ.

Certainly, we condemn such barbaric actions, but we are amazed by the "cephalophore saints". Above all we consider it a great honor to belong to the Orthodox Church that has given us such heroic martyrs, whom we celebrate daily. This honor is a particular responsibility for us in order to encounter such a blessing.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "«Κεφαλοφόροι» καί «αὐτοκεφαλοφόροι»", October 2014. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.