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January 21, 2020

Our Venerable Father Maximus the Confessor (+ 662)

St. Maximus the Confessor (Feast Day - January 21)

By Hieromonk Makarios of Simonopetra

Saint Maximus* was born into one of the great families of Constantinople in 580.** Endowed with exceptional intelligence and an uncommon ability for high philosophical speculation, he completed his studies with great distinction and embarked on a political career. The Emperor Heraclius, on coming to the throne in 610, appointed him as his chief secretary; but honors, power and riches could not quench the secret longing of Maximus since his youth to lead a life in keeping with the true philosophy. He resigned his post after only three years and became a monk at the Monastery of the Mother of God at Chrysopolis (Scutari, modern Uskudar). Well prepared for spiritual combat through meditation on Holy Scripture and study of the holy Fathers, he climbed steadily up the ladder of virtues leading to blessed impassibility. He overcame the impulses of lust through well-regulated ascesis, and of anger through meekness. Freeing his mind thereby from the tyranny of the passions, he nourished his intellect through prayer, raising it peaceably to the heights of contemplation. In the silence of his cell, gazing into the abyss of his heart, he considered within himself the great Mystery of our Salvation — whereby the Word of God, moved by His infinite love for mankind, has condescended to unite Himself to our nature, which is separated from God and divided against itself by self-centred love (philautia); He has thus restored the unity of our nature, brought in the reign of brotherly love and concord among men, and opened to us the way of union with God, for "God is Love" (1 John 4:16).

Having thus spent twelve years in hesychia, he settled with his disciple Anastasius in the small Monastery of St George at Cyzicus. It was there that his earliest works were written: ascetic treatises on the struggle against the passions, on prayer, impassibility and holy love. But faced with the combined attack on Constantinople of the Avars and the Persians (626) — repulsed only through the miraculous assistance of the Mother of God*** — the monks were obliged to disperse. Saint Maximus embarked on an itinerant life. He had from now on to bear witness through his life and his writings to the loving kindness of God in the aftermath of the Persian invasions, with the Empire on the brink of catastrophe. While staying in Crete, he began the struggle for Orthodoxy by confronting the Monophysite theologians. He then spent some time in Cyprus and, in 632, arrived at Carthage. There he met and put himself under the spiritual direction of Saint Sophronius (11 Mar), a theologian renowned for his Orthodoxy and with a profound understanding of monastic tradition, who was staying at the Monastery of Eukrata with other monks who had fled from Palestine after the fall of Jerusalem to the Persians.

During these years (626-34), before he was engaged in the struggle for the faith, Saint Maximus was able, in his exposition of the philosophical and theological foundations of Orthodox spirituality, to sound, as no one before him, the depths of the doctrine of deification. In profound and complex treatises on difficult passages of Holy Scripture, on problems raised by Saint Dionysius the Areopagite and Saint Gregory the Theologian, and in his writings on the Holy Liturgy, Saint Maximus presents a magnificent theological synthesis. He sees man as placed by God in the world to be the priest of a cosmic liturgy and as called upon to gather together the inner principles (logoi) of all things in order to offer them to the Divine Word — the Logos — their Principle, in a free exchange of love; so that in fulfilling the plan for which he has been created — his union with God — he also leads the entire universe to perfection in Christ, the God-man (Theanthropos).

Ever since his accession to the throne, the Emperor Heraclius (610-41) had striven to reorganize the shaken Roman Empire and to prepare for a counter-offensive against the Persians by a series of administrative and military reforms, and above all by reestablishing unity among Christians, lest the Monophysites turn to the Persians or to the Arabs. Obedient to the wishes of the Emperor, Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, devised a dogmatic formula capable of satisfying the Monophysites without denying the Council of Chalcedon. According to this compromise-doctrine of Monoenergism, the human nature of Christ would have remained passive and neutralized, the energy proper to it having been absorbed by the energy of the Word of God. In fact, this was no more than a matter of thinly disguised Monophysitism, where the term nature was replaced by that of energy. In 630 the Emperor appointed Cyrus of Fasis as Patriarch of Alexandria with the mission of bringing about a union with the Monophysites, who were particularly numerous in Egypt.

No sooner was the union signed (633) than talk in the taverns of Alexandria was of how the Chalcedonians had been won to the Monophysite cause; and Saint Sophronius was alone in raising his voice in defense of the two natures of Christ. He made his way to Alexandria to visit Cyrus who, wishing to avoid on open rift, sent him on to Sergius at Constantinople. After long discussions with no real result, Sophronius found himself forbidden to pursue any further the debate on the natures and the energies. He returned to Palestine, where he was welcomed by the people as the pillar of Orthodoxy, and elected Patriarch of Jerusalem at the very moment when the Arabs were invading the country and entering upon a train of conquests which would imperil the Empire more than ever before. Upon his election, Saint Sophronius published an encyclical letter in which he made clear that Christ is one Person having two natures and two operations (energies), each nature possessing the energy proper to it.

Meanwhile, still in Carthage, Saint Maximus warily entered the dogmatic struggle in support of his spiritual father and, while respecting the prohibition against speaking of the two energies, he showed with finesse that: "Christ accomplishes in virtue of his Manhood what belongs to His Godhead (namely His miracles) and in virtue of his Godhead what belongs to His Manhood (namely His life-giving Passion)." But in 638 when the Emperor Heraclius published the Ecthesis, an edict reiterating the prohibition against speaking of the two energies and making acknowledgement of a single will in Christ obligatory on all (Monothelitism), Saint Maximus had to lay caution aside and come out with a public statement of the truth. In fact Saint Sophronius had died that same year and Maximus was now regarded by all as the most authoritative spokesman of Orthodoxy. Once again, as at the time of Saint Athanasius or of Saint Basil, support of the true Faith depended on only one man.

In his many letters addressed to the Pope of Rome, to the Emperor and to people of influence in the State, as well as in treatises of unsurpassed depth, Maximus the Wise showed that the Word of God, through an infinite love and respect for His creature, has assumed human nature in its entirety, altering nothing of its freedom. Free to draw back from the Passion, inasmuch as man, He voluntarily submitted to the divine will and plan, thus opening to us the way of Salvation by submission and obedience (Matt. 26:39). Human freedom, united perfectly to the absolute freedom of God in the Person of Christ, thus finds itself restored in its natural movement towards union with God and with other men through love. Those things which the experience of prayer and of contemplation had permitted him to catch sight of, Maximus was henceforth able to expound, basing the doctrine of the deification of man on the theology of the Incarnation. No Father of the Church before him had gone so deeply into the examination of human freedom, and of its union with God in the Person of Christ and in the person of each Saint. With Saint Maximus, the Orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation receives its most complete exposition. It only remained for Saint John of Damascus (4 Dec.) to present it later in a more accessible manner, in order to pass it on to future generations as an unchanging tradition.

Sergius of Constantinople died in 638, and the next Patriarch, Pyrrhus, was a keen advocate of the new heresy. However, despite official pressure, a large proportion of Christians resisted the tenor of the imperial decree and, shortly before his death in 641, Heraclius was obliged to recognize that his ecclesiastical policy had failed. Pyrrhus, who had fallen from favor, fled to Africa and faced Saint Maximus at Carthage in a public disputation on the Person of Christ (645). Setting forth the Mystery of Salvation with reasoning of unswerving vigor, the Saint succeeded in making Pyrrhus recognize his errors and the Patriarch offered to go to Rome, in order to himself cast the anathema on Monothelitism before the tomb of the Apostles. However, he returned to his vomit soon after and fled to Ravenna. Pope Theodore excommunicated him straight away and condemned Paul, his successor on the throne of Constantinople, for heresy.

Fearing that an open breach with Rome would aggravate the political situation, which was more critical than ever now that the Arabs had overrun Egypt, the Emperor Constans II (641-68) responded to the Pope's intervention by publishing the Typos (648), which forbade all Christians on pain of severe punishment to discuss the two natures and the two wills. The Orthodox now began to be harassed and persecuted, especially the monks and the friends of Saint Maximus. He himself went to join Pope Martin I (13 April) in Rome who, adamant in defense of the true Faith, assembled the Lateran Council (649), which condemned Monothelitism and rejected the imperial edict. Inflamed with wrath at this opposition, the Emperor Constans sent an Exarch to Rome at the head of an army (653). The Pope, sick and powerless, was arrested and taken, with much ill-treatment on the way, to Constantinople. He was condemned there as a criminal, subjected to public insult and exiled thence to Cherson, where he died in the most wretched conditions in September 655.

As for Saint Maximus, he had been arrested shortly before Saint Martin, together with his faithful disciple Athanasius and another Athanasius, the Pope's apocrisiary (20 Sept.). He had already spent many months in prison before coming before the same tribunal that had so odiously passed sentence on the Bishop of Rome. It was made to appear that the champion of Orthodoxy was on trial for political offenses; he was accused of obstinate resistance to imperial authority, of having favored the Arab conquest of Egypt and Africa and, furthermore, of having sown division in the Church by his doctrine. With his mind fixed on God and with love for his enemies, the Saint answered the lying imputations with unruffled calm. Denying that he held any peculiar doctrine of his own, he declared that he was ready to break communion with all the Patriarchates and even to die rather than throw his conscience into confusion by betraying the Faith. Condemned to exile, he was taken to Byzia in Thrace, while his disciple Athanasius was transported to Perberis and the other Athanasius to Mesembria.

In the course of his trial, Saint Maximus heard that the new Pope, Eugenius I, was prepared to accept a compromise, in an exposition of the Faith alleging a third energy in Christ. He therefore wrote a letter to Rome setting out the Orthodox doctrine, and this resulted in a revolt of the people and in the Pope's accepting consecration without the consent of the Emperor. It was by this time clear to Constans that he would be unable to win over the Orthodox until he had prevailed with Maximus: he therefore sent Bishop Theodosius and two able courtiers to reason with him. In spite of his long imprisonment and all that he had suffered in exile, Maximus had lost nothing of his self-possession. He easily dealt with all their arguments, set out once again the Orthodox doctrine, and ended by calling with tears upon the Emperor and the Patriarch to repent and return to the true Faith. The response of the Emperor's delegates was to throw themselves at him like wild animals, heap insults on him and cover him with spittle.

Saint Maximus was then deported to Perberis, where he remained imprisoned with Athanasius for six years until 662, when they were both brought back to Constantinople to face a new trial before the Patriarch and his Synod. "What Church do you belong to, then?" he was asked. "To Constantinople? to Rome? to Antioch? to Alexandria? to Jerusalem? For you see that all are united with us." —"To the Catholic Church, which is the right and salutary confession of faith in the God of the universe," the Confessor answered. Threatened with capital punishment, he replied: "May whatever God has foreordained before all the ages find in me the conclusion which redounds to the glory that has been His since before all the ages!"

After defaming and cursing them, the ecclesiastical court handed over Saint Maximus and his companions to the City Prefect. He had them scourged and ordered their tongues and right hands to be cut off: being the members with which they had witnessed their confession. Covered in blood, they were paraded about the City prior to deportation to the Caucasus, where they were imprisoned in separate fortresses at Lazica. It was there on 13 August 662 that Saint Maximus, at the age of eighty-two, was definitively united to the Word of God, Whom he had so loved and Whose life-giving Passion he had imitated by confession of faith and martyrdom. It is said that every night three lamps symbolizing the Holy Trinity lit of themselves above his tomb. The right hand of Saint Maximus is venerated today at the Monastery of Saint Paul on Mount Athos.


* The commemoration of St. Maximus on January 21 places him in the series of the great doctors of the Church, who are commemorated in January. But, in fact, the date of the dormition of St. Maximus in 13 Aug., when the synaxaria, by a confusion, commemorate the translation of his relics. He is also commemorated on 20 Sept. with St. Martin.

** According to a recently-discovered Syriac Life, edited by a Monophysite with a bias against the Saint, but which has probably conserved some authentic details, St. Maximus was born in Palestine, in the region of Tiberius, and was educated at the old Lavra of Souka, to the south of Jerusalem, founded by St. Chariton. At the time of the Origenist controversy, which so bitterly divided the monks of Palestine in the 6th century, it was a fortress of the true faith. Perhaps this explains why, in his first works, St. Maximus wrote such an in-depth refutation of the doctrines of Origen and Evagrius.

*** The Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God was probably composed on the occasion of this miracle. The miracle is commemorated on the fifth Saturday of Great Lent, known as the Saturday of the Akathist.

Source: The Synaxarion. The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church. Vol.3 January-February, Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady, Ormylia (Chalkidike) 2001.

Apolytikion in the Third Tone
Through thee the Spirit poured forth, streams of teaching for the Church; thou didst expound God the Word's self emptying, and shine forth in thy struggles as a true Confessor of the Faith; holy Father Maximos, pray to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.

Kontakion in Plagal of the Fourth Tone
O faithful, let us acclaim the lover of the Trinity, great Maximos who taught the God-inspired Faith, that Christ is to be glorified in two natures, wills and energies, and let us cry to him: Rejoice, O herald of the Faith.