St. Vassa and Her Children
ST. VASSA AND HER CHILDREN
Celebrated August 21
Early persecutions and oppression offer proof that the spread of Christianity was no small task. But the intensity of the resentment that grew into one family of the third century brings the stark realization of what it was like to be a Christian in those days, and why people who preferred death to denial of Christ are made saints. The mother of the family in question was named Vassa, whose children’s names were Theognios, Agapios and Pistos, and whose husband, Vallerian, was as vile as his family was pious.
The children were not yet fully grown when Vallerian, an unyielding pagan, discovered that not only his wife, but his children as well were secretly worshipping Jesus Christ. This led to the conventional family arguments with wholly unconventional results, since Vallerian, as lord and master of the house, expected that his wishes would be obeyed in all things, particularly in the form of worship. Vassa assured her husband that the family was not denying his authority; but she aggravated the situation even more when she suggested that he listen to a Christian preacher not only for him to realize her position, but also to bring about the same conversion she and her children had experienced many years before.
The family was torn asunder in a religious war of words which grew more acrimonious at time went on. The adamant Vallerian, asserting his authority as head of the household, finally issued an ultimatum in which he threatened to disown them all if they did not bow to his will. In a shabby display of callousness, Vallerian went to Vicarius the prefect of the city of Edessa. Vicarius was known for his ruthless persecution throughout Mesopotamia of anyone, young or old, who claimed to be a Christian. Vallerian not only brought the pagan condemnation on his three children, but on his wife as well in what has to be an act of wretchedness unsurpassed for debasement, even for a pagan.
The distraught Vassa pleaded for the lives of her three youths, asking that they be allowed to leave the country and offering herself as a sacrifice to the altar of their gods. The plea only brought the scornful remark of Vacarius that the children would be shown the greater pity because they would be put out of their misery first. All three of the young men were systematically tortured and finally put to death for refusing to deny Christ.
Meanwhile, Vassa languished in prison, and when she learned of the deaths of her children, she asked that she too be allowed to die in order to reunite the family in spirit. Instead, she was transferred from one prison to another, all the while suffering indignities and punishment. The final indignity came about when she was virtually dragged into one of the pagan temples during a Roman holiday and flung to the floor in front of one of the idols with the demand that she look up at the carved stone in veneration. Vassa looked skyward instead and as she prayed for strength, through Jesus Christ, the stone idol toppled onto the floor. This was interpreted by the pagans as an act of sorcery; and it was decided that the sorceress Vassa be made to pay for this defilement with her life, but only after she had been put to severe torture. For a sustained period she went without food while being subjected to indescribable tortures, all of which she survived without noticeable injury.
Vassa was taken out into the Hellespont and tossed into its depths enchained in weights to make sure she drowned. But as the boat returned to shore, Vassa was seen to be borne on a throne supported by her departed sons who made for the island of Alonos. Miraculously, Vassa had survived and with her sons gone, she trod the soil of the island alone until she was once again seized by the authorities. This time they made her demise final by having her beheaded in the public square. Vassa and her sons are honored by the church as saints on August 21.
From “Orthodox Saints” by George Poulos