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Commemoration of Mar Shim’un Bar Sabba’e

Commemoration of Mar Shim’un Bar Sabba’e

Basilica Hymn
O Lord, you search me and you know me
He examines the heart and the kidneys
O Knower of the thoughts of all men, and Searcher of the hidden things of the heart: you know our weakness: have mercy on
us.
Choice silver that is tried in the earth
A portion of the heavenly treasure, which is desired by the angels, and by the prophets and apostles, and by the honored martyrs, Christ gave, in his grace, to the faithful Church: the venerable Mar Simon, he whose neck was sliced for the sake of the law of the love of God. Come, all you peoples, in awe and love, and in songs of the Holy Spirit, let us honor the day of his commemoration. He is indeed an unassailable rampart for our people.
The friends of the Lord hate evil
The martyrs, the friends of Christ, the preachers of Jesus our Savior, carried the cross in their hands like a plough, and weeded and worked, in the Faith, the land that was wasted through the error of idols, and planted the Word of life in it. Let us all honor them!

A Story for Our Times

In the year 344 AD, by tradition on Good Friday, the bishop who held the See which would later be called the Patriarchate of Babylon was executed by the Persian emperor Shapur II. The events that led up to this are both touching and unfortunately all-too-relevant for our day.

Continually increasing tension between the Zoroastrian Persian empire and the Christian Roman empire worsened the relationship between the Christians of Persia and its king. King Shapur II, and especially some of his Magian advisors, began to see the Christians of his land as outsiders and spies, since they shared the religion of his enemy. The accusation, a false one, was that even the bishop of the empire’s capital city Selucia-Ctesiphon, Simon, was personally a spy for Caesar.

The solution, it seemed to the Shah, was a double tax on his Christian population, since this would break the back of an already poor segment of the Persian empire. Even worse, he ordered that Mar Shim’un, the son of a garment stainer, (“bar Sabba’e”), was to collect the taxes himself.

The noble bishop refused, saying “I am no tax collector, but a shepherd of the Lord’s flock.” This is when the persecution became fierce. It became an excuse for the Shah to declare an open season on Christians, especially clergy who refused to follow the Zoroastrian practice of worshiping the sun.

Mar Shim’un was arrested and brought before the court, and given a devious offer: if only he alone were to deny Christ and worship the sun, all other Christians would be saved. This caused an uproar in the Christian community, which refused the offer of salvation through apostasy. In the end, king Shapur II, whom Shim’un had known since childhood, had the bishop taken out of the city of Susa with much of his clergy. Mar Shim’un had to watch as five of his brother bishops and one hundred of his priests were beheaded before him. Last of all, he was killed as well.

A portion of the heavenly treasure, which is desired by the angels, and by the prophets and apostles, and by the honored martyrs, Christ gave, in his grace, to the faithful Church: the venerable Mar Simon, he whose neck was sliced for the sake of the law of the love of God. Come, all you peoples, in awe and love, and in songs of the Holy Spirit, let us honor the day of his commemoration. He is indeed an unassailable rampart for our people. 

What is it Worth?

In the eyes of the worldly, the Cross of Christ is ridiculous, as is the sacrifice it represents. To faithless eyes, the death of Mar Shim’un and so many faithful is a tragic and meaningless waste. It would seem so logical to ask “were it not better for the patriarch to apostasize, or for the Christian segment to rebel against the empire and start a war, or to flee, or to do anything besides offer their lives in sacrifice?” This is a flawed logic both in the eyes of faith as well as in the practical world. There is no reason to believe any such thing could have prevented the “Great Persecution” which followed Mar Shim’un’s death; nothing would have been gained, and the faith would have lost its integrity.

But what if it would have helped, in some practical way, for the Patriarch to flee, to hide from his responsibility to preach the Gospel and be a witness to his Lord? What would have been traded for this worldly gain? What gain is worth apostasy? What can replace the Faith? “What can one give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

The real question, rather, is “How much is the faith worth?” The answer can only be “everything.” If it is not worth everything, every sacrifice and every suffering, then it is worth nothing. It is either the Truth, for which even pagans were willing to sacrifice their lives, or it is a lie, which deserves our scorn. If the Faith is true, if the Church is real, if Jesus is Lord, then they deserve our lives. This is what Mar Shim’un understood, and what we have perhaps forgotten today.

Would we give our life for our faith? Or would we find some excuse for ourselves? Would we live according to what we have been taught by the Holy Spirit, or would we ignore it all for some passing worldly wisdom? How much is Christ really worth to us? If we do not know the answer to these questions, perhaps we should ask Christ to show us ourselves.

O Knower of the thoughts of all men, and Searcher of the hidden things of the heart: you know our weakness: have mercy on us.

A Piece of Poetry

The Presentation Hymn set for New Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, is attributed to Mar Shim’un bar Sabba’e, and it is about those newly baptized the week before, during the Easter Vigil, removing their white garments after wearing them all week. But it is not simply a calm piece of advice to the new batch of Christians. Its terms are intense and its warnings severe; it speaks of Adam and Satan, of temptations and the armor of the Spirit; it is the type of poetry one writes during a persecution. The language and subject-matter of this piece suggest that it really was written during that early time of persecution, which means that perhaps the attribution to Mar Shim’un is an accurate one.

In any case, the hymn is beautifully written and its images are as potent today as they ever were; its message is as meaningful for us as it was for those Christians executed one by one in the sight of the bishop of the Persian capital city:

Even if you strip off your outer garments,
do not take off your inner vestment, O Baptized!
Indeed, if you are clothed with this hidden armor,
the storm of many temptations will not defeat you.
You know what words you have heard;
you know of what living Sacrifice you have eaten.
So beware the evil one, lest he entrap you as he did to Adam,
and make you strangers to that glorious kingdom;
for he estranged [Adam] from Paradise,
and wishes also to estrange us.
Because of this, then, implore Christ with us,
that he may confirm all our souls through his Holy Spirit.