Saint Christina was born in Tyre, an important port city along the Mediterranean, just to the west and north of Galilee in the mid-200s AD. Her father was the pagan Roman governor of that city and surrounding region. At the age of 11, Christina was a beautiful and intelligent young lady, who could garner any future marriage proposals she wished. Her parents, however, chose to dedicate Christina as a pagan priestess. In order to discern which god or goddess she would serve, her mother locked the girl into a small house with her servants and many different idols, hoping one would choose her daughter as a devotee.
During her home imprisonment, Christina began to study the stars and what natural beauty she could see from her window. Just as St. Paul remarked to the Athenians, to begin his soliloquy in the Areopagus, (Acts 17), Christina intuitively discerned there was an ‘Unknown God’ who had created the world and He was sovereign over it. The idols in her room were just the creation of men and could do nothing, she reasoned. She began to pray to this Unknown God and fasted, asking Him to reveal Himself.
In time, an angel appeared to Christina and taught her the true faith of Christ. The angel also forewarned her of the things she was to suffer. Seeing the idols as now superfluous, Christina smashed them all and threw them out the window. When her father visited, he asked where all the idols had gone. Christina was silent. When the servants told him, her father flew into a rage and slapped his daughter. She then gave the explanation of her new faith in Christ. The hapless servants were all put to death and Christina was dragged off to prison.
The pleading of her mother did not change her mind nor a trial to which Christina was given one last opportunity to recant. A long series of tortures awaited the young maiden. For Christina, her valiant struggle included burning over fire, being locked in a furnace for 5 days, and multiple beatings. An angel came and revived her at one point. Her torturer thought this was sorcery and he died immediately as a consequence. During her long imprisonment, people from the surrounding area began to visit her and she brought about the conversion of 300 souls. Finally, she was executed with a sword. Her feast day is July 24th.
To help refresh our memories, martyrs are categorized in the menaion with certain titles:
Martyrs as a whole are those saints who suffered death in Christ’s name, for remaining loyal to the true faith, or for refusing to serve idols. They often had no warning about their immediate suffering and were sometimes ‘baptised in their blood’.
Great Martyrs are those saints who suffered particularly harsh treatment and punishments before suffering death.
Hieromartyrs are those saints who suffered death as priests.
Venerable Martyrs are those saints who suffered death as a member of monastic orders.
Saint Christina is entitled a Great Martyr because she endured many rounds of suffering before her death. As modern readers, we often wonder why the stories of martyrs were so ‘gruesome’ in their details. In the wisdom of the Church, we can see that certain things, like cruelty and hatred, have endured where and whenever Christians have lived. The cast of characters have changed and their motivations, whether religious or political, have altered, but the means of breaking men & women in mind, body, and soul have not. We read the lives and deaths of martyrs not as quaint and curious stories of long ago from a vantage point of safety and prosperity. Anyone of us might be called to wear the crown of martyrdom in our lives; a sudden reckoning or a slow, torturous beat down is always a possibility for the final witness of a Christian.
We do not sugar-coat suffering or the reality and consequences of sin as Orthodox Christians. When teaching children, it is helpful to ‘titrate’ the stories where the details of sin might not be comprehensible. An example might be, when teaching the life of Mary of Egypt, to describe her pre-repentant life as one where she could not choose to do right at all. Otherwise, as children grow in their life experience and knowledge, we do them no favors by sparing details. They can handle much more than we give them credit.
From the lives of virgin martyrs, especially, we draw the lesson of ‘owning our faith’. We take responsibility of how we honor our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit through what we eat, what we listen to, what we look at, where we spend our time, and how we move. These are small, daily choices, often with small social consequences. They add up, though, like a tree which bends to find sunlight and can be warped for life. For martyrs, the choice is a high-stakes one – choose bodily life over spiritual death. In both cases, the consequences are the same – life or death, slowly or quickly. Christina, in her youth, chose spiritual life and a martyrs crown. Training ourselves through fasting, prayer, liturgical worship, and study means we will be prepared for the tests, both great and small, where we may have to say, “I belong to Christ!”
Read more about the life of St. Christina the Great Martyr