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St. Porphyrios, Bishop of Gaza
The land was parched, and the crops were dying everywhere. Day after day and week after week, the rains would not fall from the burning sky. At last the people of Gaza sent a deputation to the local Christian bishop, an elderly, white-bearded man named Porphyrios.
“Holy One,” they begged him in words like these, “you are our only hope! We have offered many sacrifices to the idols; we have done everything that was asked of us by their priests. And yet it will not rain.
“Your new religion seems strange to us, and we know little of your venerated prophet, the Great Messiah you call ‘Christ.’ But we are desperate now, and without your help we will surely die!”
The venerable bishop – the shepherd who watched over his tiny flock of Christians, here in the Gaza regions of Palestine – listened carefully to their complaints. Then he closed his eyes and prayed for a few moments. And when those eyes opened again, they were blazing with determination.
Quickly, the holy man explained to the struggling farmers of Gaza that they would need to do three things, in order to summon the drenching rains that might save them.
First . . . they would have to fast for a day and a night; during this period, not a single scrap of food should cross their lips.
Second . . . at the conclusion of the fast, they would have to join the bishop in an all-night prayer-vigil, during which they would seek forgiveness for their sins and venerate Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Third . . . immediately after the vigil ended, they would have to conduct a solemn procession that would circle the entire city. During this somber march, they would be required to praise God unceasingly, while also asking for rain in the name of His Beloved and Only Son.
After the bishop had outlined these requirements, the desperate citizens of Gaza argued briefly among themselves. They were pagans, after all; they worshipped idols of gold and silver and bronze. Venerating a foreign god seemed unpalatable to them. But what choice did they have? Their own idols had failed them, and they had no other alternatives left.
And so they told the frowning bishop: “We will do exactly as you say.”
What followed was an astonishing outpouring of faith, and then a miracle.
The year was 398 A.D., according to many historians of the period, and the Gaza region of Palestine contained only a few hundred Christians. Indeed, only a few years before, when the humble and hard-working Porphyrios had been consecrated Bishop of Gaza by the great Metropolitan John of nearby Caesarea, the new shepherd had found only three Christian churches operating throughout the entire region – while the countryside swarmed with pagans who prayed daily to a wide variety of idols.
In spite of the paucity of their numbers, however, the Christians of Gaza were known for the fierce determination with which they clung to their faith. And now, here they all were on this bitterly hot summer morning – having fasted and kept their all-night vigil – and engaged in a startling religious procession around the entire city!
Could anything have been more shocking to the residents of Gaza than watching this huge crowd of Christians and pagans take part in a prayer-march dedicated to the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ? Led by the aging bishop, the immense throng of supplicants moved slowly across the scalding sand. Praying and chanting and crossing themselves frequently, they dragged themselves along beneath the white-hot eye of the merciless sun.
And then they heard it.
Faintly at first . . . a distant rumble . . . barely discernible. Then louder. And louder. Closer. A rattling sound, and then a hollow booming – like a great collision among empty copper barrels. And then a crash that shook the ground and made them jump in fright.
It was thunder!
As they looked on, utterly amazed, the sky darkened. Inky-black clouds arrived, driven along by howling winds. And within a few minutes, a great deluge had begun. Soon the parched land was awash under floods of cooling, healing rain. They were saved! And now the pagan voices rose into the rain-whipped air, voices that cried out again and again: “Christ is indeed the One True God!” In the end, according to Church records kept at the time, no fewer than 237 pagan men and 35 women came forward to be baptized in the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
For the Bishop of Gaza, St. Porphyrios, the arrival of the rains was perhaps the most wonderful moment he would know during a long life dedicated to spreading the Gospel of the Son of God. The son of wealthy, aristocratic parents in the Roman province of Thessalonika (today part of modern Greece), the great shepherd of the faith left home at the age of 12 in order to pursue his dream of becoming a desert mystic. Although he could have been rich for life, he had no interest in money – and when he later inherited 4,000 gold coins from his deceased parents, he quickly gave them away to the poor.
Soon he found himself wandering the deserts of Egypt, as a monk who studied the essentials of asceticism under the guidance of a holy father and a dear friend named Mark. After five years of arduous wandering and self-denial, he would arrive in the Holy City of Jerusalem, where he would test himself once again – this time by spending five years alone in a cave near the Jordan River, where he lived an utterly abstemious existence and pushed himself to the limit. All too soon, his self-inflicted regimen of near-starvation caused his health to shatter – and he would up struggling with a disease that left his legs paralyzed completely.
Unable to walk, he crawled to religious services on his knees, and prayed to God to lift this affliction from him – but only if that was what God intended: Thy will be done. Amazingly, he then experienced a vision as he slept in which the Lord appeared and instantly healed his suffering legs, and when he woke, the disease had left him.
This was the struggling but determined monk, then, who would be appointed around 395 as the Bishop of Gaza in Palestine, and who would contest for more than twenty-five years against the depredations of hostile pagans who vastly outnumbered his tiny but growing Church. A great fighter for the Holy Gospel, Porphyrios would stop at nothing to protect the Holy Church – even traveling all the way to Constantinople on one occasion in order to enlist the aid of the great Byzantine emperor Arcadius in his battle against the infidels.
In the end, with the Emperor’s ardent support, the idolatrous temples of the pagans were closed and the Bishop of Gaza was able to construct (with the generous assistance of the Empress Eudoxia) a marvelous church that featured 30 gleaming marble columns. The Bishop Porphyrios finally died in 421 – but only after having lived long enough to see the entire region of Gaza converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The life of St. Porphyrios, Bishop of Gaza, offers us a compelling vision of what it means to be a dutiful servant of God. In spite of immense obstacles – and while confronting situations that often appeared to be utterly hopeless – this high-spirited warrior kept his faith alive and never stopped inspiring others to do the same!
Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
The truth of things hath revealed thee to thy flock as a rule of faith, an icon of meekness, and a teacher of temperance; for this cause, thou hast achieved the heights by humility, riches by poverty. O Father and Hierarch Zacharias, intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.
Kontakion in the Second Tone
Arrayed with a most sacred life, thou wast adorned with the priestly vestment, O all-blessed and godly-minded Porphyrius; and thou art conspicuous for miracles of healing, interceding unceasingly for us all.