21 July 2024

Saint Sophia in icons
with her daughters,
Faith, Hope and Love:
martyrs or pious myth?

Saint Sophia and her daughters Pistis, Elpis and Agape depicted in a fresco in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

In recent weeks, I was reflecting in my prayer diary on my blog each morning on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

There is a pattern and a set of traditional norms that decides the place and themes of icons in the icon screens in churches and the themes in the frescoes around the apse and behind and above the altar. But quite often many of the other icons and frescoes in churches are accidental or a random choice, reflecting the interests and piety of the commissioning priest, donors, parishioners or even the artists completing the icons and frescoes.

The new Church of the Transfiguration in the village of Piskopianó in the hills above Hersonissos in Crete, for example, is being gradually filled with new and interesting frescoes, with more added each time I return to visit the village over the years.

Because this is a very wide church, compared to its length, it has a large number of walls and pillars to be filled with frescoes, and it is interesting to see how their themes are being chosen thoughtfully and carefully.

One pillar has been filled with four figures I have often seen in churches in Greece but that I seldom see outside Greece: Saint Sophia and her daughters Pistis, Elpis and Agape.

For a long time I simply thought that was a pious or figurative representation of Wisdom as the mother of the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Love.

The name Sophia (Σοφία) means ‘wisdom’ in Greek. The Greek lettering over the other three figures in these icons names them as Pistis, Elpis, and Agape, or Πίστις (Faith), Ελπίδα (Hope) and Αγάπη (Love). In Latin their names would be Fides, Spes and Caritas.

I had always read these figures and their names in these icons and frescoes as allegorical or figurative – until I was back in Piskopianó some weeks ago. Then I heard of the tradition that these four were saints from Italy – a mother and her three daughters, who were martyrs for the Christian faith round the year 126 CE, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.

According to this tradition, Saint Sophia of Rome was the mother of Faith (12), Hope (10) and Love (9). An official named Antiochus denounced them to the Emperor Hadrian (117-138), who ordered them to be brought to Rome. Realising that they would be taken before the emperor, the mother and daughters prayed for the strength not to fear torture and death.

When they were brought before the emperor, all present were amazed at their composure. Summoning each sister in turn, Hadrian demanded they offer sacrifices to the goddess Artemis. The girls remained unyielding, and the emperor ordered them to be tortured. They were burned over iron gratings, physically mutilated, sexually assaulted, and thrown into red-hot ovens and cauldrons of boiling tar, and yet they survived. The youngest child, Love, was tied to a wheel and beaten with rods until her body was covered with bloody welts.

Saint Sophia was forced to watch their suffering, but remained courageous and urged her daughters to endure their suffering. All three girls were then beheaded by the sword.

The emperor allowed Sophia to take away the bodies of her daughters. She placed them in coffins, loaded them onto a wagon, drove beyond the city limits, and buried the girls on a high hill. Saint Sophia sat by the graves of her daughters for three days, and finally died. Other Christians buried her beside her daughters, and all four were soon venerated as martyrs.

Pistis, Elpis, and Agape, or Πίστις (Faith), Ελπίδα (Hope) and Αγάπη (Love), are known in Latin as Fides, Spes and Caritas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

However, there are conflicting traditions about Saint Sophia and her daughters, and whether Saint Sophia of Rome is to be identified with Saint Sopia of Milan. Another tradition says Saint Sophia was a martyr during the Diocletian Persecution (303-304). This conflicts with widespread tradition in Greek, Armenian and Georgian sources that place Sophia and her daughters in the reign of Hadrian and that say she died not as a martyr but mourning her martyred daughters.

The veneration of Saint Sophia of Milan became indistinguishable from that of Saint Sophia of Rome. References from the time of Gregory the Great suggest two groups of martyrs, mother and daughters, one buried on the Aurelian Way and the other on the Via Appia. Their tomb in a crypt beneath the church afterwards erected to Saint Pancratius was visited by pilgrims from the seventh century on.

The relics were moved to the women’s convent at Eschau in Alsace in 778, and from there the cult spread to Germany. There is a 14th-century fresco of the saints in a chapel in Cologne Cathedral, and Saint Sophia is depicted on a column in Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, dating from the 15th century. Her feast day of 15 May was observed in German, Belgian and English breviaries in the 16th century.

Although earlier editions of the Roman Martyrology commemorated Faith, Hope and Love on 1 August and their mother Sophia on 30 September, the present catalogue of saints in the Roman Catholic Church has no feast dedicated to these three girls or their mother. The only Saint Sophia included today is an early Christian virgin martyr of Picenum in Italy, commemorated with her companion Vissia on 12 April.

An early Christian martyr, Saint Faith (Fides) of Aquitania in southern Franc, is celebrated on 6 October; a Saint Hope (Spes), an abbess of Nursia who died ca 517, is commemorated on 23 May; and Saint Charity (Caritas) is included among saints with similar names on 16 April and 7 September. Their feast day of 1 August was not entered in the General Roman Calendar, and they have since been removed from the Roman Martyrology.

Perhaps the veneration of the three saints named after the three theological virtues arose in the sixth century, based on common inscriptions found in the catacombs. Critical scholarship now agrees that the tradition is invented, part of a tradition inspired and developed through pious readings of Latin inscriptions referring to women who were named after Holy Wisdom and after the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love.

But all four – Wisdom, Faith, Hope and Love – remain a pillar of the Church, at least in Piskopianó.

Wisdom, Faith, Hope and Love remain a pillar of the Church in Piskopianó in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
73, Sunday 21 July 2024, Trinity VIII

‘They went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves’ (Mark 6: 32) … a small boat near the harbour in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Patrick Comerford

We are continuing in Ordinary Time in the Church and today is the Eighth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity VIII). Later this morning (21 July 2024), I hope to be involved in the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, reading one of the lessons.

But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

They ‘begged him that they might touch even the fringe his cloak’ (Mark 6: 56) … a choice of prayer shawls with fringes in the synagogue in Chania in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56 (NRSVA):

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

‘When they got out of the boat, people at once recognised him’ (Mark 6: 54) … gondolas on the Grand Canal near Saint Mark’s Square in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This morning’s reflection:

Throughout the current Church year, our Gospel readings are mainly from Saint Mark’s Gospel. It is a very short Gospel, and so occasionally we are also drawing from Saint John’s Gospel.

Saint Mark’s Gospel is so short that he by-passes many of the events the other Gospel writers flesh out, from the Birth of Christ to the post-Resurrection narratives.

Two striking emphases in Saint Mark’s Gospel are the stories of Christ healing those on the margins and assuring those on the margins that they too are called into the Kingdom of God.

Those people on the margins include people who are seen as sinners, foreigners and unclean, especially women and children. The ways they are belittled is symbolised in our Gospel readings in recent weeks by:

• the mustard seed, so easily overlooked because of its size (Mark 4: 26-34);
• small boats caught up in great storms (Mark 4: 35-41);
• a dying girl only 12 years old and a woman unable to find help from doctors for 12 years (Mark 5: 21-43);
• the disciples seeing Christ lay his hands on and curing sick people and then being sent out in all their vulnerability and poverty (Mark 6: 1-13 );
• and then, last Sunday, Herod’s fears and wicked response when he hears of these healings and miracles (Mark 6: 14-29).

This morning, Jesus seems to be trying to get away from all the demands and all the expectations that are being laid on his shoulders. The apostles have come back after being sent out two-by-two, and are telling him all they have done and all that has happened.

Now they need a break, and Jesus takes them on a boat and they head off to a quiet place.

But there is no escaping the crowd, the people and their demands.

And they ‘bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was’. This happens wherever he goes – in villages and cities, farms and market places (Mark 6: 55-56).

It is just enough for them to touch the fringe of his cloak and those who touch it are healed (verse 56).

What did they think they were doing by touching the ‘fringe of his cloak’?

This is not just an act of hope, hoping for healing, but an act of faith, claiming a place in the community of faith, reaching out for love.

Wearing a prayer shawl reminds the wearer and those who see this of all 613 commandments, of the covenant with God.

In touching Christ’s cloak, the sick people are claiming their place at the heart of the community of faith. They are making Jesus ritually unclean, but those who touch him are healed. In touching Christ, they are ‘touched’ by God’s power, and Christ draws them into the Kingdom of God.

A recent report in the Economist some years ago (10 July 2021) shows that the increasing number of people in the United States who are alienated from conventional religion also feel marginalised from other aspects of society, including economic, political and social life.

These people, categorised as ‘nothing-in-particular,’ are not atheists or agnostics, but are gripped by apathy and feel left aside by conventional religion. They are sceptical of so many things, from institutional politics and religion to the Covid-19 vaccine. Professor Ryan Burge, a social scientist at Eastern Illinois University and author of The Nones, says, ‘They are left out of society, sort of drifting in space.’

That is how I see those people who follow Jesus around everywhere. He has compassion on them because they are ‘like sheep without a shepherd.’ They need healing, not just in mind and body, but in their families and in their society, in political and religious society, in the economy and in the villages, cities, farms and marketplaces where they seek the healing that Christ offers.

Faith and healing come together.

There is a centuries-old tradition in the Church that calls priests ‘physicians of the soul.’ It is a deep concept, and it is related to the word curate, and to the Anglican reference to the priest’s task in a parish or group of parishes as the ‘cure of souls.’

There is a direct connection between the healing of bodies and the healing of souls.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, as I watched the broad smiles on people who received their vaccines, I realised they had been vaccinated not just against the physical but also against the psychological fears that came with the virus, and that are a pandemic in themselves.

These connections are made in a prayer or poem in the Service of the Heart, a Jewish prayer book I use regularly for my personal prayers and reflections. This poem or prayer ‘Lord God of test tube and blueprint’ is by Norman Corwin (1910-2011):

Lord God of test tube and blueprint,
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes:
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer from his father’s colour or the credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend:
Sit at the treaty table and convoy the hopes of the little peoples through expected straits,
And press into the final seal a sign that peace will come for longer than posterities can see ahead,
That man unto his fellow man shall be a friend forever.

Norman Lewis Corwin once declared: ‘I believe in promise, just promise … any species that can weigh the very earth he’s standing on, that can receive and analyse light coming from a galaxy a billion light years distant from us, any species that can produce a Beethoven and a Mozart and a Shakespeare, and the extraordinary accomplishments of our species, scientifically and in medicine and in the humanities, there’s illimitable opportunity for promises to be delivered and met.’

The Covid-19 pandemic and panic showed us that there is hope. It is offered by medical researchers, scientists, doctors, nurses and the cheerful volunteers at vaccination centres. They are working with the ‘Lord God of test tube and blueprint.’

The challenge to the Church is to offer that hope to those Ryan Burge identifies as ‘the Nones,’ those who ‘are left out of society, sort of drifting in space,’ those who are ‘like sheep without a shepherd.’

When we respond in love, then they shall find hope and faith, and healing.

‘When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat’ (Mark 6: 53) … a moored boat in Wexford Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 21 July 2024, Trinity VIII):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Someone called my name – Mary Magdalene Reflection.’ This theme is introduced today by the Revd Cathrine Ngangira, Priest-in-Charge, Benefice of Boughton-under-Blean with Durnkirk, Graveney with Goodnestone and Hernhill. She writes:

‘I didn’t expect his death to be like that. I didn’t know how to grieve. Nothing prepared me for it.

‘Three days after his death, I did what tradition taught me. I visited his tomb with other women. We wanted to make sure everything was okay. Even in death, we were determined to care for him. Maybe to be more specific, no evil activities had taken place.

‘To our shock the tomb was empty.

‘How did it happen? He was a holy man, how did evil prevail over him – his body disappeared? We were all afraid but searched for his body.

‘Someone called my name. Unfamiliar at first. Then again. My spiritual eyes were opened. I saw him for who he truly was – My Lord. Again, he had won over evil as we witnessed during his ministry.

‘Human divination had an expiration date. Not so with Jesus. He is alive!’

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Sunday 21 July 2024, Trinity VIII) invites us to pray:

Almighty God,
whose Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of mind and body
and called her to be a witness to his resurrection:
forgive our sins and heal us by your grace,
that we may serve you in the power of his risen life.

The Collect:

Almighty Lord and everlasting God,
we beseech you to direct, sanctify and govern
both our hearts and bodies
in the ways of your laws
and the works of your commandments;
that through your most mighty protection, both here and ever,
we may be preserved in body and soul;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Strengthen for service, Lord,
the hands that have taken holy things;
may the ears which have heard your word
be deaf to clamour and dispute;
may the tongues which have sung your praise be free from deceit;
may the eyes which have seen the tokens of your love
shine with the light of hope;
and may the bodies which have been fed with your body
be refreshed with the fullness of your life;
glory to you for ever.

Additional Collect:

Lord God,
your Son left the riches of heaven
and became poor for our sake:
when we prosper save us from pride,
when we are needy save us from despair,
that we may trust in you alone;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect on the Eve of Mary Magdalene:

Almighty God,
whose Son restored Mary Magdalene
to health of mind and body
and called her to be a witness to his resurrection:
forgive our sins and heal us by your grace,
that we may serve you in the power of his risen life;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

‘When they had crossed over, they … moored the boat’ (Mark 6: 53) … a moored boat on the River Ouse in Old Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org