A HOMILY FOR THE FEAST DAY OF THE BLESSED EMPRESS
About How We Should Endure Slander and Malice Patiently
Brothers and sisters!
All of us, at some point in our life, have had or will have the experience of being slandered, of suffering unjust condemnation and revilement. This can be a painful and sometimes very dangerous experience. One’s immediate impulse when this happens is to defend oneself, and to strike back. Indeed, it is sometimes necessary to justify oneself, even if this results in negative consequences for one’s enemy; otherwise, the repercussions could be disastrous. Yet the Lord, in His providence, often does not allow us to prove our innocence, does not provide favorable circumstances for self-defense. When this is the case, we must understand that it is for the purpose of teaching us to be patient and to trust in Him. Here, recourse to prayer and fasting, to humility and longsuffering are essential. Here, we must heed Saint Paul’s advice: Recompense to no man evil for evil. Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, saith the Lord. 1 And most certainly, the time will come when the slanderer will receive his punishment, whether in this life or the next, for slander is a very grave sin, especially when it threatens the innocent with serious negative consequences.
In the Life of one of the saints we commemorate today, the blessed Byzantine Empress Theophania, who lived in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, we see a good example of this. For our edification, instruction, and guidance, let us hear what is written in her Life regarding the ordeal she and her husband, the Emperor Leo the Wise, one of the great hymnographers of our Church, endured because of the machinations of a wily, malicious slanderer:
“In those days (it says) the Emperor Basil the Macedonian ordered a search made for beautiful aristocratic maidens, hoping to find a suitable bride for his son Leo the Wise. Basil decided that Theophania was the most worthy of all the young women in the Empire, so he chose her to wed Leo, who had already been proclaimed co-emperor. The imperial nuptials were celebrated joyfully and with much festivity, but after some time had passed, tares sprang up in the palace, sown by a wicked enemy. The father became displeased with his son, and imprisoned both Leo and Theophania in a dark dungeon, setting a watch over them. This injustice was instigated by the treacherous Bishop of Euchaita, Theodore Santavarinus, who was a sorcerer and at enmity with the junior Emperor.
“The discord between Basil and Leo arose in the following manner. Constantine, Basil’s eldest son, died. Basil grieved and wept bitterly for him, because he loved him deeply. The wizard Theodore brought consolation to the lamenting ruler by conjuring up the image of Constantine riding on a horse and coming to meet him. Basil took his son in his arms and kissed him lovingly, after which the phantom vanished. The emperor was amazed, thinking that what he had seen was real. From that time on he esteemed Santavarinus greatly, counting him a bosom friend and obeying him in everything. Leo, however, was wise and God-fearing, so he shunned the warlock, whom he held in contempt as the foe of Christ. Soon Theodore began considering how he might avenge himself on Leo for the scorn the young Emperor showed him. When a convenient time presented itself, he went alone to visit Leo. Pretending to be well disposed toward him, Santavarinus whispered, ‘Your Majesty, I want you to know that your father has many enemies in the palace. When you go hunting with him, you would do well to hide a dagger on your person. In the event of an attempt on his life, it could prove useful. One way or another, you or your father might have need of it for stabbing an animal.’
“Not perceiving the foe’s treachery, the young Emperor heeded the deceitful advice and began carrying a dagger in his boot whenever he was hunting or went elsewhere with his father. Meanwhile, the wicked Theodore secretly told Basil, ‘Leo intends to assassinate you, for he wishes to rule alone. The proof of this is that when he goes hunting with you, he hides a dagger in his boot so that he will be prepared when opportunity presents itself. If you wish to be convinced of what I say, the next time you are on the chase together, order him to show you what he has in his boot.’ Basil did not delay in taking his son out on a hunt. When they were in the fields, he commanded Leo to pull off his boot, and saw that in it was indeed a double-edged dagger. Basil’s heart immediately turned against his son. He was certain Leo intended to kill him, just as Santavarinus said. ‘For what other purpose would he be concealing a dagger?’ he raged. The blameless Leo declared that he was carrying the knife to protect his father; nevertheless, Basil remained furious and would not believe anything he said in his defense. He imprisoned both Leo and the blessed Theophania in the palace dungeon, setting a strong watch over them.
“In this way the sorcerer’s resentment against Leo was satisfied. And what is still more shameful to tell, Basil (at Santavarinus’ instigation) decided to remove his son’s eyes and would certainly have done so, had not the Patriarch and the members of the imperial council declared their opposition.
“Leo and the blessed Theophania remained imprisoned for more than three years. They spent all their time in the dungeon praying and fasting, bewailing the injustice done them, and entreating the God Who sees everything to make manifest their innocence. A number of times the Emperor’s counselors hoped to intercede on behalf of his son, but they found no suitable occasion. Finally an opportunity arose for them to make their appeal. There was a parrot kept in the palace that had been taught to speak and which amused the Emperor and others who heard it. On the feast of the holy prophet Elijah, Basil invited his nobles to a supper. At the meal, the parrot, either by chance or because someone had deliberately taught it these words, began to repeat: ‘O woe, woe, my lord Leo!’ When the nobles heard this, they were troubled and stopped eating and drinking. The Emperor asked what was the matter. Seizing the moment, they rose, their eyes full of tears, and declared, ‘If a bird devoid of reason laments for its suffering master, how can we who are rational creatures eat and drink joyfully, knowing that your son and our sovereign is imprisoned undeservedly? Would it not be more fitting for us to mourn? You are angry with him only because you believed his enemy’s slander. O Emperor, if your son has raised his hand against you or done you any evil, bring him to us, and we shall cut him to pieces. If, however, he is guilty of no wrongdoing, as we are certain, why do you torment him? He is, after all, your own offspring.’
“Hearing this, the ruler was filled with contrition for what he had done. Pity for his son prevailed over his fears, and he ordered that Leo be immediately released from his dark cell; that his hair, which had grown long in confinement, be cut; and that he be clothed in splendid robes befitting the imperial dignity. When Leo was brought to him, tears filled Basil’s eyes; he rose, embraced and kissed his son, and restored him to his former rank.
“Not long after this Basil fell ill and died, leaving Leo as sole emperor. Without delay the wise Leo had the warlock Santavarinus seized and beaten, removed his eyes, and sent him into exile at Athens. Thus the wizard and Manichaean, the false Christian and false bishop, the impostor who by sorcerous miracles had deceived the Emperor Basil into thinking he was a saint, received the punishment that was his due.”
And so, brothers and sisters, we see how Leo and Theophania submitted to their plight and gave themselves over to prayer and fasting, while patiently enduring more than three years of wretched imprisonment. Yet in time the Lord delivered them, and in the end Santavarinus suffered worse than they, after Leo was restored to the throne, this time as sole emperor. While in prison, the imperial couple set aside all thought of getting even, but in time God was well-pleased to put Leo in a position to punish the warlock and false-bishop not in an act of mere personal vengeance, but as an emperor justly and responsibly rewarding a dangerous evildoer for his wicked deeds.
In the Scriptures, the Psalmist says, “The slanderers have sharpened their tongues like a sword, they have bent their bow, a bitter thing, that they may shoot in secret at the blameless man. Suddenly shall they shoot at him and shall not fear; they have strengthened themselves in a wicked word. They have spoken of hiding snares; they said, Who shall see them? But God shall shoot at them with an arrow; suddenly shall they be wounded. So they shall make their own tongue to fall upon themselves: all that see them shall flee away.” 2 And the Apostle Paul passes this judgment on slanderers: Whisperers, inventors of evil things: they which commit such things are worthy of death. 3 Revilers shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. 4 When a slanderer, when any malicious person has brought misfortune upon you, and you are helpless to defend yourself, put the matter in God’s hands, fast and pray fervently, and be patient. “Call upon Me in the day of thine affliction, when the slanderer has vilified you,” says the Lord, “and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me.” 5 But to the slanderer God says, “Thou didst sit down and speak against thy brother and didst lay a stumbling- block; these things thou didst, and I kept silence. But I will reprove thee, and bring thy sins before thy face.” 6
Dearest Christians, remember what you have heard today, so that when the time comes for you to endure bitter, dangerous slander, or malice of any kind (an experience we must all undergo, sooner or later), you will understand why this has befallen you, know how to respond, and be assured of the final outcome.
1 Rom. 12:17, 19
2 Ps. 63:3-5, 7-8
3 Rom. 1:29-30, 32
4 I Cor. 6:9-10
5 Ps. 49:16
6 Ps. 49:21-22