The story of a second-century Roman mother who sacrificed herself and her three children in the name of Jesus Christ is not the often repeated family tale, principally because it is anything but a bedtime story, which for sheer horror is unsurpassed even in the imaginations of today's writers of grisly screen scenarios. It would be far better to tell of the family delights and Christian fidelity and to mention in passing that they were put to death for their faith, but the stark truth has to be faced to underscore the depth of belief in the Saviour. The spiritual attainment of this alone is positive proof that Christianity transcends every aspect of human life to focus on the eternity of the soul.
The mother of this rare family bore the classical Greek name of Sophia, her three daughters bear the familiar Anglicised names of Faith (Pisti), Hope (Elpitha), and Charity (Agapi). This quartet of frail females stood up to the brutal might of Rome at a time when a mere whisper of dissent could mean death to a Roman citizen, Christian or pagan. Sophia was a widow under whose loving care her three daughters acquired a poise and Christian virtue looked upon with respect by the village which they left for the more rewarding city life of Rome, the Eternal City.
Sophia and her three lovely little girls milled about unobtrusively in the teeming city, but in the Christian community that gathered in candlelight in the catacombs to worship the Messiah, they became highly respected figures, the children all the more so because of their display of deep devotion to the Saviour and to their mother. In the dark recesses of the subterranean shelters, the family drew themselves closer to God and to their fellow man emerging into the light to convert others, who preceived the glow of happiness which was not to be found in the pagan temples nor in the company of those who shared their spiritual darkness. Fate decreed that this blessed family would be called upon to assert their faith in an incredibly monstrous test of Christian endurance.
The Emperor Hadrian did not share the majority view that Christianity was a harmless form of worship practised by patriotic Romans, but looked upon them as enemies of the state whose Kingdom of Heaven sought to displace his authority. He instituted a sweeping wave of persecution with an army of operatives infiltrating all sections of the city, spinning a giant web which caught up with Sophia and her children. Not even the most hardened pagans anticipated that three girls, aged twelve, ten and nine respectively, would be punished for what could be construed as the offense of the mother.
The magistrate Antiochos on the other hand saw in the arrest of the entire family an opportunity to wrest from the mother a disavowal of Christ rather than allow her flesh and blood to be punished. Sophia and her three daughters appeared as a group before the judgment of the pagan court which offered to release the entire family providing that the mother would deny the Saviour and raise her children as pagans. All three daughters looked up to their mother to assure her that they would remain as steadfast Christians with her and that she should feel no guilt should they be put to death.
The agonised Sophia was torn between the love for her children and the love for Jesus Christ. She turned to the court to plead that her children be released, and they could inflict their tortures upon her. In a chorus of small voices that would have melted the hardest of hearts, the youngsters cried out to their mother that they would rather join her in death to be reunited in the Kingdom of God than to remain behind without her. Sophia's glance at the magistrate told her the next move was his.
Incredibly the magistrate was unmoved and ordered the first of the girls, Faith, to be put to torture before the eyes of her mother. When this failed to bring the mother to pleas for mercy but instead the praises of the Lord, Faith was put to the sword. Hope followed her sister in death, as did her sister Charity, three innocents whose horrified mother was dragged to the side of their bodies, over which she continued to pray as she herself also died for the Lord. The commemoration of these sweet saints on September 17th has an added solemnity when their complete story is unfolded.
from Orthodox Saints, v. 2
by Fr George Poulos, Holy Cross Orthodox Press