(c. 200 A.D.)
Abercius Marcellus was the bishop of Hieropolis, which was in the Roman province of Phrygia Salutaris, Asia Minor (now western Turkey).
The Greek Church has venerated him as a saint since the tenth century, and he is also listed in the Roma Martyrology – the great calendar of saints of our Latin rite. Actually, all that is known of him for sure comes from the inscription he had carved while still alive to mark his tomb after death.
The Epitaph of Abercius, discovered by archeologists about a century ago, has been called “the queen of all ancient Christian inscriptions.” It dates from before the year 216 A.D. In this fairly long text, Abercius names himself and recounts the devoted journeys he had made among Christian peoples, including a special journey to Rome. He refers to the baptism that bonded all Christians together, and to the Eucharist that all Christians shared. But he writes of these matters in a symbolic language that only other Christians could understand.
This symbolic language formed a part of the early Christian “discipline of the secret.” When they spoke in public about the great mysteries of Christian teaching, the faithful couched their remarks in mysterious terms in order to prevent the revelation of Jesus from being disclosed to, or ridiculed by, non-Christians.
Read the inscription and you will see what I mean. I will explain the occult terms later.
“Abercius by name, I am a disciple of the chaste shepherd, who feeds his flocks of sheep on mountains and plains; who has great eyes that look on all sides.”
“He taught me…faithful writings. He sent me to Rome, to behold a kingdom and to see a queen with golden robe and golden shoes. There I saw a people bearing the splendid seal.”
“And I saw the plain of Syria and all the cities, even Nisibis, having crossed the Euphrates. And everywhere I had associates, having Paul as a companion. Everywhere faith led the way, and set before me for food the fish from the spring, mighty and pure, whom a spotless Virgin caught and gave this to friends to eat, always having sweet wine and giving them mixed cup with bread.”
“These words I, Abercius, standing by, ordered to be inscribed. In truth, I was in the course of my seventy-second year.”
“Let him who understands and believes this pray for Abercius…”
Clearly, “he who understands” could only be a Christian. A Christian would know that the “chaste shepherd” was Jesus Christ, whose “great eyes” enabled Him to see all, (“He was well aware of what was in man’s heart.” John 2:25); and who taught what is in the gospels, those “faithful writings.” Rome, the queen city was the center of the Church. The faithful Romans were united by the sacrament of baptism, which left a “splendid seal” on their souls.
In Mesopotamia, too, Abercius found Christians who shared with him the same Eucharist, for the “mighty and pure fish” to which he alludes was Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The Greek word ichthus (fish) was a common Christian monogram of “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.” Its Eucharistic sense is made clear by the reference to “bread” and the “mixed” cup of wine (and water) consecrated at Mass.
The devout Bishop of Hieropolis was obviously thrilled to observe in his travels the Catholicity – the universality – of the Church. Today you and I do not have to journey far to experience an equal thrill. On our own television sets we have been able to witness the same thing in watching the travels of the Holy Father as he as visited nations around the world. The missions who have welcomed him are truly our brothers and sisters in the Mystical Body of Christ. White or black or yellow or brown or red, we are all of us sealed forever with the seal of baptism; we are all nourished by the body and blood of “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.” Thank God for this privilege, greater far than we deserve!
–Father Robert F. McNamara