This week’s saint, whose feast is observed on August 11, certainly has a catchy name. He was a Christian bishop and martyr who lived in Asia Minor during the period of the later Roman persecutions.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, roughly a contemporary of St. Alexander, tells us the charming story of this rather unusual churchman and saint.
Alexander lived at Comana, in the province of Pontus, Asia Minor. Adherents to the Christian faith in that town had increased despite persecution. St. Gregory Thaumaturge (“the WonderWorker”) was the bishop of Neocaesarca and principal agent in his day for the Christianization of Asia Minor. He decided that there were now enough Christians in Comana to be given a bishop of their own. (It is important to know that in these early days, dioceses with a definite territory were not yet being established. Bishops were rather put in charge of cities, with a vaguer duty of spreading the faith into the suburban and rural areas round about. That is why there were so many bishops in the early centuries–one per city, (no matter how close the cities were to each other.)
When Gregory gathered the Christians of Comana to announce his proposal, they nominated several likely candidates for the post of bishop. Gregory did not think any of the nominees was sufficiently qualified. One of them, for instance, was a popular choice because of his high birth and great wealth. The bishop rejected him precisely because he was noted and prosperous. He reminded the faithful that the apostles picked by Christ were neither rich nor of the social elite.
“All right, then,” replied one of the congregation sarcastically, “why not appoint Alexander the Charcoal-Burner?” St. Gregory overlooked the sarcasm, for he realized that the Holy Spirit can communicate to us in rather surprising ways. He summoned Alexander the Charcoal-Burner to see whether he might indeed be God’s candidate. Alexander came right from work at his charcoal ovens. His clothing, face and hands were blackened by the carbon. However, when the bishop took him aside for a chat, he found that this charcoal-burner was a man of good birth and education. He lived by charcoal-making simply because he had given away all his property to the poor, choosing to earn his keep by manual labor in order the better to follow Christ. Gregory, therefore, asked him if he would accept the episcopate. Alexander consented, the people concurred, and Gregory ordained him a bishop and installed him in his new see.
According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, Alexander did very well as a bishop. He was a man of spiritual wisdom and proved to be an excellent teacher of his flock. Eventually the Roman authorities apprehended him because he was a Christian leader, and he was martyred. Death was by burning alive- -a method perhaps suggested to the torturers as appropriate for a charcoal maker.
St. James the Apostle had already warned against “favoritism”: against giving the seat of honor to a person well-dressed and bedecked with rings, while showing scant hospitality to a poor man clad in shabby clothes (James, II). St. Gregory was exercising a “discrimination” of the right sort when he chose as bishop a man smudged of face but clean of heart.
–Father Robert F. McNamara