October 2 — Candida (Qndyr’)

Bishapur, Palace, Mosaic of a lady with flowers
Mosaic of a lady with flowers — Bishapur Palace (ca. 260 CE)

Today’s Bible reading

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 5:10

More thoughts for meditation about Candida

The Sassanian Empire lasted from 224-637, mainly in present-day Iraq and Iran. Ctesiphon, its capital, is about 20 miles south of Baghdad. Its leaders generally championed Zoroastrianism. Nevertheless, Christianity steadily grew, partly due to deportation of several hundred thousand Christian inhabitants of Roman Syria, Cilicia and Cappadocia by Shapur I (240-270 AD), the king who famously captured the Roman Emperor Valerian in 260.

New cities and settlements were built in fertile but sparsely populated regions such as Khuzistan (east of the Tigris/Euphrates delta in Iran) and Meshan (the delta area in Iraq). Many Christians were employed in big construction projects. The city of Ahvaz (now an Iranian city of over a million people) soon became a significant cultural and educational center with its famous library and University of Gundishapur, home to scholars from all over including many Christians and Jews. The university is still operating — it is about a 3-hour drive east from Basra in Iraq. The area also became the center of silk production with many Christians involved in every aspect of production.

During the reign of Vahran II (276-293AD) persecution against Christians erupted, including one of Vahran’s Christian concubines, Candida (Qndyr’), one of the first Persian Martyrs. The persecutions were supported and even promoted by the powerful high priest Kirdir who in one inscription declares how Ahriman and the idols suffered great blows and continues as follows: “and the Jews (Yahud), Buddists (Shaman), Hindus (Brahman), Nazarenes (Nasara), Christians (Kristiyan), Baptists (Makdag) and Manicheans (Zandik) were smashed in the empire, their idols destroyed, and the habitations of the idols annihilated and turned into abodes and seats of the gods”.

The following excerpt is from the translation of Sebastian P. Brock in “A Martyr at the Sasanid Court under Vahran II: Candida” Analecta Bollandiana 96 (1978), 167-181.  According to Brock, Candida’s dialogue with the king is embellished, but he does not doubt the basic historicity of the record.  Regardless, the account is a reminder that Christian faithfulness entails persecution, and that love for Jesus will endure trouble.

Here are excerpts from The Martyrdom of Candida that give you the gist of her story:

Because of her astonishing beauty the king, on seeing [Candida], became enamored of her and gave orders that she should enter his bed-chamber; and he took her as a wife . . .

The blessed girl held on to her faith because she had been brought up by her parents as a Christian, and so she preserved her modesty and her faith intact. Even when she had the title of a king’s wife she demonstrated her true faith in God all the more, and she used to preach her Lord, our Lord Jesus Christ, openly to her companions and maids.

It was then that a pretext for her enemies was found, and they plotted to lay an accusation against her on the grounds of her faith, – for all her companions conformed to the king’s will and religion. And because they could find nothing else against her, apart from the pretext of her faith in God, they found an opening against her (in this), and spoke against her to the king, telling him: The one whom you love more than all the rest of us does not conform to your way of thinking but serves her own god and invokes him. Her companions accused her with these words, and when the king learnt this, he gave orders that she should enter his bed-chamber. Because of his love for her, he asked the believing girl in a wheedling way: What is your religion?

She told him: I learnt the truth and the faith from my parents; for I am a Christian, and I serve my Lord Jesus Christ, and I confess God his Father. I have nothing else beside his holy name. The king said to her in answer: You see how I love you above all my other wives, and you have honor in my kingdom, be obedient to me and abandon your religion in favor of mine; worship the Sun and the Fire, and honor the Water, so that my love for you may increase and I shall add to the honor you receive and make you chief queen in my realm.

The blessed girl…courageously and with joy told him: “Keep your honors, and give your position of authority to your wives who conform to your religion; for I believe in the true God, and I will not abandon Jesus Christ, or forsake his religion . . . I will not do your will in this, because the God whom I serve is the God of gods and Lord of lords who made heaven and earth and everything that is in them. In this I shall not be led astray, for all things created are guided by his decree.

Because the king’s love for Candida was so great, he was patient at her words, and kept on asking her many times in cases she might conform to his will. The more he used blandishments on her, the greater courage did she acquire, astonishing the king with the living words of the scriptures.

When he saw that all his blandishments were unsuccessful and that he could not turn her from her faith (in this way), he turned to terrible threats against her, hoping that she might abandon her firm position (or the truth), and swore by his gods that if she did not do his will he would destroy her in a horrible way.

On hearing these words from the king, she put on against him the armor of the strength of Christ and told the king: “Just as your blandishments were unable to bring me down from the truth of my faith, neither will your threats lessen my intent. Do with me whatever you like; don’t hold back, for I believe in my Lord Jesus Christ; he give me endurance against all your threats, and bring me to the kingdom of heaven.”

Then the wicked man gave orders that she be put in irons, and he had her hands and feet upon in fetters: a collar was put round her neck, and he gave orders that she should be given just enough bread and water to keep her alive, in case she might be frightened and do the king’s will . . . He learnt, however, that she was increasing all the more in her service of Christ and in the firmness of her faith, with the result that she was not even eating the food that was sent to her, but was serving (God) in prison in prayer and fasting.

When the king heard this . . . he said to her: “Aren’t you ashamed to prefer irons to gold, to seek ill-treatment in place of luxury, and to desire prison rather than the palace?” But the handmaid of Christ told the king in a loud voice: “These irons that you see me in are more desirable than a necklace of your pearls, because I have been thrown into them for the sake of Christ. Ill-treatment of (my) love for him is preferable to me than (all) your luxuries, and prison for his name’s sake is much better than your palace.”

With these words she inflamed the king’s anger. He gave orders that she be stretched out. They removed the irons and stripped the clothes from her body, and stood her stretched out naked in front of him, while four men flayed her. When they had struck her so many times that her blood ran, the king gave orders that she be put in the collar and taken around the city in chains, in case she might feel shame over the disgrace of her nakedness . . . When they had taken her around the city during the whole day, her courage increased all the more.

The king then ordered (one of) her breasts to be cut off . . . When they did this to her and made her go round the city streets, the blessed girl still gave thanks and praise to her Lord . . . When he saw her he said “Aren’t you ashamed at all this? Give in to me and I will give orders for you to be healed, and you shall have your (old) position of honor.” But the blessed girl told him: “You have no greater honor than this to give me, for you have already honored me with two different honors: first you have stripped me naked and flayed me, and secondly you have given me this gift from my own body into the palm of my hand.”

The king said to her: “If you rejoice in these gifts, I will give you another. At which he gave orders that her other breast be cut off . . . .

Here the manuscript begins to deteriorate

But the face of this disciple of Christ was radiant with joy, and her mouth was full of laughter and praise. She said with a loud voice: “I am going to (my) wedding feast [     ] sing for me with songs of thanksgiving [     ] and with hymns [     ] today, but in the world which does not pass away I have been betrothed . . .

Nicomedia (an area in Turkey east of what is now Istanbul) is often held to be the place of origin for Syriac martyrology. The Martyrdom of Candida  is part of a manuscript with two other Nicomedian martyr accounts. Nicomedia was a central area for the early development of the church. The Chronicle of Seert (ninth century) preserves the only other narrative recollection of her story.

The story of Candida follows the the general structure of the new genre of martyrdom stories developing in Nicomedia. 1) the Christian is brought to the attention of the authorities. 2) They are tempted to abandon their faith. 3) They are charged, often because they refuse to worship the empire’s deity. In the case of women, their refusal to marry is often the crime (as a threat to the economy and family, and to the subjugation of women). 4) The interrogation results in vehement refusal to comply. 5) The martyr is tortured and eventually killed. The narrative is sprinkled with miracles.

Candida does not have a saints day in the church, nor do we know her death day, so we place her on Jashan of Mihr, also known as Mehregan, the celebration of Mithra on October 2. This was originally a feast honoring the Zoroastrian yazata Mithra. By the 4th century AD, it was observed as one of the name-day feasts, a form it retains today. In a predominantly Muslim Iran, it is one of the two pre-Islamic festivals that continue to be celebrated by the public at large.  Mithra was Roman Emperor Constantine’s (272-337) god until he added on Christianity.

Want to know a lot more about this era in Iran?

Scholarly article on Candida.

Video that goes beyond her era:

Suggestions for action

Let your mind wander to Iraq and Iran. The territory where the two nations meet has always been a battle ground. Rome, then Europe, then the U.S. have been successive invaders from the “west.” In the middle of the turmoil, Christianity took root and survives. One of the reasons it became attractive was because women of faith, like Candida, violated oppressive societal norms from the highest status to the lowest. Their innate freedom to be their true selves inspired faith in the Savior who freed them.

Consider how you look at the Middle East. Are all your thoughts clouded by the politics of empire or seeded with the inspiration of faith?

As with all the martyrs who are part of our transhistorical body, Candida’s death begs the question, “How do I resist the worship of the state’s gods?”

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