When I launched the idea and gave an explanation of why African-Americans and Orthodox Christians should celebrate the feast day of St. Simon of Cyrene, a couple of criticisms came up from within the church. One criticism is a reasonable issue. In most calendars of the saints we honor, this saint is not found. Indeed, there is a question of whether or not he was canonized in the first place.
Deacon Samuel Davis who leads the St. Simon of Cyrene Orthodox Mission Parish in New Brunswick, NJ pointed me out to Hieromonk Herman Majkrzak of the St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, PA who confirmed the date and canonization of the saint:
God bless you!
I found this information in the Ormylia Synaxarion compiled by Hieromonk Makarius of Simons Petras, which is the most well-researched Orthodox collection of saints’ lives that I know of. In this collection he is assigned to Feb. 27th, with a footnote that says:
“This commemoration is found only in the Lectionary Paris BN gr. 282 (9th cent.).” (Vol. 3, p. 630)
As this is a saint with almost no history of veneration in the Orthodox Church – no service in the Menaion, no date on most calendars, and no life in the Synaxarion – there is very little information to go on.
I wish I could be more helpful!
Even though he is rarely honored, St. Simon of Cyrene does have a feast day.
This is not to say that the Orthodox Church has relegates African saints to a “file 13.” On the contrary, one can visiit any website of any jurisdiction and find where several saints from the continent are honored with feast days. Looking at my Antiochian calendar, Anthony the Great is celebrated on January 17th, Athanasius the Great on the 18th, Macarius the Great on the 19th, Mary of Egypt is honored on April 1st and the Fifth Sunday of the very important Great Lenten Fast, Pachomius the Great on May 15th, and Pimen (Poemen the Shepherd) the Great is on August 27th. In addition to these great ones, there are many more well and lesser known heroic men and women of the faith listed in our records of the saints.
Many of the other great saints of Orthodoxy acknowledge their debt to the Desert Fathers in their quest for spiritual growth. Saints Basil the Great and John Cassian spent time among them. Saints Ignatius Brianchaninov and Theophan the Recluse referred to them in their writings. The very influential Hieromonk Seraphim Rose taught; “You read the words of St. Macarius who lived in the deserts of Egypt in the fourth century, and he’s speaking to you now. …”* Everyone can find a variety of saints of any race and part of the world to honor.
So, why St. Simon of Cyrene? Why shouldn’t we highlight some other better known saint to help evangelize and find common ground with African-Americans? During my last year serving as the pastor of a black Baptist congregation, I did my best to expose my congregation to the African saints. I brought in icons, introduced prayers, I even wrote a skit where a young man meets some of these great men and women in a dream. The congregation acted it out as part of our Black History Month program. But after February, no one wanted to hear me speak of these saints (or anything else about Orthodoxy) because they didn’t see them in the Bible. African-American Christians are overwhelmingly Protestant and firmly believe in the principle of Sola Scriptura, scripture alone. The Lives of the Saints, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Menaions, Synaxarions; none of these mean anything to a people who believe that the Bible is the “Word of God.”
Simon of Cyrene is in the Bible. He is often depicted as a black man. His feast day is during Black History Month. Nearly every black church has some sort of display on a bulletin board that month. On that board are pictures of Oprah Winfrey (New Age), Malcolm X (Nation of Islam/Orthodox Islam), and others who are everything from African Methodist Episcopal (the oldest black American denomination) to those who are “spiritual, but not religious.” We can offer icons of the first man of any race to carry the cross of our Lord to be a part of these cultural heroes. We may generate interest in other black saints. We may generate interest in other saints and in the Church. Does that mean we will have 3,000 new converts from the African-American community, or only three? Shame on us if we don’t try to evangelize with the tools we have been blessed with. Shame on us if we don’t use the tools we have to find some common ground in this highly divisive society.
And I am not suggesting we do anything new or modern that has never been done in Orthodoxy before. Saints Cyril & Methodius didn’t ignore the Slavs need for the Gospel to be preached in a language they could understand. They created Church Slavonic. Saints Herman and Innocent wait for the Native Alaskans to learn Slavonic before reaching out to them in love. They translated the scriptures and other religious books in their native languages. Painting icons of Martin Luther King Jr. or jazz great John Coltrane as saints is out of the question as they were not Orthodox and cannot be canonized as saints in the Church (although we do honor the great Civil Rights leader and can enjoy ‘Trane’s music). But, Simon of Cyrene is a saint in our records and the most common holy book that black people have access to. We may not know about his life before or after he carried the cross, which is why he is not prominent on our calendars. But, we do know that he did it because the Holy Bible that our Church put together tells us he did. For (we) Orthodox Christians to honor this feast day which is on a day of the month where (we) African-Americans celebrate (our) their heritage is an act of finding common ground.
*Hieromonk Damascene, Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, St. Herman of Alaska Press, Platina CA, pg. 471