Sts. Cosmas and Damian: Brothers by Blood, Brothers in Faith, Brothers in Martyrdom

"The Healing of Justinian by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian" by Fra Angelico
“The Healing of Justinian by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian” by Fra Angelico

Last week’s saints, Sts. John and Paul, were paired together in the Roman Canon, and we remember their accomplishments together. Today too, our saints are paired together because they were brothers. Sts. Cosmas and Damian were twin brothers who were born in Cilicia, in modern-day Turkey.

Unfortunately, we know very little about their lives, but the most notable part of their background is that they were physicians. Supposedly, they were quite popular and skilled, but they also used their work as an opportunity to spread the Gospel by their words and examples. They routinely included prayer in their treatment, and accepted no payment for their services, earning them the nicknames “The Unmercenaries” (not really that creative) or “The Silverless”. One of their miraculous healings occurred when, assisted by the angels, they supposedly grafted a leg from a recently deceased Ethiopian man to replace the cancerous leg of a deacon they were acquainted with. Nobody knows if these legends are accurate, but often times, Sts. Cosmas and Damian are pictured in the process of performing this procedure or actually holding the leg in their arms!

Because they were so outspoken about their faith, Cosmas and Damian, along with their three younger brothers, were rounded up in Cyrus of Syria during the Great Persecution of Diocletian. Despite the tortures inflicted on them, they stayed true to their faith. Not only that, but they survived being hung on a cross and exposed to the elements, being pelted with stones, and being shot with arrows! Eventually, they were given the crown of martyrdom by being beheaded, and were buried there in Cyrus. Years later, the Emperor Justinian, who himself was cured of illness through the intercession of the martyrs, rebuilt and fortified the lowly city of Cyrus, building a great basilica over their tomb. These twin brothers are a great example of living their faith even as they carried out their secular professions as doctors. Today, let’s ask their prayers for doctors, nurses, and all healthcare professionals!

martyrs-575x431As a very important side note, sometimes the way that I’ve written about these early saints can make martyrdom seem fairly casual. It’s easy as Americans and modern Catholics to see martyrdom as something long ago and far away, but as the recent brutal murder of twenty-one Coptic Christians shows us, people are still giving their lives for their faith. Make no mistake: these people were not murdered because they are citizens of a rival nation; they were intentionally referred to as “People of the Cross.” Christian martyrdom is real, ugly, and present today. I mention this not to scare us, but for us to take courage by their witness, just as the early Christians did. Early Church Father Tertullian wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Let us pray for all who face persecution and death, and ask the prayers of the holy martyrs, past and present, that we can be courageous witnesses to our faith as well!