From the nation of Armenia, in the darkest hours before the dawn, shines this tale of pure friendship.
Polyeuctus (died 259) was a soldier in the service of Rome. Closer to him than a blood brother was his comrade in arms, Nearchus. In a time when the great empire of Rome had already entered its decline, they hearkened back to the Roman ideal of virtus, which is the root of our word virtue. It means manliness, courage, and valor. There was only one thing in the way of this bromance — religion. Nearchus was a Christian while Polyeuctus was as yet a pagan.
The seed of Christianity had, according to legend, been sown in Armenia in the first century, through the preaching of the apostles Sts. Jude and Bartholomew. St. Bartholomew had watered it with his own blood, drop by drop, as he was flayed alive. Since then Christianity had spread but as yet, the land of Armenia was still ruled by pagan kings and ultimately, the emperor of Rome.
In 258, the Emperor Valerian ordered a merciless persecution, especially targeting those of high rank or positions of authority. Nearchus knew his moment had come. He sorrowfully prepared for his death.
When Polyeuctus asked him why he was so sad, Nearchus gave him an unexpected answer. It wasn’t his own death that bothered him. It was that he was soon to leave this earth and had not managed to convince Polyeuctus to become a Christian. Then and there, Polyeuctus vowed to accept the True Faith. Nearchus’ argument and persuasion had failed; only his acceptance of the sacrifice of his life had won the grace of conversion for his friend.
Later that night Polyeuctus had a dream. Jesus Christ lifted his stained old military garment from his back and placed on him a shining new garment, then seated him on a winged horse.
Polyeuctus vowed to accept the True Faith.
Polyeuctus professed openly for Christianity. He rode into town, tore up the edict of persecution and destroyed some idols for good measure — which if you think about it, sounds about like what a Roman soldier would do.
As it turns out, Polyeuctus’s father-in-law, a magistrate named Felix, was the one responsible for carrying out the imperial edict. Felix wanted to protect his son-in-law but could not. First came arguments, then when those failed, torture. That too, failed. Finally, Felix played his trump card: “Kiss your wife and kids goodbye,” he said. In came the wife, whose name was Paulina, and kids crying and begging Polyeuctus to renounce his newfound faith. He refused.
As Polyeuctus marched to the place appointed for his beheading it was as if in triumph, a throng of people followed, many of whom were converted at the sight. Amid the throng, was the faithful friend, Nearchus. When Polyeuctus saw his beloved friend in the crowd, he called out, “Save yourself my dear friend! Remember the vow of love confirmed between the two of us!”
He refused [to renounce his faith].
What did he mean by “save yourself?” Normally the phrase means “save your own life” but Polyeuctus could not have meant that because he had had the opportunity to save his own life and he had refused. He could only have meant what Our Lord said:
Save your eternal soul, my friend.
As for the “vow of love,” this refers to staying true to Our Lord unto death. Nearchus’s turn was soon to come. Polyeuctus was encouraging him, as martyrs so often famously have and still do.
This vow was memorialized in the generations that followed. According to St. Gregory, bishop of Tours, who lived two centuries later, the early Frankish kings called upon St. Polyeuctus as their heavenly witness when they made their treaties. Hence, Polyeuctus comes down to us as the patron saint of the taking of vows. (A millenium later, another Frenchman, the playwright Pierre Corneille would bring the tale to the stage in his drama, Polyeucte.)
It was not long after the deaths of Polyeuctus and Nearchus that Armenia left its dark pagan days behind and came into the light. In 301, St. Gregory the Illuminator baptized Tiridates III, the king of Armenia. Tiridates accepted Christianity on behalf of the whole nation. Other kings of other nations would follow: Clovis, Constantine, and Volodymyr but Armenia has the honor of being the first.
Perhaps none of that would have happened if it had not been for the pure love of St. Nearchus for his friend St. Polyeuctus. He wouldn’t rest until his brother from another mother had the same mother, the Church, the Bride of Christ.
Feast day is Jan. 9 on the Eastern calendar; Feb 13 on the Western calendar.