Wednesday, July 28, 2021

"The Blood of the Martyr as Fresh as if It Had Been Shed on That Very Day" ~ The discovery of the relics of Saints Nazarius and Celsus by Ambrose of Milan

The martyrdom of Saints Nazarius and Celsus from the early 11th century
Menologion of Basil II.

July 28 is the feast day of two fairly obscure martyrs of Milan, Saints Nazarius and Celsus. According to the Golden Legend compiled much later, Nazarius was a missionary and possibly a presbyter, baptized by the hand of St. Linus in Rome. During his travels in Gaul, Nazarius met the mother of Celsus, a young boy of perhaps ten years of age. The mother asked Nazarius to baptize the boy and take him with him on his journeys of conversion. Both Nazarius and Celsus were martyred, the legend says, during the reign of Nero, having been beheaded in Milan. 

Generally, not much historical credence is afforded to the accounts contained in the Golden Legend. However, in this one, we find a reference to Saint Ambrose who is mentioned as having discovered the grave sites of Nazarius and Celsus in Milan three centuries after their deaths. When we consult the Vita Sancti Ambrosii—a work written in the early 5th century soon after the death of St. Ambrose by his very secretary, Deacon Paulinus of Milan—we find Sts. Nazarius and Celsus mentioned explicitly. In fact, it appears that Paulinus was an eye-witness to the discovery of their relics by St. Ambrose. In passage following, Paulinus describes the incorrupt state of the bodies and the odor of sanctity accompanying them:

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At this time he raised and transferred the body of Saint Nazarius, the martyr, which had been buried in a garden outside the city to the Basilica of the Apostles which is near the Roman Gate. We saw, moreover, in the grave in which the body of the martyr lay—although when he suffered, we cannot learn even to this day—the blood of the martyr as fresh as if it had been shed on that very day. His head also, which had been severed by the wicked, was so whole and uncorrupted with hair and beard that it seemed to us that it had been washed and placed in the grave at the very moment at which it was dug up. And why should this be strange, since the Lord indeed has already promised this in the Gospel, that a hair from their heads shall not perish? We were also suffused with such a wondrous odor that it surpassed the sweetness of all perfumes. 

When this body of the martyr was dug up and laid on a litter, we immediately proceeded with the holy bishop to the martyr Saint Celsus, who was buried in the same garden, to pray. We have learned, however, that never before had he prayed in that very place, and this was the sign of the discovery of a martyr, namely, if the holy bishop should go to pray to a place at which he had never been before. [Life of Saint Ambrose, Chapter VIII:32]

St. Ambrose’s mystical ability to discern the burial places of the martyrs was demonstrated previously by Paulinus in his account of the discovery of the relics of Saints Gervasius and Protasius

Paulinus continues:

We know, however, from the custodians of the place, that it was a tradition with them from their parents, not to depart from that place from generation to generation of their people on this account because great treasures had been buried there. And indeed great treasures they were, which neither rust nor the worm destroys nor thieves dig up and steal, because Christ is their guardian and their habitation is the court of heaven, for whom it was Christ to live and to die was gain. [Life of Saint Ambrose, Chapter VIII:32]

Then, as with the discovery of the relics of Protasius and Gervasius previously, something strange happened in the immediate aftermath, as described by Paulinus:

And so after the body of the martyr was transported to the Basilica of the Apostles,26 where previously the relics of the Holy Apostles had been deposited with the greatest devotion of all, while the bishop was preaching one of the populace filled with an unclean spirit began to cry out that he was tormented by Ambrose. But he turned to him and said: “Be silent, devil, because Ambrose does not torment thee, but the faith of the saints and thy envy, because you see men rise to that place whence you have been cast down, for Ambrose knows not how to be puffed up.” After these words, he who was crying out became silent and threw himself upon the ground and no longer uttered a sound by which he might cause disturbance. [Life of Saint Ambrose, Chapter VIII:32]

It should also be added that the relics of St. Nazarius are mentioned in another early 5th century source, the letters and poems of Paulinus of Nola. Of course, this is not the same person as Paulinus the Deacon, the biographer of St. Ambrose, but instead a wealthy Roman writer and saint in his own right. Specifically, Paulinus says that he had obtained for his basilica dedicated to St. Felix at Fundi some relics of St. Nazarius (as well as relics of St. Luke, St. Andrew, St. Gervasius and St. Protasius. See Letter 32:17. In his poem addressed to Nicetas, he elaborates, saying:  

Here, too, is the martyr Nazarius, whom I received in humility of heart as a gift of faith from the noble Ambrose, so that he, too, lends distinction to Felix’s dwelling, and as a fellow resident sets his own resting-place close by the house of that brother. See Poem 27:439.

May the ancient martyrs Nazarius and Celsus pray for us.

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