Sergius & Bacchus, October 7th: Patron Saints of Gay Marriage?

Sergius and Bacchus are by a long way the best known of the so-called gay or lesbian saints – unless we include as “saints” the biblical pairs David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi.  We need to be careful with terminology though: the word “gay” can be misleading, as it certainly cannot be applied with the same connotations as in modern usage, and technically, they are no longer recognised as saints by Western church, as decreed by the Vatican – but they are still honoured by the Orthodox churches, and by many others who choose to ignore the rulings of Vatican bureaucrats. The origins of saint-making lay in recognition by popular acclaim, not on decision by religious officials.
Whatever the quibbles we may have, they remain of great importance to modern queer Christians, both for their story of religious faith and personal devotion, and as potent symbols of how sexual minorities were accepted and welcomed in the earliest days of the Christian community.
They are particularly important in the movement to marriage equality, for their significance in early rites of blessing same-sex unions in church, which may point a way to making a modern provision for something similar without necessarily changing the traditional understanding of church marriage to that between a man and a woman – with its link to child-bearing.
(And, as I have written before, I have a very special personal connection with this pair of early saints and martyrs for the faith. Like so many queer Catholics, it never occurred to me that there could even exist gay or lesbian Catholics until I heard of SS Sergius and Bacchus. Some months after first hearing of them, I read their story in John Boswell, and wondered when was their feast day. I investigated – and found by wonderful serendipity that it was that very day. That began for me a continuing exploration of the other LGBT saints, of the rest of gay history in the churches, of more general gay and lesbian theology – and  this blog. By further serendipity, I discovered this week that today, the feast day of Sergius and Bacchus, is also the birthday of  – Dan Savage, well known for his work to combat homophobic teen bullying.  If Serge and Bacchus may be regarded as patrons saints of gay adults, is Dan Savage a modern patron saint of gay teens?).
A modern icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus by...
A modern icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus by the gay, Franciscan iconographer Robert Lentz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Lovers’ Story

Sergius and Bacchus were third /fourth century Roman soldiers, and lovers. This alone is worth noting in any discussion of homoerotic relationships and the early Christians: in the Roman world, as in most of the Mediterranean region, such relationships were commonplace. What mattered in questions of sexual ethics and social approval (or otherwise) had little to do with the gender of the partners, but with their respective social status.
They were of high social standing, good enough to have a close personal relationship with the emperor, Tertullian. This provoked jealousy. They were also Christians, which gave their enemies a useful pretext to denounce them to the Emperor. He ordered them to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, which they refused to do. Their refusal provoked the wrath of the emperor, who began to exact a series of penalties, culminating in the sentence of death. The first to be killed was Bacchus, who was flogged to death. Serge was subjected to further torture, before being killed himself. The fifth century “Passion of Sergius and Bacchus” describes many details, and also some supposed miraculous interventions, such as the dead Bacchus appearing to Sergius in a vision, where he admonished his partner for grieving, and promised that they would soon be together again:
Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken away from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union, chanting and reciting, “I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shall enlarge my heart”.  
Boswell makes two points about the trial and passion of Sergius and Bacchus that are especially relevant to their significance for queer Christians: in all the legal and theological arguments over the charges against them, the matter of their relationship was simply not an issue. The complaint was that they had refused to honour pagan gods. Their sexuality was of no consequence at all. Later, when the Greek hagiographer has the dead Bacchus appear to Sergius to comfort him with the prospect of paradise, the greatest joy of the promised afterlife is to be reunited with his male lover. Neither the Roman jurists, nor the fifth century Christian writer who recorded the passion, have anything at all to say against the relationship – and the Christian celebrates the quality and value of their love.

Sergius and Bacchus & Gay Marriage

It is simply historically untrue that marriage has always been between one man and one woman, or that same-sex marriage is a modern invention. Among many counter-examples that easily disprove that belief, is the tradition of liturgical blessings, in church, of same-sex unions as described by the ground-breaking historical work of John Boswell. While these were not in any way an exact counterpart to modern marriage (nor were heterosexual unions from the same period), they do no need to be considered carefully in modern responses in faith to the questions around marriage and family equality. Sergius and Bacchus are significant here, for being mentioned by name in many of the liturgies for these rites that have survived, along with numerous other, less familiar examples of same-sex couples from church history.

There are also surviving texts of ancient and medieval hymns to the couple. Boswell quotes one from the sixth century, which has the opening verse ,

Of Serge and Bacchus,
the pair
filled with grace
,

let us sing, O ye faithful!
Glory to Him who worketh
through his saints
amazing and wonderful deeds! 

The full hymn is too long to quote here in full, but one verse in particular emphasises the importance of their mutual devotion:

It was not desire for this world
that captivated Serge for Christ,
nor the empty life of worldly affairs
[that captivated] Bacchus;
rather, made one
as brethren
in the bond of love
they called out valiantly to the tyrant,
“See in two bodies
one soul and and heart,
one will and virtue.
Take those that yearn to please God.
Glory to Him who worketh
through his saints
amazing and wonderful deeds!

The words “made brethren” in this verse are a reference to the literal translation of the greek name for the rite, that of “making brothers”.  This has been taken by some commentators as disproving Boswell’s claim that these rites have any connection to marriage, and are instead simply a joining in spiritual brotherhood. (A claim that Boswell himself anticipated and countered in the text himself).
Whatever the original connotation of the words though, that there was some concept of marriage involved is clearly shown by another hymn from the ninth century, quoted and discussed at “Obscure Classics of Latin Literature“, on a page for Carolingian poetry.

Hymn of SS. Sergius and Bacchus

– spuriously attributed to Walahfrid Strabo (c. 808 – 849 CE)

I. O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract as our voices resound with odes
And let us make manifest the gracious rewards of the Lord.
We who are below shall celebrate the saints with an illustrious hymn
From our very hearts.

II. Holy martyrs shining by virtue of your merits, Sergius and Bacchus,
As partners you wear God’s crown, you have transcended
Together the enclosure of the flesh; and now you are
Above the stars.

“O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract” seems pretty explicit, to me.

Glory to Him who worketh
through his saints
amazing and wonderful deeds!



Indeed.

(At Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry has a fascinating post on depictions of Sergius and Bacchus in art, featuring in particular a wonderful stained glass window of the pair, at St. Martha’s Church in Morton Grove, Illinois. This was donated to the church by its LGBT parishioners, and is believed to be the only representation of them in any United States Church).

Books

Boisvert, Donald: Sanctity And Male Desire: A Gay Reading Of Saints (See all Catholic Saints Books)

Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Jordan, Mark: Authorizing Marriage?: Canon, Tradition, and Critique in the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions

O’Neill, Dennis: Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive People

O’Sullivan, Andrew: Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con: A Reader

Related articles

Enhanced by Zemanta
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

6 thoughts on “Sergius & Bacchus, October 7th: Patron Saints of Gay Marriage?”

  1. It's still Oct. 6 here in Los Angeles, and I'm still working on a new post about Sergius and Bacchus with some wonderful new images of them. Tomorrow you'll be able to ad another "related link" from the Jesus in Love Blog. Happy Sergius and Bacchus Day to you!Hey, I like the new look of your blog. For me, it’s easier to navigate.

  2. P.S. I almost called Sergius and Bacchus the best-known gay saints in my post, but then I thought of Jonathan and David. I suppose they aren't technically "saints," right?

  3. Hi,Kitt. Thanks for these notes. I will certainly be updating your link later. I'm pleased you like the new look. Navigability wasn't something I thought about – but if it works better for you, I'm delighted.I would go along with your description as the best-loved gay "saints": I would hold to the view that David & Jonathan are not technically Christian saints, even though they do certainly fit into any broader collection of such.On a personal level, I should note that I've rather neglected this site (as I'm sure you are aware), while giving more attention to other projects – of which the new look is a by-product. I have been giving it some thought though, and should now resume more regular posting, with an expanded frame of reference: not just "saints", but a broader range of queer people in church history – especially clergy.

  4. A beautiful new stained glass window of Sergius and Bacchus leads off my new post about them at the Jesus in Love Blog: Gay saints Sergius and Bacchus honored in new artI also included a link to this post at Q Saints and Martyrs. I’m looking forward to seeing how you expand this blog with a broader range of queer people in church history. I feel that the more I learn about the saints, the broader my definition of “sainthood” becomes.

Leave a Reply