Although we know little about the life of St. Asterius of Amasea in Pontus (northeast Turkey bordering the Black Sea), we have a rich treasury of his homilies and speeches praising the martyrs.
Asterius was born in the fourth century. He was taught primarily by a slave who had been educated so thoroughly by his own master, a schoolmaster in Antioch, that the slave was well known among Greeks and Romans. Asterius studied the work of Demosthenes (384-322 B.C.) and became a famous orator. He practiced law before being named bishop of Amasea (c. 380-390).
His sermons show rhetorical skill, vivid imagination and strong moral convictions. He was considered a faithful pastor who carefully looked after his people.
It’s not known how long he served as bishop, but one of his sermons was delivered on New Year’s in 400 A.D. In another sermon, he said he was of an advanced age so he probably didn’t preach long into the 5th century.
In his preaching, Asterius spoke directly to people, often referring to “you” and questioning his listeners. He quoted from and interpreted Scripture, spoke of immutable principles of righteousness and the truths of the Word of God and then applied these to daily life. Besides appealing to reason, he ridiculed folly, shamed vice and praised virtue, particularly charity to the poor.
His sermons show that the church was already celebrating Christmas, Easter and Epiphany, and honoring martyrs. In a homily on Peter and Paul, he said Peter received jurisdiction over all Christians. He encouraged seeking the intercession of saints, venerating their relics and making pilgrimages to their shrines.
In one homily, he took aim at the custom — particularly among the rich — of wearing clothes decorated with religious images such as the wedding at Cana, the raising of Lazarus and so on. His opposition was not to religious art — he was even quoted twice for supporting the veneration of images at the Second Council of Nicaea (787). Rather, he was speaking against those who believed that acting piously and wearing such expensive clothes pleased God.
“Do not picture Christ on your garments,” he said “… but upon your soul carry about his image.”
Sources: saints.sqpn.com; saintpatrickdc.org; tertullian.org; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; and wikipedia.org.
Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.