Abercius: The Virgin and the Eucharist

Hierapolis was an ancient city located on hot springs in classical Phrygia in southwestern Anatolia, used as a spa since the 2nd century B.C. Its ruins are adjacent to modern Pamukkale in Turkey and were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.

Saint Abercius is a venerated throughout the Orthodox Church. According to the medieval synaxaria, he is honored on October 22 (and perhaps November 22) as the first bishop of Hierapolis, a miracle worker and, above all, a great evangelizer.

His name is inscribed on the fragments of an epitaph found in 1833, known as the "Epitaph of Abercius," preserved in the Lateran Museum in Rome. This inscription dating from the year 216 A.D. is written in symbolic and mysterious language. Its discovery was of major importance, because it confirmed central Christian tenets and figures:

- Christ as the Shepherd

- The Church

- The Eucharist (wine and bread)

- The "fish" with its Christological meaning, IXTYS = Jesus Christ Son of God the Savior,

- The Virgin, who is both Mary and the Church. Mary and the Church both represent the "Virgin Mother."

"[I] being by name Abercius, the disciple of a holy shepherd who feeds flocks of sheep [both] on mountains and on plains, who has great eyes that see everywhere. For this [shepherd] taught me [that the] book [of life] is worthy of belief. And to Rome he sent me to contemplate majesty, and to see a queen golden-robed and golden-sandaled; there also I saw a people bearing a shining mark…. But everywhere I had brethren. I had Paul ... Faith everywhere led me forward, and everywhere provided as my food a fish of exceeding great size, and perfect, which a holy virgin drew with her hands from a fountain and this it [faith] ever gives to its friends to eat, it having wine of great virtue, and giving it mingled with bread."

This epigraph speaks of a chaste virgin who caught the mystical fish, Christ, and distributed it to his friends, so that they can always feed on it. This virgin also distributes wine mingled with bread. Scholars disagree about the identity of this "chaste virgin."  Some say it is Mary, others the Church.

This alternative emphasizes the close link between Mary and the Church, and between Mary, the Church and the Eucharistic Christ. The expression "chaste virgin" seems to express astonishment for the mystery of the virginal conception and admiration for the mother of Jesus. Mary, mother of the body of Christ, is also mother of the Eucharist. Both Mary and the Church give Christians the Eucharistic Christ for food. This doctrine is expressed in the respectful language of the liturgy.


A. Gila