September 26: Saints Cosmas and Damian, Martyrs

c. Late third–early fourth century
Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saints of doctors, barbers, and pharmacists


<<<      Holy twins are honored for their healing, their poverty, and their deaths.     >>>

The ancient walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem enclose the sacred ground where the life of Jesus Christ culminated in His death, burial, and resurrection. Both the modest hill of Calvary and the rock-cut tomb in which His corpse was laid are found under the roof of this venerable church. Calvary and the tomb have long been protected from relic hunters by slabs of marble and stone cladding that conceal the rough, first-century substrata resting just below. There is a custom, still common today, of allowing the faithful to sleep overnight inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. From the time the heavy wooden doors close at dusk until they creek open again at sunrise, the pilgrim must remain in the church. This pious custom of resting and watching in the dark, all night long, near a holy site in order to soak up its latent power is called “incubation.” The custom originated in an ancient church in Constantinople housing the remains of today’s saints, Cosmas and Damian, where the faithful incubated themselves in the hope of a miraculous cure.

Similar to Saint George, legends about Saints Cosmas and Damian far outrun any verifiable historical details about their lives. The devotion to today’s saints across epochs and cultures is as broad as an ocean but as shallow as a lake. Upon a slender bed of long-lost documents rests the narrative that Cosmas and Damian were twins and natives of Saudi Arabia who studied medicine in Syria. They became known as the “moneyless ones” for not accepting payment for their healing services. They were likely martyred north of Antioch in the early fourth century.

The earliest historical anchor planting these holy brothers in the ground of history dates to around 400 A.D., when a pagan visitor recorded a visit to a shrine dedicated to Cosmas and Damian in Asia Minor. In the fifth century, a church was built to their memory in Constantinople and, in the sixth century, a pagan temple in the Roman Forum was rededicated as a Basilica in their honor. The bright apse mosaic of Rome’s Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian still shines and shows Saints Peter and Paul presenting the twins to the glorified Christ.

Most of the wealth of miracles that have long been attributed to Saints Cosmas and Damian involve healing, in keeping with their medical profession. The fame of these miracles, together with their martyrdom, was so widespread in the early Church that they joined that elite class of martyrs, saints, virgins, and popes whose names were inserted into the Roman Canon, or Eucharistic Prayer I, where they are still read at Mass today. Their names also ring out in ancient litanies still sung at solemn Masses. Yet close familiarity with their names may dull our curiosity about their gory end.

No details have been preserved, but it can be supposed that Cosmas and Damian died like so many other martyrs: by crucifixion, beheading, or drowning at sea; by the goring of beasts, or by their flesh being burned off in a roar of flames. The chilling sentence of death read by a Roman official sent a cold shiver up the spine. It was irrevocable. The martyr’s fate was often to be publicly shamed, tortured, and physically destroyed in a brutal fashion in keeping with a brutal world. No miracle saved Cosmas and Damian from their violent end. As physicians, they knew well the frailty of the human body. They understood their own bodies to be cracked vessels flooded temporarily with the Holy Spirit of God. And when the time came for that earthen vessel to return to the clay from whence it came, they bravely gave up what was never theirs. They offered a witness so shocking that it was seared into the memories of those who saw it, a witness so other-worldly that a few emulated it, and untold masses of others honored it through prayer and devotion, as we still do today.

Saints Cosmas and Damian, through your heroic witness of martyrdom, we ask your intercession to embolden the weak, to strengthen the hesitant, to give words to the meek, and to unleash the hidden power of the Gospel in all those who could do more. Amen.

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