Besides celebrating yesterday the memory of the Roman martyr Cecilia, we also celebrated the memory of one of the 70 Apostles, Philemon, his wife Apphias, their son Archippos, and their former slave Onesimos.

Sts. Archippos, Apphias, and Philemon

Philemon has the unique distinction of having received the only personal letter from St. Paul in the canon of the New Testament. Paul’s Letter to Philemon comes at the very end of his epistles, immediately before the Epistle to the Hebrews. It consists of one single chapter. Despite its private nature and brevity, this little gem still contains much for us to think about as we make our way toward the celebration of Christmas.

St. Onesimos

Onesimos was a rash young slave who stole from his master and ran away. He ended up in Rome with the full knowledge that, if he was caught, he would probably be crucified. At some point during his stay in Rome he must have become acquainted with Christians, perhaps even Christians from his native Colosai. The Faith appealed to him since, unlike contemporary paganism, the slave was considered nothing more than a living tool; Christianity told the story of Jesus Christ who died for all and rescued all from the bonds of death, free and slave equally. Through his Christian acquaintances he was introduced to St. Paul who was in prison. It is not clear if St. Paul himself baptized Onesimos, but a close friendship must have developed between the Apostle and the slave. Onesimos, however, must return to his master, give back the money and accept the consequences of his action.

This is where the letter comes in. St. Paul wrote to Philemon asking him to take back his runaway slave and to accept him as a brother in Christ. Apparently Philemon acquiesced to St. Paul’s request. Tradition tells us that Onesimos later became a bishop (probably Berea in Macedonia) and eventually endured a martyr’s death.

What sort of a person was Philemon? St. Paul praises his love both for Paul and for all the Christians. He has been the source of consolation and encouragement. Paul must have been fairly fond of him, since he asks for a guest room when he comes again to Colossai.

On the other hand, Paul goes to great length to stress as an undercurrent in the letter his apostolic authority. Even though he has not given a direct command, he still anticipates Philemon’s “obedience” (21). He also goes out of his way to stress in what high esteem he holds Onesimos, how important he would be for Paul’s ministry, and how he is only sending Onesimos back out of deference to Philemon.

Then there is the matter of the stolen money. Paul almost gets a little testy here. Not only does he promise to repay whatever Onesimos owes, he even signs the letter with his own hand, like a binding IOU!

The letter presents an interesting and complicated portrait of our saint. We see his love and concern for the saints. At the same time, Paul’s language implies that he may have been a rather harsh master. That may have been the reason Onesimos ran away in the first place. Our own first reaction may be one of discomfort in attributing any sort of fault to our saints. But that is the whole glory of the saints. They are one of us. They are not demi-gods. They are not infallible. They are not sinless. In the lives of the saints we see human beings–men, women, children, free, slaves, aristocrats, poor–struggling between the desire to love God and neighbor and the pull of our fallen nature. No one, not even an Apostle, is born a saint; saints are only made, and that with great difficulty and struggle. Every saint had to undergo that same daily repentance that each of us is called to. They are our examples, our leaders on the rugged road to the Kingdom of God.

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