In the first century, only a few years after the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, a certain man who had been living in Palestine began traveling around the Mediterranean preaching about Jesus Christ to the pagan Gentiles. I’m not talking about St. Paul, although he did travel with St. Paul. He also traveled with and assisted St. Andrew on his journeys, and is even numbered among the 70 (72) disciples sent out by Jesus in Luke 10. He knew St. Paul probably through the apostle Barnabas, his brother. And it was while traveling with Paul and Barnabas that the apostle Paul ordained him as a bishop and sent him further West than Paul could then go. This man, a brown skinned, Jewish Cypriot, hailing from Palestine, traveled more than 2,000 miles Westward toward Spain, and then northward into Britannia.
Britain at this point in history was inhabited by several Celtic kingdoms, and already had some contact and trade agreements with Rome. But in the year 43 A.D., right at the time period that this Jewish traveler would be arriving, Rome invaded Britain in force and subdued the southern portion of the island. So as it was, this Jew from the middle east traveled to the farthest known western land in the world and started walking around this war-torn island being fought over by the biggest, strongest, paganist empire in the world (and which was hostile to Christians) and brutal Celtic tribal kingdoms, also rooted in paganism and also, it turned out, hostile to Christians. He didn’t even come as a representative of his own nation or race, but as somewhat of an outcast from both, representing instead a small multi-racial religious community with no central city or temple.
His mediterranean-adapted constitution would have found the cold, wet winters of Britain a shock, and his darker skin and foreign language, clothing, and habits would have marked him out as an outsider, and, likely to most everyone he encountered, a threat and an enemy. He probably had at least a few traveling companions, and they at some point had to have found either a Greek speaker who knew the British Celtic tongues or more likely a Celt who knew Greek in order to translate for them. He and his companions would inevitably have been brought before the chieftain of whatever tribe they wandered into, and when asked what his name was, he would reply, “Aristobulus.”
What would compel a man to travel around the known world and eventually to the very end of it, leaving behind a livelihood, everything familiar and full of memories, family and friends, and basically everything he’s ever known; to travel into places that will probably be less than hospitable, maybe hostile; in, let’s not forget, the ancient world where it’s already dangerous to travel because of high seas and small boats, bandits regularly camping out next to highways, and volatile borders between often violent tribes, kingdoms, and empires? Why would someone uproot and set out into all that?
Because he was sent. Saint Aristobulus was sent by Paul to Britain, but he had first been sent many years prior by the Lord Jesus Christ to prepare cities and towns to receive him. Church tradition and the writings of Hippolytus of Rome name Aristobulus as one of the 70 (72) disciples sent out by Jesus in Luke 10. When the Saint was sent out on that occasion, he was told not to take anything with him –no money, no knapsack, no sandals– and to pray earnestly because he was being sent out like a lamb among wolves. With that sort of warning, he must have been surprised to find that, being sent out with the authority of Jesus, even the demons were subject to him. He returned to Jesus after that first trip rejoicing, and Jesus confirmed that those sent out by him with his authority did in fact have power “to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing could hurt [them]” (Lk 10:19).
So Aristobulus, armed with the experience of that first trip, and having seen Jesus give himself up to death only to triumph over death through his resurrection, and knowing the power of the Holy Spirit’s decent on the Church and the boldness with which Stephen and others had not only preached the good news but died for it like their Lord, set out again to prepare people to receive Jesus. He set out again confident that he could tread on serpents, but no longer rejoicing in this because he remembered the Lord’s words after he returned that first time: “…Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” With his priorities straightened out, the Saint could now travel boldly into a harsh land, cold and full of serpents eager to keep the light of Christ out of their realm. He did suffer many afflictions at the hands of those to whom he preached, but he also won many of them to Christ.
Though Wales may possibly be the regional location of St. Aristobulus’ death and burial, we have no date or account of how he died. As such some have held that he died in peace there among the church that he founded, but there’s also a long tradition that he did die as a martyr. Whatever the physical and historical circumstances of his death, he certainly lived as a martyr to Christ, and he died in the peace of Christ, even if at the violent hands of pagans. Because of his faithfulness to the Lord, the gospel of Christ had been preached and the Church established in the British Isles within only a decade or two after Christ’s death and resurrection.
Such an early establishment of the Church in Britain was, of course, within the unsearchable plan and will of God, and we can only imagine how this affected all subsequent history there: How it may have been perfectly timed and placed to reach the heart of Constantine the Great when he was stationed there 250 years later as a Roman soldier (the same Constantine who would eventually legalize Christianity for the entire Roman Empire). How it affected and maybe converted many of the Angles and Saxons as they invaded and settled much of Great Britain in the 5th century. How the strong, established tradition of Celtic Christianity in Great Britain may have helped St. Patrick (whose feast day is in two days, March 17th) to win over virtually the entire island of Ireland. How the strong, apostolic heritage of Britain helped it through the many complicated centuries of its evolving monarchy, the Norman invasion, the shifting geo-politics of Europe’s nation-states, the waxing and waning of the Roman See’s power and influence, and finally through the earthquake that was the Protestant Revolution, retaining its episcopate and Church/State connection, and oft rekindling its Orthodox heritage in these last four centuries? How did the gospel that Aristobulus preached in the first century affect the nation that would eventually export its language and much of its culture across most of the modern world? And how has that affected the world? I believe that everywhere that English is spoken today also has something of the Gospel seed which was first planted in Britain by St. Aristobulus.
And when we now recall the works of Saint Aristobulus or see him depicted in an icon, we give thanks and venerate him, because we see in his face the very face of Christ. Around his head shines the light of Christ. On his shoulders he bears the yolk of Christ as a bishop of his Church. In his hand he holds the instrument of Christ. With his other hand he blesses us in the name of Christ. It’s to Christ that we ask him to intercede for us.