If you’re Latin/Roman Catholic, you probably know that Eucharistic Canon I, the traditional Roman Canon, includes prayers for the intercession of a ton of apostles and saints. If you go to a parish that mostly does the modern post-Vatican II Canons II or IV, you might not realize that some of these Eucharistic saints in the second part of the prayer are female.
In fact, they correspond exactly to the names of ancient Roman martyrs in prominent Roman churches. Most of the female saints are still popular today: Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, and Cecilia. But who is Anastasia?
She is kinda shadowy. Apparently she was the daughter of a Roman senator and vir illustris named Praetextatus, who moved his family to Sirmium in Pannonia. (Today it’s called Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia.) Sirmium was named one of the four capitols of the Empire under Diocletian’s tetrarchy system, and they were the lucky winner of Emperor Galerius.
(Boo! Hiss! Boo!)
So imagine how delightful it was to be a prominent senatorial Christian woman in Galerius’ homebase. (Her mom Fausta was a Christian, but died young. She also seems to have gotten some religious education from St. Chrysogonus of Aquileia, also big in the Canon.)
Anastasia was wealthy, young… and her dad was pagan and a politician. Yeah, she didn’t get the chance to become a vowed virgin, though maybe that wasn’t her vocation. She got married off to another patrician guy, Publius Patricius, who unfortunately seems to have been abusive, and who unusually would not let her leave the house.
Publius was named an ambassador to Persia and drowned in a shipwreck on the way, leaving behind no children. Anastasia decided to become a vowed widow, which wasn’t easy work as a young widow whom your dad could marry off legally. (But maybe Dad felt guilty about his first pick.) She devoted herself to charity, visiting the poor and those in prison. She knew first aid and simple nursing, but accounts differ as to her medical knowledge. They agree that she would clean and bind wounds with her own hands and pray for the sick.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Anastasia became known for her wonderworking, because when she prayed for someone who had taken pharmakoia, that person would get better. This continued even after her death, so she is still known today as the Pharmakolytria or Deliverer from Potions.
Pharmakoia is often translated as “harmful drugs” or “potions.” But what we are talking about in Greek is abortifacient chemicals.
So yeah, this is the lady who intercedes particularly for women who have accidentally poisoned themselves from their desperation to abort, or who have changed their minds and want to save their babies, as well as for victims of other kinds of poisonings and overdoses.
(Her prayers also freed people suffering from evil spirits and magic, according to accounts from Milan and Palermo; and she often cured the mentally ill at her shrines, although ouch, don’t be mentally ill in Constantinople.)
Anastasia’s miracleworking brought her to the attention of the Imperial government. After arrest, torture, and refusal to convert, she was burned to death in AD 290 or AD 304, depending on the source. She may have been killed on Christmas, on purpose, because that day seems to have started to be celebrated by Christians around that time. (Epiphany had been a great Christian feast from almost the beginning, as it has ties to some Jewish festivals that tie into Jesus’ sanctification of baptismal waters, and to the adoration of him by the Magi.
In better times, her relics were brought to Constantinople (at Christmas!) and installed at a new church. Relics were also brought to Rome and installed at their Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis – “standing up again, rising again”). Both churches became known as dedicated to St. Anastasia, and attracted healing pilgrimages. The relics of her head and one of her hands were removed from Constantinople and currently reside in Halidiki, Greece, near Mt. Athos, at a monastery named for her. She also has relics on the island of Palmaria, near Aquileia.
On the Western side of things, her feast is December 25 (because of the translation of her relics to Constantinople for sure, and maybe because of her martyrdom date), and it’s December 22 on the Byzantine side (January 4 on the Gregorian calendar). Icons usually show her carrying a medicine jug.