Homily for Mass of the Memorial of Sts Cosmas and Damian
Good Shepherd Seminary, Homebush, 26 September 2023
In ancient times the celestial spheres were thought to influence our health, moods, actions, fate. It’s not so crazy: after all, the sun is crucial for days and seasons, sleep and wake, photosynthesis and life. It’s light and warmth affects our moods, and some people suffer seasonal affective disorders. Its partner, the moon, influences the earth’s axis and wobble, climate and tides; its phases seem to affect some people’s behaviour; our word “lunacy” suggests even madness is attributable to that orb. Circadian, melatonin and menstrual rhythms are all connected to these cycles. And many people still today consult astrologers and horoscopes, convinced the stars and planets affect their destiny. St Albert the Great and St Thomas Aquinas, following the best science of their day, were convinced the celestial orbs affect our humours.
The idea that we are subject to outside forces, even at the mercy of the fates, is not just found in the ancients and medievals. In Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet are described as ‘star-crossed lovers’ and Duke Vincentio’s counsel in Measure for Measure is that fearing death is foolish since all men are “servile to all the skyey influences.” Many people today think we are ultimately biological robots controlled, if not by the spheres, by genetic memories, environment, stimuli.
As for our capacity to influence others, some would say it is very limited, compared to these natural powers. Others think influencing others is immoral, as it is inevitably manipulative and controlling. In Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotting claims that “To influence a person is to give him one’s soul. He does not think his natural thoughts or burn with natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such sins, are borrowed.” Politicians, corporates and ideologues might all want to influence the way we think and act, but it’s for their own selfish, even malign purposes and should be resisted.
Yet ‘influencer’ is one of the key words of our times. It’s already part and parcel of everyday speech, and has become a desirable career, especially among young people. Influencers seek to generate interest and lead thoughts, moods, fashions, consumption. With the meteoric rise of social media apps and the lucrative windfall that comes by monetising its content, becoming an influencer has never been so attractive. But to keep the money rolling in, influencers must constantly expand their reach. Some will do whatever it takes to gain new and more attentive followers and the tech companies and fashion corporates don’t mind too much, if the sales are up. Many influencers flaunt a glitzy and glamourous lifestyle, a prosperity Gospel, that is highly curated, even fictional, to draw in viewers by the millions. Anything goes, as long as it sells a dream and compels an audience.
In this climate of bling-influencers, to be called ‘penniless’ would not be a desirable moniker, in fact it would probably be social-media suicide. Yet in the 3rd century, it was precisely this term anargyroi, the penniless or silver-less ones, that the twin Syrian influencers, Cosmas and Damian, became known by. Not because they were destitute—as highly regarded physicians who could command big bucks or at least denarii, but because they didn’t monetise their craft or the influence it gave them.
Raised by a single mum along with three younger brothers, Cos and Damo learnt the physicians’ art but also that of the evangelist. They knew that Jesus had taught “Freely you have received, so freely give.” (Mt 10:8) and they thought that if they were to share in the ministry of that divine physician, they’d best not charge. As they travelled throughout what we call Turkey today, attending to the sick and performing surgery for no cost, they also took every opportunity to declare the name of Christ in the presence of men, as today’s Gospel counsels (Mt 10:32). As doctors they might heal physical ills and extend life, but only faith in Jesus Christ would bring a deeper healing and promise eternal life. Spreading the Good News was the greatest therapy not just for individuals but for families, communities, cultures, and these influencers would do their job with no revenue streams or promo-money, no ads or corporate backing.
They were very successful. The authorities were appalled by this success as the two itinerant medics-cum-evangelists helped spread the new faith across the empire. During the Diocletian persecution the Prefect Lysias had them and their brothers arrested and tortured. But they refused to disown their Lord. They knew that their souls were in the hands of God, that the hatred and torments would be short compared to the eternal love in which they would soon live, as our first reading from Wisdom attests (Wis 3:1-9). The great Dominican artist, Fra Angelico, patron saint of painters, had Cosimo de Medici as his principal patron. Cosimo funded dozens of scenes from the lives of his name-saint, many of them showing the twins healing and converting people, but many more telling the stories of the torments they endured. By God’s grace they were hard to kill. The Romans tried crucifixion, stoning, shooting with arrows, and casting them into the sea, all to no avail. Eventually they were beheaded.
Even death didn’t stop them. Their cult spread through the Christian world, their stories were told in Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Georgian, Armenian and Latin, and their names were inserted in the Roman canon. Many miracles were reported. Within a few years there were churches dedicated to them in Jerusalem, Egypt and Mesopotamia; later the Emperor Justinian built a sumptuous church and city over their grave. Everyone wanted their relics and Justinian decided to remove them to his hometown of Constantinople for safekeeping. He then received a miraculous healing himself, and so built a basilica in their honour there. Meanwhile Pope Felix rededicated the Library of Peace in Rome as a basilica to the twins and that church is still famed to this day for its sixth-century mosaics of their story. Their cult continued to spread. The oldest church in Brazil, for instance, is dedicated to them, and all over Brazil children are given special sweets today.
Here we see the lie to the ancient’s claim that we are all subject to stars and fates, but also to Lord Henry’s claim that all influence is immoral. People are free and intelligent, and so can be persuaded or can resist. They can be influenced for the good, as Cosmas and Damian did, and as you young men hope to do through giving your life to the priesthood. Pope Francis likewise recently called the Virgin Mary “the first ‘influencer’,” and suggested we follow her lead. Not all influence has to be self-interested, motivated by greed or a desire to control. As the Penniless Ones show us, the greatest influence is to become a follower, not of Instagram, snapchat, or the trendiest celeb, but of the man carrying the cross who says ‘Follow me’, and then inviting others to do likewise. At our recent ordination the people of Sydney were buzzing with joy at receiving two new spiritual influencers. They await you also.
Sts Cosmas and Damian, pray for us!
 Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, III, I, (5)
 Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Paris: London Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton and Co. Ltd), 24-25.