The 4th of December is the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Barbara. Her's is a story that goes back to the most ancient times of the Church: nearly 18 Centuries ago. Her life and death occurred---according to the best authorities---in the area around the Biblical city of Edessa. This city today is located in Syria and known as Homs. Like its neighboring city Palmyra, Homs' Christian populace and its wealth of historical treasures suffered brutally during the ISIS Caliphate.
But as much damage as the Jihad did, the reputations of early Christians like St. Barbara have also fallen victim to the parasitical and degenerative influences of Western Liberalism. Shamefully, even Catholic academics who should know better, are competing with Leftist institutions in a race to the bottom of society's lowest elements. It's become fashionable even there to affect a cynical sneer at the whole notion of Saints, Angels, and many other persons of traditional Christianity.
We should point out here that many Protestants misunderstand the Veneration of Saints in Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It should be understood that we don't 'pray' to Saints. The Catechism and the writings of several scholars make it clear that we believe that Saints are very much alive and dwelling with Christ in Heaven. As Christ taught us, "Where two or three gather in My Name, there am I in the midst of them." Intercession is simply a matter of inviting a Saint known for holiness to pray with us. Because those in Heaven see with the eye of the Spirit, their prayers for us are in a sense, purified.
Saints' lives also furnish pastors with rich material for sermons and object lessons.
St. Barbara lived during the early 3rd Century, roughly between the years 220-238 A.D. As her name suggests, her ethnic heritage was Hellenized Arabian. She lived on the frontier of the Roman East, an area economically dependent on the Roman military bases. The same region was heavily Christianized from the days of the Apostles. Barbara's father---who was a brutal and selfish man---was called in the stories Dioscorus. He was wealthy, a naturalized Roman, and probably a military contractor by profession. Dioscorus may have been a Romanized name he adopted related to that occupation since the Dioscurii (Castor and Pollux) were gods widely worshiped in the Roman Army.
Barbara befriended a servant girl who was a Christian and known to us today as St. Juliana. Juliana converted Barbara to Christianity, and was her life-long companion. As Barbara grew older, she became more beautiful; and her cunning father saw that her attractiveness could be leveraged into a marriage with a wealthy and prominent man. He secluded Barbara in the palace; but it appears that the provincial governor, Martinianus, was the husband for whom he intended her.
The fact that she was a Christian wasn't an impediment at first. She was born during the Severian Dynasty which was extremely tolerant and sympathetic towards Christians. It's founder, General Septimus Severus had served in the East and knew many Christians. It's argued by some that he may have been a Christian himself. At any rate, the Severan policy was characterized by religious syncretism. One of Septimus' descendants even put a statue of Christ in the Pantheon; and Christian speakers were regular guests at the Imperial Palace.
Things changed radically, however, when the Dynasty was overthrown in a coup led by General Maximinus Thrax in 235 A.D. Thrax was a thuggish killer who'd risen through the ranks by his sheer ruthlessness. He was coarse and uneducated and not of the Roman Aristocracy, whom he envied and despised. As might be expected of one of his character, Thrax was paranoid and power-mad as a ruler. Unlike Septimus Severus, Thrax feared the Church and imagined that Christians were plotting against him.
Martinianus and Dioscorus thus, were in a precarious position, especially the former, because he was not only an aristocrat, but related distantly to the Severans. This was a time when unscrupulous men like these two were eager to ingratiate themselves into the New Order by any means necessary. Like typical bullies, they were arrogant and overweening to those weaker; but cringing and fawning towards anyone whom they saw as more powerful.
Dioscorus was constructing a Roman-style bath-house to entertain his wealthy friends, but Barbara wanted to use it during its idle-times for Christians to congregate. The basic story is that, because Christians had fallen out of favor, Dioscorus cancelled any Christian-themed orders in the architecture. However, when he was away for a time, Barbara countermanded those orders. When Dioscorus returned, he flew into a rage, and beat Barbara severely. She ran away, but her father sent his guards after her, who then arrested her and threw her in jail. While this was going on, the brute turned his rage upon Juliana---who not being a Roman citizen like Barbara, was tortured and executed that night.
While Barbara was in jail, Martinianus and Dioscorus hatched a plan. What could prove their loyalty to Thrax more than if they sacrificed Barbara---the affianced of one and the daughter of the other? The sheer cold-blooded cynicism displayed here really illustrates the depths to which evil will sink. And it gets even worse.
At her trial, Barbara was ordered to renounce her faith, which she refused. The cowardly Martinianus was furious, because he offered an amnesty to her if she would deny Christ and marry him. That her faith was higher than him was a blow to his ego, and he sentenced her to death by beheading---the capital punishment used for Roman citizens. Completely abandoned now to depravity, Dioscorus invoked a little-used provision in Roman Law which gave a father the right to execute his own children!
The day of the execution was December 4th. The citizens around Edessa---pagan and Christian alike---were overwhelmingly opposed to the verdict. But nonetheless, the execution was public on a hill outside of town. The day was said to have been an ominous day with black storm-clouds gathering---fueling those of both faiths to see Divine disapproval in these portents. But sentence was carried out, and the fiendish Dioscorus lifted his daughter's head and raised his sword to the crowd.
Then, a remarkable thing happened. Whether one believes that what happened next was of Divine or natural origin---Dioscorus was struck by lightning and killed instantly. Now, Roman swords were made of an iron and copper alloy, and raising an instrument like that on barren hill under an impending thunderstorm and getting hit by lightning may not necessarily be an improbable or miraculous occurrence. But there was no doubt in the locals' minds. The indigenous pagan deity of that area was Baal, who like Zeus and Jupiter was known for slaying sinners with thunderbolts.
This situation turned very quickly into a riot. The crowd stormed Martinianus' palace and massacred him and his entire entourage before setting the place on fire. They then charged upon Dioscorus' estate, which met a similar fate. The rioters however spared the bath-house from destruction. A debate arose among them as to whether Baal or the Christian God was offended; so they decided to err on the side of caution and spare the bath-house which later became a Christian shrine. It's said that some of the Church Elders recovered Barbara's body and buried her near the shrine; and also that several miracles were reported to have occurred there.
Eventually, the Parthians conquered this region and the Roman citizens were dispersed abroad, carrying the story of St. Barbara with them. Legends inevitably grew around her, but we have presented the facts as best as were able to.
It's noteworthy that centuries later, Christian women in the same area chose martyrdom when offered the same choices by the ISIS commanders. It shows again how one person's act of faith can live on behind them and inspire others to do the right thing.