Tuesday, February 11, 2014
The great deeds of martyrs
When someone enters an Orthodox church, he enters into a special, heavenly world: on all sides he is surrounded by the images of angels and saints. Among these multitudes, there are people of different nationalities, of different epochs, social origins, educational backgrounds and ways of life. Here are princes and simple folk, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. What most of them have in common is that they violently left this world dying for Christ.
Those who gave their lives for their faith are known as martyrs. The Russian word, muchenik, has at its root the concept of suffering, of a violent death. The ancient Church used the term martis, which means, "witness" in Greek. Why they are so called, and what gave them the strength to stand so courageously for the Christian faith, are the issues we will discuss below.
The word "witness" is generally understood to mean eyewitness, i.e., a person who observed (or heard) something first-hand and testifies to it. Legal decisions are made based on a witness’ testimony for the prosecution and for the defense. The demand is made of the witness that he presents not opinions or hearsay, but only that which was actually observed. He must bring only facts to bear. The Christian becomes a "witness" to his faith when his words and his life bear witness to a new life in Christ, a life in which he is a participant. Here the object witnessed is not the external so much as the internal spiritual experience.
The Holy Gospel refers to our Lord Jesus Christ as "The True Witness (martis)." "Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead. … the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God" (Rev. 1:5, 3:14). Following Pentecost, the Apostles and other preachers of the Gospel also become witnesses: "… and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem … one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection" (Acts 1:8, 1:22). "I ... who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ" (1 Pet. 5:1). "I know thy works and where thou dwellest ... the souls of them that were slain ... for the testimony which they held" (Rev. 2:13, 6:9).
Our Lord Jesus Christ said of His mission in the world: "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (Jn. 18:37, 8:32). The truth to which the Son of God bore witness was not an abstract religious-philosophical system, but a divine revelation of that which He had heard from His Father and seen in that heavenly world from whence He had come. He explained as someone who knew from experience, and taught how to live as the blessed live in the Kingdom of His Father.
Those who accepted His witness, He brought, inasmuch as it was possible for them, into contact with the heavenly life, giving them a foretaste of the joy of communing with God, and helping them to see the divine light. Those who experienced this state of grace in turn became witnesses of Christ — sometimes by word, but more often by deed — in their virtuous lives.
For the Apostles, the religious experience was particularly perceptible. The Apostle John wrote of that which he and the other Apostles experienced when communicating with the Savior:
"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full (1 Jn. 1:1-4).
If Christ had offered only abstract ideas, they would have been accepted calmly, and would not have caused the extreme split in society, which we see in the history of Christianity. The words of Christ, like a bright light, penetrate the sinner’s darkened soul. Therefore believing in Christ and accepting His teaching invariably leads to the reconstruction of view of the world and to the most fundamental changes in the way of life. But, at the same time, they act upon a person as a beneficial balm. Bringing a renewing spiritual force for the internal struggle with evil, they inspire in him the desire to live for a higher good.
And, as a person cleanses himself and approaches moral perfection, he experiences the love of God. New horizons open before his spiritual eyes, and he begins better to comprehend the basis of spiritual life, the passing and false nature of all that takes place around him. He understands better, what he must attain and how he must act. Feeling from personal experience his own former baseness and the joy of communing with God, he no longer wishes to return to the old darkness from which he has escaped. Just the opposite — the Kingdom of God becomes for him something precious, "…the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth" (Mt. 13:44), for which he is ready to give everything, even his own life.
Unfortunately, not all are capable of seeing the light, not all find in themselves the strength to part with their sinful habits, to refuse material goods for the renewal of their soul. The Gospel tells us how from the first day of Christ’s preaching, society began to divide into two camps — those who joyfully accepted His teaching and those who rejected it. Indeed, the latter group did not merely ignore Christ’s teaching, but actively rose against it with indignation, even with uncontrollable hatred. Jesus Christ thus defined the reaction of people to his witness: "For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God" (Jn. 3:20-21). In other words, the teaching of Christ possesses the ability to expose the true nature of a person, his secret motivations. A person, who before hearing the teaching of the Gospel has been in a sort of neutral spiritual state, cannot stay indifferent any longer: he becomes either a follower or an enemy of Christ.
The animosity toward Christ held by the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders ultimately led to their bringing false witness against Him at His judgment, sentencing Him to death and forcing Pilate to agree to his crucifixion. Thus, the first Witness to spiritual life (Rev 1:5) — our Lord Jesus Christ — also became its first Martyr. But He defeated the leader of lies and death, the devil, and promised to all who accept the Truth that they will triumph.
The Resurrection of the Savior and the descent of the Holy Spirit were the significant events that totally convinced the Apostles of the truth of all that the Lord Jesus Christ had taught, and as witnesses, they devoted their lives to the preaching of the Gospel among all peoples. They understood their preaching to be a type of witness before people of that grace which they had received in Jesus Christ. And just as during the life of Jesus Christ, His witness appealed to some and antagonized others, so too in subsequent ages did Christian proselytism enter into society as a dividing force: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household" (Mt. 10:34-36).
The first Christian to suffer was the archdeacon Stephen, who was stoned by the Jews outside the walls of Jerusalem soon after the Apostles were visited by the Holy Ghost. In time, in different countries and at different times, all of His followers suffered for their faith in Christ. Probably only St. John the Evangelist died his own death; this was a reward for his courageous presence at the foot of the Cross.
Nero (54-68 A.D) was the first Roman emperor to embark on a course of massive and systematic persecution of Christians. During his reign, the Apostles Peter and Paul suffered in Rome. Christians were fed to wild beasts at Roman circuses or covered in tar and set aflame like torches to light the city streets.
A second-century author, St. Justin the Philosopher, who also ended his life as a martyr, illustrated how Christianity divided society in its most basic unit — the family. He related a story of how, in the city where he lived, one pagan woman converted to Christianity. Her husband, who remained a pagan, was angered by this conversion and complained to a local magistrate. Foreseeing no good in this, the woman received a continuance of her court appearance in order to tend to affairs relating to her property. While she was busy with these affairs, her angered husband brought before the court a certain Ptolemy, who, he had learned, had been responsible for his wife’s conversion. Ptolemy was interrogated, and when he admitted his Christian faith, was sentenced to death by the judge. Two members of the court felt that a death sentence was rather harsh for a man whose only "crime" was his religious conviction. The judge inquired as to whether the dissenters were also Christians. When they confirmed this, he sentenced them to death as well. Thus, in the process of preparing for the trial of the Christian wife, three other Christians were executed. Later, the wife was also tried and executed.
In his Second Apology to the Roman Senate, St. Justin tells us that all this took place because the wife, having become a Christian, refused to participate in her husband’s unnatural perversions, deeming them to be sinful.
Although we know the names of only a few thousand martyrs, their actual number runs into the tens of millions.
The persecution of Christians never completely subsided; however, its intensity alternated between greater and lesser, and its geographic focus shifted. Certain periods of time were especially difficult for Christians. Many Roman emperors and pagan rulers directed bitter campaigns of persecution against believers during the first three centuries of Christianity. After a period of relative calm, Moslem Arabs began a new wave of persecution in the 7th to 9th centuries. The Turks followed in the 13th to 18th centuries. Notice the contrast between the methods used to spread Christianity and Islam: The Apostles came to people preaching love; they were full of gentleness and often became victims of unbelievers. However, from the first day of its appearance, the Moslem religion, spread literally by sword and flame. Finally, in our own century, ferociously anti-religious Communists attempted to root out all Christian faith mercilessly. Every new wave of persecution becomes more murderous and bloody than the previous one. The Holy Gospel predicts even greater persecution before the end of the world.
Thus, the battle against Christian faith is a continuing theme of all New Testament history. As the Holy Gospel explains, this warfare is directed by the fallen angel, the ancient dragon, become the "prince of the world."
But, even having suffered physically for Christ, His witnesses were not destroyed. Just the opposite — they, like Christ, were victorious and now sit with Him in Heaven: "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne" (Rev. 3:21).
The conditions of death are unique for every Christian confessor. They have a common logic in that the Lord Jesus Christ and the state of grace they found in Christianity became for them the most important element of their lives. "A Christian would sooner give his life for his faith than a pagan would give a piece of his cloak for all the gods," wrote Origen (circa 182-215 A.D), in his letter to Celsius (7:39). To disavow Christ and His teaching meant for them the forfeiture of that which was dearest to them — God and eternal life. It would have meant to bow their heads before evil and untruth in order to prolong their insignificant earthly existence — and to do so would have been a terrible tragedy for them.
Christian martyrdom is at its core quite different from the self-sacrifice of fanatics. Fanaticism is a blind attachment to an idea. Fanatics are capable of sacrificing their lives in order to prove something to others, for example, as Buddhist monks recently set themselves on fire in order to draw public attention to problems in their country. Christianity forbids suicide as a great sin. "When they persecute you in one city, go to another," said Christ (Mt. 10:23). Martyrs did not suffer in order to "prove" something, but to guard the spiritual grace their lives had acquired in the Lord Jesus Christ. To them, spiritual life was more important than physical life.
"For to me to live and die in Christ is a gain," said the Apostle Paul (Phil. 1:21). He taught Christians to accept persecution with joy, as an honor and opportunity to receive an even greater reward in Heaven: "For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake" (Phil. 1:29).
Our Lord Jesus Christ knew of the sufferings that his followers would endure and sought to prepare them for their sacrificial deeds by saying:
I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues ... And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell ... Also I say unto you, Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God: But he that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God ... And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or what ye shall say. For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say... And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved... Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin and not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows (Mt. 10:16-42; Lk. 12:2-12; 21:12-19).
Upon witnessing the unshakeable faith of the Christians, the great courage with which they accepted suffering and death, many pagans saw the truth of the Christian teachings and were themselves, converted to Christianity. This justified Tertullian’s comment in the 3rd century that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christianity."
So Christian martyrs bear witness to eternal qualities, spiritual wealth and true life. Leaving this mournful world, they stand forever, in indescribable joy, near the throne of God, just as envisaged by the Apostle John:
After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palm branches in their hands... These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall shepherd them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rev. 7:9-17).
Through their sacrifice, the martyrs in Christ bear witness to the reality of spiritual values and the existence of another life, far superior to our own. They call on us to struggle courageously against evil, to love God and to feel for ourselves what a great gift it is to have Him in our souls. Through the prayers of the holy martyrs may the Lord grant to us a strong faith and the valor necessary to attain the quiet haven of the Kingdom of God.