The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs

I found Martin Mosebach’s The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs to be a worthy read.  There is of course that one learns a bit about these 21 Christians, all poor migrant workers, beheaded by ISIS militants on a Libyan beach.  They have been glorified by the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church as martyrs for the faith.  In their lives they seem to have been pious Orthodox Christians who were trying to eke out a living under difficult circumstances.  One also learns a great deal about the life of Coptic Christians in Egypt, an Orthodox Church which considers itself to be “the Church of the martyrs” based on its 2000 year history which has seen centuries of suffering and martyrdom. The Copts continue to be targeted by Muslim extremists and live perpetually in a state of being at risk for persecution, and yet their faith is strong.   Mosebach, a practicing traditionalist Catholic, writes about the Copts with sympathy and understanding.   He is not reluctant to express his skepticism about some of the things he learned.  It is obvious that even modern martyrs’ lives quickly are embellished with legend and miracles, as if their martyrdom itself is not sufficiently miraculous witness to the Lord.  As Mosebach writes it such embellishment is a normal part of Coptic history and faith.  Mosebach also makes it clear that to call these martyrs victims of terrorism is to completely miss the importance of their faith in their lives.  They are not victims of terrorism, but true witnesses to their undying faith in Jesus Christ.  As such they stand as a challenge to American Christian attitudes towards suffering, being in the minority or being in power and what Christ teaches us about martyrdom, enemies, suffering and power.  They have to carry the cross daily in a way American Christians are not willing to do.  As one Coptic priest said, “One cannot simply dismiss Muslims as hostile – regardless of religion, one can still be a good neighbor and express kindness and trust, especially in one’s prayer.”  Who is my neighbor?  The one to whom I can be neighborly as Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Copts have to choose to live the Gospel lessons daily.

As in Heaven, So on Earth

The Lord Jesus taught us: “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”  (Luke 6:31-36)

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Let’s imagine that we are now in heaven.  We’ve made it to the kingdom of God.  I look around at the other people who are also in God’s Kingdom.  I see some people who were always kind to me back on earth, so I try to figure out how to be kind to them here in heaven.   I see someone who forgave me in my lifetime when I really hurt them, so I walk up to them and talk to them.   Over there I see some people who I never liked in life, and they turn away from me and pretend I’m not there.  That’s OK by me as I don’t really want to deal with them.  I see someone else who betrayed me one time and told all my friends and family about something bad I had done.  They were truthful about what they said, but it embarrassed me and caused other people to condemn me.  When I see that person in heaven, I’m disgusted and decide to find people I like rather than have to be around someone who told everybody about my problems.

What is wrong with this picture of heaven?

It’s just like earth.

So we have to think what did our Lord Jesus teach us about how we are to treat people who have cursed us or despised us or hated us or wronged us or offended us?  We are to treat them as we want to be treated.

Heavenly values are not: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.  They are not about reciprocity.  There is no retaliation in heaven.  No mutual gift exchanges either.  No treating others as they deserve.   Rather, the only principle guiding how people are to treat one another in God’s Kingdom is Love.   Treat others in the same way that you hope God will treat you on Judgement day – with mercy, forgiveness, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness.  Those are heavenly values.

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When Jesus says, if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?  He is saying, what sort of gift is that?  Is it a gift to pay people back for the good things they do for you?   That’s not a gift, that’s just pay back.  On the other hand, God gives His gifts to us whether we are good or evil.  God gives rain and sunshine to all.  God’s gifts go far beyond what is expected, deserved, earned, because they are gifts of love.  God gives us life, and we are supposed to be pro-life, which also means we should love all who are alive (which we also know is very hard!)

From the Triads of St Paul (19th Century British Document), we do encounter a Christian thinker reflecting on what Jesus commands us to do:  “There are three ways a Christian punishes an enemy: by forgiving him, by not divulging his sin, by doing all the good in his power.”  We punish them by not behaving as they behave, and by not giving them any reason to hate us.  They’ll have that!

Jesus said: “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.”

This used to be called what?     The Golden Rule

This rule says to treat people as you want to be treated.  If you want people to respect you – what do you need to do?  Respect them.  Don’t try to buy their respect by giving them gifts or praise, that is bribery.  Don’t just do them favors so that they will think well of you.  That’s manipulation.  If you want their respect, respect them, treat them with respect.  Treat everyone as you want to be treated.  Don’t command it of them or demand it from them.  Model it.  Show them how you would like to be treated by how you behave and treat them.

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You want them to serve you?  Then serve them.

Do you want them to love you?  Then love them.

Constantly and at all times by your own behavior, attitude, words and deeds demonstrate to others how you want to be treated.

If you are self centered and selfish, you are telling others that is how you want them to behave as well, so don’t be angry when they reflect back to you how you are behaving.

Finally we remember the words of St Paul in today’s Epistle:  “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”   (2 Corinthians 4:6-8)

Darkness is what we already have, but the Gospel commands are the light which shines out of our darkness and gives us the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.  God’s commandments can make even this earth into heaven.

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Loving One’s Enemies

“’But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest; for He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful‘  (Luke 6:35-36).

These are the great heights to which Christ desires to raise men! This is teaching unheard-of before His coming! This is the glory of man’s dignity, undreamed-of by the greatest sages in history! And this is God’s love for mankind, that dissolves the whole heart of man into one great flood of tears. 

Love your enemies.‘  He does not say: ‘Do not render evil for evil’, for this is a small thing; it is only endurance. Neither does He say: ‘Love those who love you’, for this is passive love; but He says: Love your enemies‘; do not just tolerate them, and do not be passive, but love them. Love is an active virtue.”   (St Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p. 194-195)

Pride and Humility

“There are many disciples of Christ who can justly claim that they are indifferent to material possessions. They happily live in simple huts, wear rough woolen clothes, eat frugally, and give away the bulk of their fortunes. These same people can justly claim that they are indifferent to worldly power. They happily work in the most humble capacities, performing menial tasks, with no desire to high rank. But there may still be one earthly attribute to which they cling: reputation. They may wish to be regarded by others as virtuous. They may want to be admired for their charity, their honesty, their integrity, their self-denial.

They may not actually draw people’s attention to these qualities, but they are pleased to know that others respect them. Thus when someone falsely accuses them of some wrongdoing, they react with furious indignation. They protect their reputation with the same ferocity as the rich people protect their gold. Giving up material possessions and worldly power is easy compared with giving up reputation. To be falsely accused and yet to remain spiritually serene is the ultimate test of faith.

(St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 33)

The Christianity of Life

At the heart of “mainstream” Syriac tradition the ascetic mode of life renounced not the physical world, but a world gone awry. Celibacy or chastity in marriage; simplicity of food, clothing and possession; care for the poor, sick, and suffering – such were the requisite features of the Christian mode of life from Christianity’s inception. In earliest Syriac literature, the body of the true believer is a body rendered chaste, healed and holy in marriage to its Heavenly Bridegroom by living a Christian life.

In turn, the condition of the believer’s body must be mirrored in the community as a whole body. Caring for others, and especially for the suffering, not only fulfilled the command to love one another, but also forged into existence a community whose life as a healed and consecrated community literally reflected Paradise regained – the image by which Edessa recalled the experience of its conversion to Christianity.

(Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Embodiment in Time and Eternity: A Syriac Perspective,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 43, No 2., 1999)

Living the Creed

“And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St. Maximus puts it, is the theology of demons. The Creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and undivided.’

This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love him.”

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 201)

There is Hope: We Can Change


For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

“Let no one, therefore, who is living in vice despair of himself, know that, as agriculture changes the properties of plants, so the diligence of the soul in the pursuit of virtue can triumph over all sorts of infirmities.”  (St. Basil, The Fathers of the Church, p. 78)

Romans 12:9-21

In Romans 12:9-21, St Paul lists a variety of attitudes, feelings and behaviors which he believes are genuinely Christian, and thus to be put into practice by all who follow Christ.  The list is simple and straightforward, so no commentary is needed.  We only need to put them into practice in our hearts, minds and lives to demonstrate our own desire to be disciples of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Let love be genuine;

hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

love one another with brotherly affection;

outdo one another in showing honor.

Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.

Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another;

do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited.

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Vacation and Recreation

One might get the impression from the monastic tradition of the Church that the life of a Christian is all work and no play.  Yet, the monastic tradition is nothing if not brutally honest about what it means to be human – our limits, our foibles, our weaknesses.  So, it shouldn’t be surprising that even in the strict spiritual tradition of the desert fathers we find a story (in several variations) of the human need for rest and relaxation.  The stories of the desert fathers often contain humor in them, or the humor is obvious in the story.  Here is one story where Abba Antony realizes he and the monks are being observed by a layman who is scandalized to see the Abbot jesting with the monks.  The Abbot realizes he needs to soothe the ruffled feathers of the scandalized layman.

There was somebody in the desert hunting wild animals and he saw Abba Antony jesting with the brothers. The elder wanted to convince the hunter that he had to come down to the level  the brothers from time to time. He said to him: “Put an arrow to your bow and draw it.” He did so. He said to him: “Draw again,” and he drew. Again he said: “Draw.” The hunter said to him: “If I draw beyond its capacity my bow will break.”

Said the elder to him: “So is it too with the work of God. If we draw on the brothers beyond their capacity, they will quickly break. So it is necessary to come down to the level of the brothers from time to time.” The hunter was conscience-stricken when he heard this and went his way greatly benefitted by the elder. The brothers withdrew to their place strengthened. (Give Me a Word, pp. 33-34)

While we enter into our summer vacation season, we can appreciate the gift that God gives us to enjoy life, to recreate our hearts and minds.  While it is true we are to continue practicing our faith in every circumstance, we also are to pray, give thanks and rejoice as part of our Christian life (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).  It is true that we cannot take a vacation from God, we still can take a vacation to renew our gratitude to our Creator.