“’Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake’ (Mt. 5.10-11). In saying these words, Christ promised that those who would follow Him would certainly be persecuted. This is a central prediction of the Gospel and an essential condition of those who accept it.
‘Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.’” If they persecute me, they will persecute you; if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know Him who sent me.’ (Jn 15.20-21).
True Christians will always be persecuted for Christ’s sake. They will be persecuted with Christ and like Christ, for the truth that they speak and the good that they do. The persecutions may not always be physical, but they will always be spiritual and psychological. They will always be mindless, unjust, violent, and “without cause” (Ps 69.4, Jn 15.25). They will always be painful and the cause of much suffering. For ‘indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3.12).
A person embarking on the spiritual life must expect persecution and slander. He must be wary, however, of any false persecution complex, and must be absolutely certain that the suffering he meets is solely ‘for righteousness’ sake’ and not because of his own weakness and sins.” (Thomas Hopko, Vol. 4 Spirituality, p. 50)
It was the year A.D. 107 when Trajan, a Roman emperor, came back victorious from a war against the Dacians and Scythians. As soon as he entered the glorious city of Antioch, he let the Christians know that the persecution against them was not yet over.
One night a great celebration was given in his honor. Trajan, out of gratitude to his gods, ordered precious incense to be burned. But he thirsted for more victories and more blood.
“Roman citizens…tonight we honor our divinities, for they have deemed us worthy to gain more victories…But our victory cannot be complete until we defeat Christians, those bitter enemies of our empire who refuse to acknowledge our gods.”
Meanwhile, in some remote corner of Antioch, another message was being heard [from St. Ignatius, Christian Bishop of Antioch]:
“Keep on praying for those who persecute you. Return their bad temper with gentleness, their boasts with humility, and their violence with mildness. Never be eager to retaliate. Try to please not yourselves but God.
Toil together, struggle together, run together, suffer together, rejoice together, as servants and assistants of God. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your baptism serve as a shield, your faith as a helmet, your love as a spear, your endurance as full armor. So be patient with one another in gentleness, as God is with you.”
Sts Boris and Gleb were sons of St Vladimir, Enlightener of Russia. After their father’s death the eldest son Sviatopolk planned to kill his brothers Boris and Gleb in order to seize power. He sent a message to Boris, pretending that he wished to live in peace with him, and to increase Boris’s land holdings inherited from their father.
Some of Vladimir’s advisers told Boris that he should take the army and establish himelf as ruler of Kiev. St Boris, however, said that as a Christian he could never lift his hand against his own brother. Unfortunately, Sviatopolk was no Christian and had no such moral thinking.
Sviatopolk sent assassins to kill Boris, who already knew that his brother wanted him dead. When they arrived they heard him chanting psalms and praying before an icon of Christ. He asked the Lord to strengthen him for the suffering he was about to endure. He also prayed for Sviatopolk, asking God not to count this sin against him. The assassins stabbed him with their lances, and also killed some of Boris’s servants.
After Sviatopolk had killed Boris, he sent Gleb a message that he wished to see him. Gleb though also received word that their father had died and that Sviatopolk had murdered Boris. St Gleb wept for his father and brother, and was lamenting them when the assassins arrived. They seized his boat and drew their weapons, but it was Gleb’s own cook who stabbed him with a knife. Later, he was buried beside St Boris in the church of St Basil.
Sts Boris and Gleb received the crown of martyrdom in 1015. They became known as Passion-Bearers, since they did not resist evil with violence. They are commemorated on July 24 each year. (Excerpted from the OCA webpage, Lives of the Saints)
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
“Unless we bear with patience the afflictions that come to us unsought, God will not bless those that we embrace deliberately. For our love for God is demonstrated above all by the way we endure trials and temptations.
First the soul has to surmount afflictions embraced willingly, thereby learning to spurn sensual pleasure and self-glory; and this in its turn will permit us readily to bear the afflictions that come unsought. If for the sake of poverty of spirit you spurn such pleasure and self-glory, and also regard yourself as deserving the more drastic remedy of repentance, you will be ready to bear any affliction and will accept any temptation as your due, and you will rejoice when it comes, for you will see it as a cleansing-agent for your soul.
In addition, it will spur you to ardent and most efficacious prayer to God, and you will regard it as the source and protector of the soul’s health. Not only will you forgive those who afflict you, but you will be grateful to them and will pray for them as for your benefactors. Thus you will not only receive forgiveness for your sins, as the Lord has promised (cf. Matt. 6:14), but you will also attain the kingdom of heaven and God’s benediction, for you will be blessed by the Lord for enduring with patience and a spirit of humility till the end.”
Fr Dmitri Dudko (d. 2004) was an Orthodox priest during the communist reign in the Soviet Union. He defied Soviet authority by preaching question and answer style sermons to teach the faithful the Gospel. This eventually led to his arrest and imprisonment where he was forced by the KGB to renounce his activities for the Church. He understood what it was to live in a place and time in which Christians were persecuted by the state. Here are some words he spoke in a sermon before his imprisonment. They are encouraging words to all Christians who feel threatened by changes in the world or by Islamic terrorists. Despite our fears, we still need to witness to the Gospel and the resurrection. The original disciples themselves hid in fear after Christ’s crucifixion. Eventually, however, they went out into the world to proclaim the Gospel with all of them facing various torments and persecutions and executions. Here are the words of Fr. Dmitri commenting on what Christ said to Mary Magdalene:
“‘Go to My brothers and tell them what you have seen and heard.’ What does this mean? Simply, that having recognized the risen Christ you can’t lock yourself up in your own private world. No one who tries to protect his faith by running away from all trials and tribulations knows Christ yet. Christ is the Savior of the world. He came to save each person.
Knowing this, how can we not proclaim the risen Christ to the world? Can we look on calmly as people perish, not knowing Christ – some of these, moreover, being very gifted people who could do quite a bit? We see how people stumble about with no support, enduring their earthly trials? Why – out of personal fear – are we unable to give them support? Often we’re afraid to reach out a hand to those who don’t know God, thinking that in this way we are defending, protecting our faith, though in reality we are losing it. Could Mary have left the tomb without saying a thing to anyone? Could threats have made her be afraid? After all, threats are just amusing if you know that Christ is risen. What can our personal earthly well-being mean in the face of this fact?
Anyone who knows the risen Christ has a heavy responsibility placed upon himself. He must bring to people the news of Christ’s resurrection, in whatever way he can and wherever destiny leads him If you’ve been with Mary to Christ’s tomb, if you’ve been convinced that it’s empty because Christ is risen, then go and tell everyone about it. Christ is risen! May God bless you and help you! Amen.” (Our Hope, pp 291-292)
Like many Christians in history, Fr. Dmitri was eventually broken by threats of the KGB. Feeling unable to endure the threats in imprisonment, he publicly denounced his activities on behalf of the Church. After the fall of communism, humbled by his own humanness, he confessed his brokenness saying, “I thought if I didn’t agree, I wouldn’t live … Compared to the hell that I then brought into my soul, anything – even torture or execution – would have been easier to bear.” He feared torture and death, but then found his heart and mind tortured by his choice to avoid further suffering by caving in to the KGB threats. That he felt created a greater hell his heart than torture or execution ever would have.
Hope in the resurrection is a joyous experience which can carry us through life. Hoping in the resurrection might also lead to our being persecuted by those who hate God.
We Orthodox honor St. John the Baptist for his willingness to suffer for truth joyously. May we each have that same spirit and remain faithful to the Gospel even in the face of threats or terror.
“Since the time of the first martyr and deacon, St. Stephen, the witness of blood has been the sign of the highest and most expressive fidelity. The ideal of the martyr, of that glorious company of ‘the wounded friends of the bridegroom,’ of those ‘violent ones who take heaven by storm’ and in whom ‘Christ fights in person,’ makes the first centuries unique. On his way to his glorious death, St. Ignatius of Antioch confessed: ‘It is now that I begin to be a true disciple…do not hinder me from being born to life.’ Likewise for St. Polycarp the martyrs are ‘the images of true charity…the captives laden with venerable chains, which are the jewels of the veritable elect of God.’ This is why Origen made his somewhat harsh remark that a time of peace is propitious to Satan, who steals from Christ his martyrs, and from the Church her glory.” (Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life, pg. 133)
October 12 on the Church Calendar is the commemoration of the Martyrs Probus, Tarachus and Andronicus (304AD). These are the martyrs whose relics we have in our church’s altar.
St. John Chrysostom describes the reception of the martyr’s into heaven like this:
“[…] as if they (sc. the martyrs) were some warriors returning from war and battle with numerous trophies and victories, so do they greet and embrace them all with pleasure. Next, with a large guard of honor they escort them to the king of heaven, up to that throne that is fill of considerable glory, where there are the cherubim and seraphim. And after they arrive there and do obeisance to the one who sits on the throne, they enjoy even more abundant friendliness from their Master than their fellow servants. For he doesn’t receive them as servants (even though that, too, is a major honor, of which one can find no equal), but as his friends. ‘For you are my friends.’ (Jn. 15.14), scripture says. And rightly so. For he said on another occasion: ‘There is no greater love than this, that a person lay down their life for their friends.’ (Jn. 15.13).
And so, since they have exhibited the greatest possible love, he greets them and they enjoy that glory; they take part in the choirs [of angels] and participate in the mystical songs. For if, while they were in the body, at the time of the communion in the mysteries they became part of that choir and with the cherubim chanted the thrice-holy hymn, just as you who have been initiated know, how much more now, when they have regained their fellow worshipers do they participate with considerable boldness in that praise.”
On October 12, the Orthodox Church commemorates these three Christian men who were martyred in 304AD. They are the Martyrs whose relics are held within the altar of our church of St. Paul the Apostle. It is the practice of the Orthodox Church to have the relics of martyrs in or beneath the altar, since our church is built upon the blood of the martyrs.
Tarachus was born in Syrian Claudiopolis, Probus was from Perga of Pamphylia, and Andronicus was the son of an eminent citizen of Ephesus. All three were martyred together by the Proconsul Numerian Maximus, in Emperor Diocletian’s time. Tarachus was sixty-five years old when he was tortured. The proconsul asked him for his name, and he answered: “I am a Christian.” The proconsul asked thrice, and received the same answer each time. These martyrs were beaten with rods, then were cast into prison bloodied and wounded. After this, they were brought out again for torture.
When the proconsul advised Probus to deny Christ, promising him imperial honors and his own friendship, holy Probus replied: “Neither the emperor’s honors do I desire, nor your friendship do I wish.” When Andronicus was threatened with even greater bodily tortures, the young martyr of Christ replied: “My body is before you, do with it what you will.” After prolonged tortures in various locales, the three holy martyrs were thrown into an arena with wild beasts. Other prisoners in the same arena were torn apart by the beasts, but they would not harm the saints; a bear and a ferocious lioness fawned around them. Seeing this, many believed in Christ the Lord and cried out against the proconsul.
Crazed with anger, and more furious than the beasts, the proconsul ordered his soldiers to enter the arena and chop the soldiers of Christ into pieces with their swords. Their bodies were mingled with the dead bodies of other prisoners. Three Christians, Macarius, Felix and Berius, who were present at the slaying of the holy martyrs, came that night to remove their bodies. But as the bodies were heaped in confusion, and the night was very dark, they prayed to God to help them find the saints; and suddenly three candles were manifested over the bodies of the martyrs. Thus, they were able to remove the saints’ bodies and honorably bury them.
This is the 31st blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.” The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Intercessory Prayer.
“Do not pass any opportunity for praying for any man; either at his request or at the request of his relatives, friends, of those who esteem him, or of his acquaintances. The Lord looks favorably upon the prayer of our love, and upon our boldness before him. Besides this, prayer for others is very beneficial to the man himself who prays for others; it purifies the heart, strengthens faith and hope in God, and enkindles our love for God and our neighbor.” (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST, p 202)
St. Silouan (d. 1938AD) advocates that whenever we grieve for someone because of their problems, losses, failures or sins, we should not leave them to our pity or even compassion but should then be moved to pray for them. Our feelings for others should move us to pray for them, to intercede with God to have mercy on them. The drowning man is not saved by our compassion for him but by our taking action to save him. The hungry man is not fed by our pity for him but by our giving him food. So too our grief for others, a wonderful sign of a compassionate heart, becomes love when we are moved to pray for the one who has caused us to feel grief.
“… I realized that when the Lord gives us to grieve over someone, and the desire to pray for him, it means that the Lord would be gracious unto that man. Therefore, if it befalls you to sorrow over anyone, you must pray for that person, because the Lord for your sake would be gracious unto him. So do you pray then. The Lord will hear you, and you will glorify God.” (ST SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 494)
Our concern and compassion for others often rises in our hearts just from the daily experiences of life we see others go through. Realistically we know that we are not protected from all sorrows, we cannot avoid all grief, even through prayer and fasting. People while they were engaged in prayer, in churches, have been attacked and martyred. So our prayers also must ask for the strength to endure suffering.
“The Christian life is to be lived amidst the trouble and the turmoil of life. When we pray for others, it is proper to pray using this perspective. We are not to pray that others escape from the problems and the cares of the world. Rather, we are to pray that others may face life with courage, strength, and power. The Christian life is not a life in which troubles are evaded. Rather, the Christian life is a life where we face our problems and conquer them with the help of Christ.” (John Mummert, ABIDING IN JESUS CHRIST, p 69)
“The brethren said, ‘In what way ought we to pray before God?’ The old man said, ‘For the repentance of sinners, and the finding of the lost, and the bringing near of those who are afar off, and friendliness towards those who do us harm, and love towards those who persecute us, and a sorrowful care for those who provoke God to wrath. And if a man doeth these things truly and with a penitent mind, the sinners will often gain life, and the living soul will be redeemed. … Now the prayer which our Lord delivered to us for the needs of the body is one which applieth the whole community, and it was not uttered for the sake of those who are strangers to the world, and with whom the pleasures of the body are held in contempt.” (E. Wallis Budge, THE PARADISE OF THE HOLY FATHERS vol 2, pp 333)
“These examples suffice to let us know where Christianity leads us. Here love truly does not seek its own, even if this be the salvation of one’s own soul. Such love takes everything from us, deprives us of everything, almost as if it were emptying us. And where does it lead? To spiritual poverty. In the Beatitudes we are promised blessedness in return for being poor in spirit. […] The person who is poor in spirit is the one who lays down his soul for his friends, offering this spirit out of love, not withholding his spiritual treasures.” (Mother Maria Skobtsova, Essential Writings, pg. 181)