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.
Persecution and the Church
All who have made war against the Church have not shaken her, but were put to shame when they had spent their own strength. They were dispersed while making the assault, they became feeble while throwing their missiles, and they were conquered by the suffering Church while carrying out their plan. This paradoxical type of victory is possible not because of men but because of God alone. For the astounding thing about the Church is not that she conquered, but the way that she conquered.
As she was being beaten, persecuted, and mutilated in many ways, not only did she not shrink, but she actually became larger, and those who tried to bring on the persecutions only put the suffering to an end.
(Protopresbyter Gus George Christo, The Church’s Identity, p. 244)
Saintly Feminism & Martyrdom
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
“… there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 )
The Martyr Julitta at Cesarea (ca 304AD) is remembered on July 31.
Julitta was a wealthy woman and because of the on going persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, secretly a Christian. Her life and martyrdom were written by St Basil the Great who offered this account of her martyrdom:
A wealthy man trying to take advantage of the fact that she was a woman wrongfully seized a good deal of her property. When Julitta took him to court to regain rightful possession of her property, the man exposed to the court that Julitta was a Christian. The judge told her if she wanted to regain her property she would have to deny Christ and offer incense to an idol. Julitta refused and was sentenced to be burned to death. According to St Basil the Great, the Martry offered her final words to some other women standing nearby: “We are made of the same stuff as men. We are made in the likeness of God just as they are. The woman is made by the Creator to be just as capable of virtue as men. How is this so? Are we not related in every way? For not only was the woman made by taking flesh from the man, but also bone from his bone. Do we not then have the same obligation to the Lord as men, to be as constant in courage and patience?”
St Basil concludes with this exhortation: “I say to you men: Do not fall short of the example of this woman in your piety! And women: Do not prove yourselves weaker than her example, but hold fast to your piety without excuses, through hearing her story. Do not permit a soft nature to hinder anyone from doing good.”
(St Basil the Great, ON FASTING AND FEASTS, pp 110-111)
The Pursuit of Happiness
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (United States Declaration of Independence)
Whatever the authors of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they used the phrase “pursuit of happiness”, Americans through the years having so totally embraced the absolute value of the individual over and against society or any institution have come to think of the phrase as a guarantee that each individual should be able to pursue personal pleasure without any constraints whatsoever being placed on them. That attitude often finds itself at odds with traditional Christian or other religious thinking and occasionally at odds with the law.
Many Americans consider our nation to be a Christian one, but sometimes find traditional Christian attitudes to be in opposition to American values. Sometimes this has to do with changing values and definitions. So Roman Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft points out that the understanding of “happiness” has changed greatly through time. For example the 17th Century “mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian” Blaise Pascal held to what was then the traditional understanding of happiness – a definition closer to what America’s founding fathers had in mind than is the current idea of happiness. Kreeft writes:
Pascal uses “wretchedness (unhappiness) and “happiness” here in their deep, ancient meanings. There are three important differences:
- To us moderns, “happiness” connotes a subjective feeling, not an objective state, like health. To the ancients, happiness was to the soul what health was to the body. The test case is suffering: if happiness is objective, it can include suffering, as in Job and Greek tragedy; if it is merely subjective, then by definition it cannot.
- Our word “happiness” comes from the Old English “hap” (chance, luck, fortune: it “happens”). It comes from without and from the material world rather than from within our own souls. It comes from what used to be called “the gifts of Fortune”, who was traditionally pictured as a whore and a cheat (see, for example, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy). Thus happiness is not under our own control – a terrifying and pessimistic conclusion indeed, as it is in Freud.
- To us, happiness is present and transitory rather than permanent: a momentary “high” rather than the quality of a whole life, as Aristotle defines it.
Like the ancients, Pascal means by “happiness” (I) a state of real perfection (2) of soul (3) in a complete life, including eternity. Aristotle’s word for this was eudaimonia: the lasting state (-id) of true goodness (eu-) of soul (daimon). That is why Pascal offers religion instead of psychology as the way to happiness; for psychology can make us feel good, but religion can make us be good.
(Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 27)
Many of the Church Fathers and Mothers thought emotions are fleeting and thus not a dependable way for making decisions. If happiness is merely an emotion, than it too is fleeting and not worth pursuing. However, if happiness is a state of being, not dependent on our moods or circumstances, then it is a good worth pursuing. It is happiness as a state of being that helps us understand the martyrs and some of our hymns dedicated to the saints. For example, the hymn for the Beheading of St. John the Baptist contains the phrase, “Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy...” One can suffer with joy only when happiness is a state of being rather than a fleeting emotion.
The Wedding Prokimenon
O Lord, crown them with glory and honor!
You have set upon their heads crowns of precious stones; they asked life of You, and You gave it to them.
O Holy Martyrs, who fought the good fight and have received your crowns: Entreat the Lord that he will have mercy on our souls.
(Texts from the Service of Holy Matrimony)
The wedding service of the Orthodox Church realizes that marriage if it is to be fully Christian is a form of martyrdom. It requires each spouse to submit their will and desires to the other and for the good of the other. It is not about personal satisfaction, but about creating love in self-denial – forming a community modeling perfect love, like the Holy Trinity. Because each spouse must deny themselves and take up their cross to love as the Lord loves them, in the service of holy matrimony, the newly weds are reminded to be martyrs. So there are several references to the martyrs in the texts and symbolism of the service, including the use of crowns for the bride and groom. We catch the sense of the texts from the wedding ceremony listed above in this post in a comment about the Martyrs of Lyons.
Because of the sincerity of their [the martyrs’] love, this became the greatest of the battles against the Adversary. The Beast had to be throttled to be forced to disgorge alive those who had been devoured. They did not boast over the ones who had fallen. On the contrary, of their riches they gave to those in need and with motherly tenderness went and pleaded with the Father on their behalf.
They asked for life, and he gave it to them, and they shared it with their neighbor when they went forth to God in complete triumph. Having always loved peace and always commended peace, in peace they departed to God. They left no distress for their Mother no division or conflict in the family of the faith, but rather joy, peace, harmony, and love. (The Martyrs of Lyons, Early Christian Spirituality, p. 50, emphases not in original text)
Christian Martyrdom and Christian Marriage both are based in believers seeking life- eternal life! – from God. All those who serve the Lord whether in marriage, as clergy or in martyrdom ask God to bestow life on them, even as they deny themselves to follow Him.
For you meet him with rich blessings;
you set a crown of fine gold on his head.
He asked you for life; you gave it to him—
length of days forever and ever.
The Marriage Crown
Before the final blessing of the marriage, the priest prays that God will “take up their crowns.” This image is an encouragement for married couples to live in holiness and follow the ways of the martyrs and married saints to salvation. Salvation is a gift that is tried by many obstacles and temptations; yet, it is expressed as joyful life in the presence of God in his kingdom. This joy is not as fleeting or simple as temporary “happiness.” Rather, it contains within itself the fruits of labor and assists in the development of the unquenchable desire to serve the other in accordance with one’s natural inclination as a communal being.
Then secondly, the glory and the honor is that of the martyr’s crown. For the way to the kingdom is the martyria–bearing witness to Christ. And this means crucifixion and suffering. A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. (Schmemann, For the Life of the World)
Crowns become the reward for and sign of carrying the cross. Before marriage a specific cross is given to the individual, but now a new cross is given to the two united as one. This new cross requires cohesive work with the other in a way that is unique to the individual and is bearable only in services to Christ, through the spouse, by the Holy Spirit and in concordance with the Father. In this sacrificial love, martyrdom is made manifest. Again, in the words of Fr. Schmemann,
In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross joy [and not ‘happiness’!] entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.
(Bp. John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey, Building an Orthodox Marriage, pp. 57-58)
Even 16 years after the events, when I see any documentaries on TV about the terrorist attack on the United State on 11 September 2001, I find myself hypnotized by the images on the screen. A paralysis of disbelief takes over as I watch in horror the events unfolding and experience the terror and sorrow of the victims and their families – images that seem burned into my memory.
I have not been moved to hatred or thoughts of revenge. My reaction has been a total sorrow that we in the world are in such condition that hatred takes over our lives and that we humans can do such horrendous acts of murder. Such dehumanization is hard to fathom – both that we dehumanize those we see as enemies and that we ourselves become dehumanized and come to think that murder and mayhem and evil are somehow godly. They are inhuman acts, why do we imagine they can be godly? Unless of course we think God is tyrannical, maniacal and demonic. From the time Cain murdered his brother Abel, humans have been willing to kill and murder on such a scale that is should trouble every human . . . but doesn’t, tragically enough.
So, how are we to understand such inhumanity? Here are some words from a 4th Century Christian bishop, St. Basil the Great, whose saintly parents had lived through the Roman persecution of Christians:
“An enemy is by definition one who obstructs, ensnares and injures others. He is therefore a sinner. We ought to love his soul by correcting him and doing everything possible to bring him to conversion. We ought to love his body too by coming to his aid with the necessities of life.
That love for our enemies is possible has been shown us by the Lord himself. He revealed the Father’s love and his own by making himself ‘obedient unto death‘, [Phil 2:8] as the Apostle says, not for his friend’s sake so much as for his enemies. ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.‘ [Rom 5:8]
And God exhorts us to do the same. ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.‘ [Eph 5:1-2]
God would not ask this of us as a right and proper thing to do, if it were not possible.
On the other hand, is it not perhaps true that an enemy can be as much of a help to us as a friend can?
Enemies earn for us the beatitude of which the Lord speaks when he says: ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.‘ [Matt 5:11-12]” (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, pp 232-233)
It is no easy task to be a Christian in the face of terrorism. It is not impossible as St. Basil says to do what Christ commands us to do. But it is for us very had and seems like a great burden . . . like taking up our cross to follow Christ.
Jesus said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
Welcoming the Day and Its Blessings
“This day is blessed by God, it is God’s own and now let us go into it.
You walk in this day as God’s own messenger; whoever you meet, you meet in God’s own way. You are there to be the presence of Christ, the presence of the Spirit, the presence of the Gospel – this is your function on this particular day.
God has never said that when you walk into a situation in His own Name, He will be crucified and you will be the risen one. You must be prepared to walk into situations, one after the other, in God’s name, to walk as the Son of God has done: in humiliation and humility, in truth and ready to be persecuted and so forth.
Usually what we expect when we fulfill God’s commandments is to see a marvelous result at once – we read of that at times in the lives of the saints. When, for instance, someone hits us on one cheek, we turn the other one, although we don’t expect to be hit at all, but we expect to hear the other person say ‘What, such humility’ – you get your reward and he gets the salvation of his soul. It does not work that way. You must pay the cost and very often you get hit hard. What matters is that you are prepared for that.
As to the day, if you accept that this day was blessed of God, chose by God with His own hand, then every person you meet is a gift of God, every circumstance you will meet is a gift of God, whether it is bitter or sweet, whether you like or dislike it. It is God’s own gift to you and if you take it that way, then you can face any situation. But then you must face it with the readiness that anything may happen, whether you enjoy it or not, and if you walk in the name of the Lord through a day which has come fresh and new out of His own Hands and has been blessed for you to live with it, then you can make prayer and life really like the two sides of one coin.
You act and pray in one breath, as it were, because all the situations that follow one another require God’s blessing.” (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, pp. 46-47)
Making Christ Your Greatest Love
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37-38)
“If you worship Christ in your heart, you can save your kinsfolk as well as yourself; if your heart worships father and mother, son and daughter, you will certainly lose both yourself and them. For whoever denies Christ before the world, him will Christ deny at the Last Judgement before His heavenly Father and all the hosts of angels and saints.
(Saint Isidore of Pelusium wrote to Philetus the Mayor, who was downcast at not having got into the eminent society that he craved:
‘Glory in this life is of less significance than a spider’s web, and more insubstantial than dreams; therefore lift up your mind to what is of first importance, and you will easily calm your saddened soul. He who seeks the one glory and the other cannot attain them both. It is possible to achieve both only when we seek, not both but one: heavenly , glory. Therefore, if you desire glory, seek divine, heavenly glory, and earthly glory will often follow on from it.’ (Letter 5, p. 152)
The Lord made it clear to the apostles that this moment of decision is difficult saying, “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” – that is, his family, that will hold him back from following Christ more than anyone else in the world, and who will condemn him the most strongly if he does so. For indeed, it is not our enemies who bind us to this world, but our friends; not strangers but our kinsfolk.” (St Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, pp. 4-5).
Perseverance and Persecution
“’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)