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.

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)

Freedom: To Love as God Loves

A man is truly free when he exists as God exists; and this way of being is relational. In the words of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, it “is a way of relationship with the Word, with other people and with God, an event of communion, and that is why it cannot be realized as this achievement of an individual, but only as an ecclesial fact.” Communion makes beings “be” and freedom constitutes true being. True freedom does not lie in our ability to make choices – this only manifests the dilemma of necessity – but in our ability, by grace, to love as God does unconditionally, to overcome the fears, anxieties and limitations of our mortal biological existence, and to conquer death. (Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy, p. 78)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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, BoethiusThe Consolation of Philosophy). Thus happiness is not under our own control – a terrifying and pessimistic conclusion indeed, as it is in Freud.
  3. 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.

You Are the Body of Christ

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  (1 Corinthians 12:27)

“And therefore throughout all time, man, formed at the beginning by the Hands of God, that is, by the Son and the Spirit, becomes after the image and likeness of God: the chaff, that is, the apostasy, being cast away, while the wheat, that is, those who bear as fruit faith in God being gathered into the granary. And therefore tribulation is necessary for those who are being saved, that, in a certain way, having been threshed and kneaded together, through endurance, with the Word of God, and baked in the fire, they may be suitable for the banquet of the King, as one of ours said, when condemned to the wild beasts because of his testimony to God: ‘I am the wheat of Christ, and I am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found [to be] pure bread of God.’ (Irenaeus)

The perspective of this passage is oriented towards the fashioning of man in the image and likeness of God. Man, formed in the beginning by the Word and the Spirit, is continually being fashioned throughout all time into the image and likeness of God. We have seen how God bore the apostasy of man, that man might come to learn of his own mortality and acknowledge the one and only Source of life. Here the process of fashioning man into the image, salvation, is described from a different perspective: threshed by tribulation, the chaff or apostasy being cast away, man is kneaded together with Christ, and through fire the martyr is made into bread suitable for the Father’s celebration.

Just as Christ’s death and resurrection are the basis on which Christians celebrate the eucharist, so the martyr’s death, kneaded together with the Word, and resurrection, as appropriate bread, are celebrated by God. (John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, p. 78)

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 Spiritualityp. 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.

(Psalms 21:3-14)
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)

The Good Samaritan in a Dangerous World

[Sermon notes.  12 November 2017.  Annual Parish Meeting.]

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.   (Ephesians 2:4-10)

“even when we were dead in trespasses” –  This refers to us in the Church, not those outside the Church!  WE were dead in our sins.  We parishioners have experienced both death in our sins and resurrection in our Christ.   God’s love comes to us while we are still sinners (Romans 5:8).   We wouldn’t need God’s love, favor, grace, forgiveness if we were sinless.   We can only be raised with Christ if we are dead.  There would be no need for a resurrection if we hadn’t died first.

“made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” –  sitting together in church, we are in the heavenly place.  The parish church is that heavenly place where we sit together in Christ Jesus

“we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” –  that is another image of the parish.  We are God’s craftmanship, built to do good works.  That is why we need an active, functioning parish community so that we an work together for the good.

Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “’You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Our parish – we give from our budget $1700/month to charity.  This is above and beyond all the charity projects we take on each month.  Because we are a true commuter parish, we don’t have a strong sense of a location identity.  Very few of us live in the locality of the church, so our charity work is not so locally focused, but is outreach to other peoples, areas, projects.

We as parish must never cease to be the good neighbor, the good Samaritan to everyone whose path  bring them to our community.  Or whose paths we cross in our sojourning.   Christ makes it clear that being the good neighbor is something He values in us and expects from us.

Christ does not use the parable to talk about how the government should have done more to protect the man walking down to Jericho.  He doesn’t use the parable to say more police or a bigger army is needed, nor does Jesus advocate self defense, carrying weapons, pre-emptive strikes.   His point in the parable is be neighborly, be charitable.

Ethics thought puzzle – what if the Good Samaritan had arrived just a little bit earlier on the scene, in time to prevent the crime from happening, would Christ have blessed his use of force (even lethal force) to prevent the crime?  Or are Christians only to step in to offer comfort once the crime/suffering has been inflicted?  Jesus doesn’t say.  Whatever we might think in answer to those questions, we still must be neighborly.

Today, beause of the events of mass shootings in churches, many people feel unsafe, and feel the parish needs to consider safety and security for its members.  The shepherds of old took action to protect their flocks, including attacking the attackers.  Doesn’t the church have an obligation to protects its members and make the parish a safe and secure place for its members?

We are obliged to behave as neighbors, no matter what other security or safety measures we think are necessary.

Satan’s victory comes not in killing us but in converting us to his way of thinking and behaving.  If we abandon our principles, our discipleship in order to follow the logic of he world, then we have lost the battle with evil.   We are after all disciples of the Crucified One, who rose from the dead.  Killing  us does not cut us off from Christ and rather works to the contrary in keeping us united to the Son of God.   Our being killed by others is not the greatest thing we have to fear.  Jesus said:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.  (Luke 12:4 )

We Christians may be threatened by other people.  Yet, our warfare is not against those who do us bodily harm.  We may have to take steps too ensure the safety of our congregations, but we also have to remember that in Scripture we are told how to arm and defend ourselves.  As St. Paul exhorts us:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints  …  (Ephesians 6:10)

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.

Martyr Juvenaly of Alaska

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)

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Martyr and Godbearer

Today in the Orthodox Church we remember the Martyred Bishop of Antioch, St. Ignatius the Godbearer.  Below are a few words about St. Ignatius taken from an old Christian Education publication, Personalities Who Shaped the Church (pp 3-4):

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.”