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)

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)

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.” 

Martyrs and Passion-Bearers Boris and Gleb

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.

Sts Boris and Gleb

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)

Bearing Patiently the Unsought Affliction

“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.

Martyrdom of St. Stephen

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.

Hieromartyr Gorazd of Prague (1944)

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.”

(St Gregory Palamas, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 45965-45975)

40 Martyrs of Sebaste

October 12: Martyrs Probus, Tarachus and Andronicus

Martyr Probus
Martyr Probus

Each year on October 12, the Orthodox Church commemorates the Martyrs Probus, Tarachus and Andronicus.   These three Christians were martyred in 304AD at a time when the Roman Empire had begun it persecution of Christians.  The Empire tried to intimidate Christians, through threats of torture and death,  into renouncing their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.  Though Christianity was a minority group, the Empire began to feel threatened by this new religion and its moral values and heavenly ideals which were in opposition to the Empire’s own sense of power.

AndronicusMany Christians were willing to die for their beliefs rather than to deny Christ or worship the Emperor as God or to kowtow to the power of the Empire itself.    Those early Christians did not organize an armed rebellion against their oppressors but rather professed faith in Jesus Christ and His Kingdom, rejecting all claims that the Roman Empire made over their lives.  The Christians did not threaten bloodshed, retribution or revenge.  Rather they courageously and boldly denied the world and its values and embraced the Kingdom which is not of this world.

tarachusThe Christian Apologist Arnobius (d. 330AD) writing shortly after these martyrs deaths, explained why Christians accept martyrdom rather than taking up arms against their Roman persecutors: 

“We, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His [i.e., Christ’s] teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscious with that of another. An ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ, inasmuch as by His means the rage of savage ferocity has been softened, and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow-creature.” (Arnobius in For the Peace from Above edited by Fr. Hildo Bos, p 108)

Martyrs: The Wounded Friends of Christ

St. Ignatius of Antioch

“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)

The Reception of the Martyrs in Heaven

Martyr Andronicus

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).

Martyr Probus

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.”

(St. John Chrysostom in The Cult of the Saints, pg. 224)

 O holy martyrs of the Lord, pray to God for the peace of the world and the salvation of our souls in His Heavenly Kingdom!