Black-and-white OCF logos are flooding my Facebook newsfeed. It’s official – Orthodox Awareness Month 2015 is in full swing.
Surely we’ve all made the effort to share an enlightening quote from our favorite saint, to post a photo from our past Real Break trip, or to invite our Facebook friends to listen to an Ancient Faith Radio podcast they would rather listen to than study. There is no doubt in my mind that this will be one of the biggest, furthest-reaching Orthodox Awareness Months ever, and I congratulate you all for taking the time to plant these seeds for others to see.
But now that we have all changed our profile pictures I’m left questioning,
What is Orthodox Awareness Month?
It seems like a silly question, right? But what are we called to do in order to fully embrace OAM as college students? As student leaders? As witnesses of Christ in the modern world?
I also find myself asking, have I done anything this month to embrace OAM in my prayer life? In service to others?
Or, generally, have I done anything more than change my profile picture?
As we are reaching the half-way point of OAM, these are important questions to ask. But even more important is how we choose to answer them on our college campuses.
It is only appropriate that the theme for OCF this year is Modern Martyrs: Witnesses of the Word. The phrase Modern Martyr isn’t one we hear often, but when we break it down it offers us a unique viewpoint from which we can approach living our lives for Christ.
When we think of the first martyrs, we think of the Roman Empire before the legalization of Christianity, and call to mind those blessed saints who refused to deny Christ by worshiping pagan idols. These martyrs bore witness to Christ in a society that would not accept Him.
Following the legalization of Christianity, martyrdom transformed. Monasticism became a new type of martyrdom, and the great Desert Fathers became a model for ending a worldly life for a life of prayer and fasting. These martyrs bore witness to Christ by fleeing the world.
Thus martyrdom, or the way we bear witness to Christ, has changed and evolved to fit its landscape over the centuries. Societies, peoples, ideologies, and governments have all changed, and so too have Christ’s saints changed with it. Christians became martyrs during WWII, under communism, during the Crusades, and more.
In so many ways, these martyrs “changed their profile pictures” – or more accurately, through their actions they changed the image of how the world saw them. They weren’t seen in pride, in vanity, or as slaves to their passions, but rather the profile picture they showed to the world was the image of Christ.
Which brings us to ask, what does martyrdom look like today?
Are we comfortable crossing ourselves before we eat in the dining hall? Are we prepared to be labeled as haters and bigots when we stand behind the Orthodox Church’s teachings on marriage and abortion? Would we be ready, as were the students whose lives were taken in Oregon, to declare Christ’s name in the face of a gun?
All of these situations, and more, are actual scenarios in which we may find the opportunity to change our profile picture for Christ. Thus, embracing Orthodox Awareness Month becomes more than just changing our profile pictures on social media; it challenges us to prepare ourselves to become perfect images of Christ.
By keeping this in mind and following the model of the martyrs and the saints before us, we will surely humble ourselves to others and bear witness to Christ in our modern world.
About the Author
Andrew Abboud graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in Biological Sciences and Religious Studies. He is continuing his education as a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh. Andrew was the Chairman of the 2014-2015 OCF Student Leadership Board, and he loves taking any chance he gets to stay involved with the ministry which afforded him so much.
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. –Mark 8:35
What clearer call to martyrdom could there be than to hear Jesus say, “If you willingly give up your life for my sake, then you will be saved”? But it’s not only a commandment for the martyrs–you, too, are asked to lose your life for the sake of True Life by denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Christ.
There’s a bit of a paradox in the command, “Deny yourself,” because the self you are asked to deny isn’t really your true self. Who you really are rests in God. The divine spark of the Holy Spirit is already in each of us and has been fueled and fanned by our baptism and chrismation. And this is who you really are–your true self is Christ in you.
Christ asks, then, that we deny ourselves in the sense that we deny the false self–the selfish ego and the passionate desires that seem to be who we are but which are merely distortions that mask our deeper, truer being. Christ asks that we deny ourselves so that we can find ourselves. He tells us, “The ego must go, your passions and selfish desires cannot reign in you if I am to reign in your heart.”
Take Up Your Cross
The way of self-denial is the way of the Cross. To strip the passions of their power is neither easy nor painless. And it’s not a one-time deal, but a constant, life-long struggle. As our true self is being uncovered, the false, egotistical self constantly struggles to win out, and the heart is the battleground where we fight this war.
There are two kinds of crosses we will be asked to bear in this battle. The first are the crosses of circumstance. These are the difficulties, the temptations, and the situations which are out of our control. We do not ask for illness and death to enter our lives, we do not control the propensities towards certain sins that we have inherited or acquired through our upbringing, we do not plan to have a boss that’s unkind or a friend that betrays us. Nonetheless, these things all confront us and require our response.
The crosses of circumstance, though initially thrust upon us, can still be voluntarily taken up. It is an act of self-denial to bear illness with faith and hope. It is an act of self-denial to live a life of purity when faced with strong propensity toward sexual sin. It is an act of self-denial not to exact revenge on a person who has hurt you. These crosses will grieve us, yes, and they may even seem senseless and unfair when we try to fight them. But if we accept them, if we pray, “God, enter into this suffering, be with me, may this cross lead me to a resurrection,” then the suffering and sorrow of the crosses of circumstance will be transformed with hope and light and will allow us to thank God for all things as we begin to see Him act in our lives.
The second kind of crosses we will be asked to bear are the crosses of asceticism. These are the voluntary acts of self-denial we pursue to crucify our passions. This is our response to the usurping, selfish, ego that desires to reign on the throne of our hearts. The false self tells us, “Be angry, you are justified,” and we respond, “I shall not murder my brother, but will let peace reign among us.” The false self tells us, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die,” and we respond, “For my brother’s sake, for the sake of love, I shall take less than my share so that he might have more.” The false self tell us, “You are a good person, you are certainly better than the great sinners,” and we respond, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
The Church gives us many small crosses of asceticism that we can voluntarily take up so that our will can be formed to the will of the Father. We don’t have to make up an ascetical practice ourselves but simply allow our lives to be shaped by the life of the Church. We fast when and how the Church tells us to fast. We pray with the words of the Church. We give alms though it deprives us of material wealth. We submit in obedience and love to our parents, our spiritual father, our spouse, our bishop. These small acts of self-denial help us face and battle the thoughts and promptings of our ego and of the Evil One.
Together, the crosses of circumstance and the crosses of asceticism slowly uncover Christ in us and strip away the false self. We should expect that crucifixion will be painful and difficult. As the character of C. S. Lewis says in The Shadowlands:
You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt so much, are what makes us perfect.
The last and perhaps most essential part of Christ’s command for us to live everyday as martyrs is this: Follow Me. We are asked not only to deny our selfish desires and bear the suffering that denial will bring, but to move towards Christ. It is the completion of the denial of the false self to allow Christ in us to shine through, for the Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Follow Me also means that the way of the Cross that we are to walk is the way that Christ has already walked. He does not ask us to bear anything that He Himself has not already borne. He assures us that any difficulty we face, He will face with us. He asks only that we unite ourselves to Him with faith and love.
Christ says to us, “Follow Me, do as I have done, love as I have loved, and most of all, trust that I will love you and walk with you on the path.”
It is striking that the Lord does not force us to follow this path, to bear the cross, to live a life of everyday martyrdom, but says, “If anyone is willing, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” May we have the strength and faith to become everyday martyrs, dying to sin so that we can be alive in Christ.
There are all sorts of circumstances under which Christians have faced persecution and martyrdom. And while we often think first of the martyrs who were slaughtered by the Roman pagans, there are many more martyrs, especially since the time of the fall of the Christian Byzantine Empire, who have suffered because they refused to denounce Christ. Those martyred in the post-Byzantine era are often referred to as the “New Martyrs” since, in Orthodox terms, anything less than a thousand years ago is recent history for us.
One such saint is the New Martyr Zlata (October 13). Here is her story and what she has to share with us.
In the area that is now Bulgaria in the late 18th century, there was a young girl named Zlata (Chryse in Greek). Zlata had been raised in a Christian home and was known for her strong character, chastity, and beauty. So when a young Turk became infatuated with her and wanted to marry her, Zlata firmly refused to capitulate either to his marriage proposal or to his insistence that she convert to Islam. The Turk and his friends then spent months harassing and threatening Zlata, trying in vain to make her give in. They even tried to force her parents and siblings to get her to convert. And here’s where the really beautiful lesson from St. Zlata comes in.
Her family told her to give in “just for the sake of appearances.” Surely, they told her, God would forgive her if she didn’t really mean it but converted only to save her life. The saint remained steadfast, however, and insisted that even if it was just for the sake of appearances, to deny Christ would be unthinkable. After many more tortures, ultimately, the young woman was killed.
Now, maybe we don’t have someone threatening our life if we don’t change who we are, but I know there are lots of times that we, as Orthodox Christians, are asked to, “for the sake of appearances,” not wear our faith too externally. We get the message, “It’s ok if your a Christian–just as long as it doesn’t upset the materialistic, hedonistic order of things. It’s ok if you’re a Christian–just as long as the world doesn’t have to be bothered by it. And couldn’t you, just for the sake of appearances, maybe act a little less Christian so you don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable?”
What we can take from the life of St. Zlata is that denying Christ to save face, just to get by unharassed–for the sake of a job, a class, a social connection, whatever it may be–is not just a surface-level matter of convenience. We can’t just pretend not to be Christians when our Christianity is inconvenient or unpopular. To cover up our Christianity in the small things is to set ourselves up for bigger denials. Likewise, to say yes to Christ in the small things is to prepare ourselves for bigger (often more difficult) leaps of faith. Even when those around us discourage us from living a life of faith, may we, like the young Zlata, remain firm in our resolve to follow Christ in all things.
Holy St. Zlata, intercede for us.
In striving to be Modern Martyrs, there’s a lot to learn from the saints who have gone before us. What is it we can take from the lives of the martyrs and confessors that we can apply to our everyday life on campus? Well, a good place to start is at the beginning. St. Stephen the Protomartyr (it means he was the first one) who is commemorated on December 27th has a few lessons to share with us. You can read his entire story in Acts 6-7.
His purity was striking. Right before Stephen gives his account before the high priest and his council, we are told, “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” And just a little before that, Stephen is described as “full of grace and power.” Stephen’s first and primary witness to the world was his inner peace and his pure heart. Even as the council is looking for ways to destroy him, they can’t help but notice God’s grace radiating through him. This should be our first and primary goal in bearing witness to Christ: that we, too, shine from within with Christ’s love, grace, and power.
His authority was scriptural and ecclesial. When Stephen proceeds to speak on behalf of Christ, he doesn’t do so on his own authority, but instead, places his own experience and the gospel message into the context of the entire history of salvation, starting from God calling Abraham out of Ur. On the one hand, his authority relies on the evidence of Scripture, on the many stories he must have known from childhood that told of God’s work among the people of Israel. On the other hand, the way in which he frames that history is ecclesial, or community-oriented, in the sense that he places himself and his contemporaries and the events of their own day into that same scriptural history. He sees a unity in God’s works that stretches from the past and into the present. Likewise, when we are called upon to speak for Christ, we should know and rely on Scripture to give context to our own experience, and we should speak from the perspective not of ourselves, but of the Church, the community of saints beginning with Abraham and coming down to our own time. This is an inheritance we can claim as Orthodox that gives our witness a full authority–our own experience is confirmed and supported by the witness of Scripture and the great cloud of witnesses of the whole Body of Christ throughout history.
His response to abuse was forgiveness. As the stones started flying toward him, Stephen did more than just bear suffering with strength and fortitude. He kept his eyes on heaven and asked Christ for mercy upon his persecutors. Like Christ on the cross who asked the Father to forgive the ignorance of those who crucified Him, Stephen allowed himself to suffer innocently and did not hold the sin of his murderers against them. When we face rejection for our faith, abuse for our attempts at purity, or suffering when we bear witness to Christ, St. Stephen again is our model. We bear all things for the sake of Christ and do not hold sin against others. We do not pick up a stone and throw it back, either with real violence or with our words. Instead, we humbly ask God for His mercy upon those who defame Him (Him, not us) and assume the best of intentions of those who dismiss and reject us.
Holy Protomartyr and Saint Stephen, pray to God for us.
We’re so excited to reveal the 2015-2016 OCF theme, chosen by the Student Leadership Board just for you!
So why this theme?
Usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think about martyrs are the Christians today and throughout the history of the Church who have been killed because of their allegiance to Christ. Under the authority of some regime that found the message of the Gospel abhorrent–whether it was the Jews, the Romans, the Turks, the Soviets, or ISIS–certain Christians have found themselves faced with the decision: deny Christ or lose your life. And time and time again, the martyrs have shown us an example of bold faith in saying yes to Christ and proclaiming their faith in him even in the face of certain execution.
But the truth is that being killed isn’t what makes the martyrs, well, martyrs.
The word μαρτυρέω (mar-tee-REH-oh) in Greek does not itself denote death for a cause but rather means to bear witness, to give evidence, to testify. This is what makes a martyr a martyr–that he or she was willing to bear witness to Christ, give evidence of His salvific love toward mankind, and testify on His behalf before the world. Certainly, those who have been willing to and have faced death for the sake of this witness have left an immeasurable impact on the Church and on the world, often bringing many others to Christ because of their unwavering hope and trust in Him. Tertullian went as far as to say,
The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
But the calling to martyrdom is a calling for all of us. Each Christian is the representative of Christ to those around Him. We, too, should bear witness to Christ by following His commandments. We, too, should give evidence of His salvific love toward mankind by loving our neighbor and defending the oppressed. We, too, should testify on His behalf by boldly challenging the worldly authorities and the principalities and powers of darkness which find the message of the Gospel abhorrent. And we, too, should not be afraid of the consequences of radically devoting ourselves to Christ, for the reward is a crown of incorruption and life eternal.
That is why we chose this theme. So that we can honor the martyrs who are dying even today for their faith in Jesus Christ. So that we can talk about the worldly and spiritual authorities that challenge us everyday. So that we can accept the calling to martyrdom with faith and endurance. So that together this year, we can learn from the martyrs, both modern and ancient, who gave their lives for Christ how to become witnesses of the Word, giving our whole lives to Christ our God.