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.
I recently attended an amazing choral concert at a local Presbyterian church. The church was massive–vaulted ceilings, cross-shaped layout, glittering chandeliers, and a golden cross suspended from the ceiling that was probably twice my size–but most striking to me as an Orthodox visitor were the white, white, white walls on all sides. I just kept thinking, “Where is the cloud of witnesses? Where are my friends?” In a room packed to the brim with people, the church still felt empty without the saints.
There are some excellent explanations on the intercession of the saints out there (two from Abbot Tryphon here and here and another more in-depth one from Fr. Stephen Freeman here), so here’s the gist of it:
In short, the saints are those who, like us, worked out their salvation with fear and trembling. Like us, they struggled with the passions, but perhaps unlike us (yet), they were able to allow God’s grace to transform them completely, banishing their passions through repentance, opening their hearts through prayer, and striving to love all of creation as God loves it. By doing so, they were granted the ability–often in their own lifetimes–to manifest their synergy with God’s grace through miracles, prophecy, and healing. In coming to love God truly, they were able to have a share in God’s power and compassion, and in imitation of and cooperation with the Divine, they continue to share that power and compassion with us who are still in the midst of our own spiritual battles. The saints love us like God loves us, and they do it without losing their own particular personalities and stories.
Asking for the intercessions of the saints, then, is in a sense like calling on a pro football quarterback to coach you on passing or an Olympic gymnast to help you land a back handspring. The saints are the “pros” of prayer, repentance, charity, virtue, and love–not of their own accord, but by the grace they have been granted in their relationships with Christ. And it is often the case that particular saints become known for helping us in their particular “areas of expertise,” one could say. So St. Christopher who was a ferryman is the patron saint of travelers, St. Paraskevi who worked a miracle on the eyes of her persecutor is the patron saint of eyes, and St. Arsenios of Cappadocia who helped Christian and Muslim women alike conceive is often asked for help by childless families.
For us, living a life in the Church is like growing up in a family with someone who is a pro on, well, just about everything. In any time of need, we have a spiritual relative–in the saints–to call upon to set an example for us, give us advice, and most of all pray for us to the Christ, the Lover of Mankind.
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to help you to get to know some of the saints who I think may have a soft spot for you and your struggles as college students. Stay tuned for introductions.
St. Justin Martyr–sometimes called “the Philosopher”–lived in the time when Christianity was first making its mark on the world, figuring out how to express the Truth of Jesus Christ in a world that was not only unfamiliar with the salvation history of the Jews and the new revelation brought through the Messiah, but hostile towards anyone who did not accept the established beliefs of the majority. Christians (and Jews) were misunderstood, at best, and persecuted to the point of death, at worst, by the Roman authorities who saw the new religion as a threat to society and interpreted certain aspects of the Christian faith as disgusting and backwards.
Justin was a highly educated philosopher before and after his conversion to Christianity, and as an educated Christian, he felt it his responsibility to understand the views of those around him and help those outside of the Church understand Christianity as a rational faith and ultimately, as the one true Faith. He wrote two apologies or defenses of Christianity to the Roman authorities in which he explained the beliefs of the Christians, asked that they be treated as equal citizens under the law, and dispelled rumors about the actions of his fellow believers.
But here’s the best part: St. Justin didn’t do this by sending a Bible (there wasn’t one yet, anyway) to the emperor and expecting that he would see things from his perspective. Instead, he took what he knew the Romans knew–pagan cult worship, philosophy, and mythology–and demonstrated how these sources revealed shadows of the Truth that Christians had now come to know fully. While he certainly rejected many of the pagan ideas and especially their practices, Justin believed that all of God’s creation was imbued with his reason, his patterns, his Logos. Therefore, he viewed non-Christians–yes, even those who persecuted Christians–as bearers of the “seeds of the word,” as humans in which God had implanted his Truth who simply needed the right kind of cultivation to help those seeds grow.
Are we, like St. Justin, looking for the little bits of truth in the world around us? Do we have the discernment of the Spirit to know what from outside the Church can be praised and lifted up as part of God’s intended pattern and which are the distortions that must be rejected? Do we see in every person, especially those who disagree with our Christian faith, the mark of our Maker, His own handiwork, the seeds of His Word? Are we cultivating those seeds with love and gentleness or do we let them lie dormant in our neighbors or worse, try to throw them out as garbage?
Following the Philosopher, we can take away a few principles:
To engage others, our education should be well-rounded–we have to know what others know and believe to open up a dialogue.
While recognizing the innate goodness of God’s creation, we should pray for the spiritual discernment to recognize distortions of that truth for what they are, not accepting all things wholeheartedly.
Every person has been made in the image and likeness of God, and that includes their reasoning. We have to be respectful of the conclusions others have drawn with that reasoning, even if we think it is incomplete or incorrect.
We should recognize the seeds of the truth in the thoughts of others as a point of reconciliation and agreement and let them be a starting place for dialogue.
And let me add one more, though I’m sure St. Justin would agree…
Love is the water by which the seeds of the Word grow.
Saint Catherine was born in Alexandria, the daughter of Cinstus or Cestus. A virgin with great beauty and wisdom, she was famous for her wealth, noble origin, and education. By her remarkable knowledge, she conquered the passionate and untamed soul of Emperor Maximin. By the strength of her discourses, she reduced to silence rhetors who wished to dispute with her. She obtained the crown of martyrdom about the year 305.1
It is believed that Saint Catherine was martyred in her late teens or early twenties. As a young person, she dedicated her life to learning about Christ and using that knowledge to bring her, and others, closer to Him. How many of us can truly say that we understand our pure Faith, and that, if necessary, we could share the Light of Christ and explain the foundations of our Faith with others? They say knowledge is power—but so often we are swimming against the tide in a time where having faith without knowledge is the norm.Saints of the Church are uniquely special—they were real people, with real struggles and joys, who willingly chose to direct their lives toward Christ. Saint Catherine is no exception. Life circumstances aside, we all have things we can define in our lives as blessings. Saint Catherine was indeed blessed—as the daughter of an Alexandrian governor she was wealthy, beautiful, and highly intelligent. However, as it goes with blessings, when they are given, we are entrusted to not abuse or neglect them. Saint Catherine did neither. With forced exposure to pagan celebrations and many men seeking her hand in marriage, Saint Catherine quickly came to discover that she desired something greater. Her mother, a secret Christian, sent her to her own Spiritual Father for guidance. It was here that Saint Catherine experienced a conversion, was baptized in the Faith, and became a pillar of Christian wisdom. As an educated person to begin with, Catherine’s ability and thirst to articulate the beauty of Orthodoxy was unparalleled. Her love for Christ led to many conversions, including that of fifty of the most learned philosophers and rhetoricians of the Empire, and it also led to her martyrdom.
Let us follow the example of Saint Catherine—study the Faith, love the Church, and become a pillar of Christian wisdom, just as she did at your age. Pair the power of knowledge with your love for Christ and see where it takes you in your journey towards Him.
The marble chest containing the relics of Saint Catherine is located at the south side of the sanctuary in the catholicon of the holy monastery. It is the construction of Procopius the stonecutter, who took nine years to complete the shrine in honor of Saint Catherine. This shrine replaced the earlier marble chest, which is preserved today in the monastery’s treasury. Inside are to be found two precious reliquaries given by the Russian Empire for this purpose, the one enshrining the precious head of the martyr, and the other her left hand. The relics of Saint Catherine are brought out for the veneration of the faithful on special occasions, at which time each pilgrim is given a silver ring bearing the monogram of the saint, in honor of the ring that Saint Catherine received from Christ. These are preserved by pilgrims as a blessing from the saint.2
Apolytikion in the Plagal of the First Tone:
Let us praise the most auspicious bride of Christ, the divine Katherine, protectress of Sinai, our aid and our help. For, she brilliantly silenced the eloquence of the impious by the sword of the spirit, and now, crowned as a martyr, she asks great mercy for all.
If you wish to learn more about the life of Saint Catherine the Great, visit oca.org.
1. Orthodox Eastern Church., Hieromonk, M. S. P., Hookway, C., Rule, M., Burton, J., & Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady. (1998). The Synaxarion: The lives of the saints of the Orthodox Church. Ormylia, Chalkidike, Greece: Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady.↩ 2. Found at The Holy Monastery of Mount Sinai.↩