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.