Only a little tiny “boo…“? from something that looks as scary that? Really?
Well, that’s what the Orthodox Troparion/Apolytikion for martyrs tells us. Please take note of the portions in italics.
From the Greek Archdiocese: “For since they possessed Thy strength, they cast down the tyrants and wholly destroyed the demons’ strengthless presumption.“
From the Orthodox Church in America: “For having Your strength, they laid low their adversaries, and shattered the powerless boldness of demons.”
From the Antiochian Archdiocese: “For since they possessed Thy strength, they cast down the tyrants and wholly destroyed the demons’ strengthless presumption.”
Powerless? strengthless? As the sarcastic saying goes, “Now tell me another one…”
Because anybody who looks at the world right now and doubts that the devil and his demons are creating havoc obviously isn’t paying attention.
Hamas’ horrendous, barbaric massacre and abduction of hundreds of innocent Israeli people, men women and children – where does this evil come from? What inspires human beings to act like that? And the resulting reaction: missiles from Israel destroying neighborhoods in Gaza, killing far more innocent Palestinian people. They list at least 7000 now by name – men, women and children dead. Where does this evil come from? If we talked to individual Jews and Palestinians in person, I’m sure we would most aren’t like this. They are with rare exception decent, rational, likable people. Something wicked is behind it all, pushing, prodding…
Let’s take three more depressing examples.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine: Their missiles have hit over 500 churches and religious sites, shopping centers, hospitals, neighborhoods and have killed many tens of thousands of innocent people, while the deaths of Ukrainian troops are apparently well over 40,000. Why in the world has Russia created this havoc? even on their own troops, where the losses seem to have been even higher? The Russians, even Vladimir Putin, are Orthodox people. All this horror coming out of a people who are Orthodox and who celebrate Ss. Boris and Gleb who accepted martyrdom rather than fight their brother. What causes an Orthodox nation to go so wrong? Behind it all, something is pushing, prodding…
Or take United States politics. Here we are: 30% of Americans follow their leaders and believe something which is absolutely false, for which there is no evidence whatsoever, and which threatens to subvert our American form of government. But you know that with rare exception American people in person are decent, honest folks. Something must be behind all this, pushing, prodding…
We could go through world history and see this pattern again and again: Ba’al worshipers sacrificing their children; educated, normally kindly German people crying “Heil” and killing Jews, slavery, the Gulag … … Enough; you get the picture.
The best example is you and me. I would bet the farm that you are a decent, honest, well-intentioned person, a genuine follower of our Lord Jesus Christ. So where do all those bad thoughts within you come from? pride, anger, the spirit of judgment, lust – which sometimes result in your doing things you really do not want to do, and afterwards you feel guilty about it. Does it not feel as if something (someone?) has been pushing, prodding… Saint Paul described it: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Romans 7:15
As to why this evil should exist in a world God created to be good – this “problem of evil”, as it’s called – that is an interesting topic for another time. All I’m arguing here is that the evil that exists in this world is clearly more than the sum of its parts. Something must be behind it which is far more evil than we are.
Now, we’re not talking here about little red devils with horns and tails and pitchforks or even of things as scary as the image at the top of this Post We’re speaking of something far worse, far scarier.
Saint Paul also described it: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12
And Saint Peter: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith…” 1 Peter 5:8-9
Listen to our Lord’s warning to His disciples: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear him * who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28
- In some translations “Him” is capitalized, as if God destroys people in hell. No! God gives life. He means the devil. Satan is the Destroyer. (See John 10:10.)
It certainly sounds as if the powers of evil are strong, mighty, powerful.
So how are the powers of evil powerless?
This is true only for those who conquer them.
Keep in mind that these words are sung for the feasts of the Martyrs – those who have encountered the ultimate power of darkness: death, the worst the devil can do to us. They have seemingly lost their lives to it. This makes the words of the Troparion seem almost absurd. But, no. The martyrs have not lost their lives to death; they have given their lives to it. They were in control, not the devil. And, so almost paradoxically, it is by dying that they have conquered Satan and his evil spirits and have shown them to have no power over them.
1 At the most basic human level, the Christian martyrs (and indeed any who are true martyrs) triumph by following their conscience, their God-given sense of right and wrong, to the end. Thereby they preserve something far more important than life: that is, their integrity. That is the one thing the devil most wants us to abandon. If we lose that, he’s got us. But to keep our integrity is to show that Satan has no power over us.
2 Christian martyrs, by dying for Christ, follow this Man Who died to preserve His own integrity. Our Lord Jesus Christ was not only divine; He was human, like us. He sweat blood in Gethsemane, but He resisted the temptation. At the very End (Have you ever looked at Jesus this way? I hope I’m not wrong for speculating like this.) even He couldn’t prove He was doing the right thing, that He had been correct in what He had believed about Himself and about God. He couldn’t be sure He would rise again – not till it happened. Listen to His cry from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” I wonder if for a moment He wondered: “Have I been wrong all this time? Should I now come down from this Cross and save my life and be with my Mother and my dear friends again, and live and die an old man in my bed?” I think that was His “last temptation”. The moment passed. He would not yield to it, No matter the outcome, He would die for what He had believed. Christian martyrs and all Christian disciples follow this Man who preserved His integrity and thus “saved His soul”. He showed Satan powerless against Him. Surely you’ve noticed that on our Orthodox crucifixes Christ is not shown in agony; He hangs there in a position of strength, of power. He has been faithful to the End, no matter the cost. He has challenged the devil, and He has won.
3 Christian martyrs triumph over Satan by their witness to Jesus Christ. “The early Church grew by the blood of the martyrs.” Living as they did in a world where there were no absolutes, where almost everything was permissible and almost nothing was worth dying for, these brave Christians shocked people by dying for something that was more important to them than life itself. That caused people to question, to think, to inquire, and so step by step, person by person they cam to believe in Christ and the Church grew. That was another way of standing up to the devil.
4 Finally, Christian martyrs, by their deaths for Jesus Christ, attain eternal life for themselves, hidden away in the bosom of Abraham, in the arms of Jesus, forever safe from the power of Satan.
Christian martyrs who do not shed their blood.
Do you know that the Greek word martyr / αρτύριον actually means simply “witness”. In early Church times, so many died witnessing for Christ that the word slowly took on the narrower meaning: those who gave their physical lives for the Lord.
In later times some have spoken of three kinds of martyrdom, of “witness”, all of which demonstrate the Christian’s triumph over Satan.
1 Red martyrdom: witnessing to Christ by the literal shedding of one’s blood for Him.
2 White martyrdom: witnessing to Christ by standing faithful while being persecuted for Him, without shedding blood.
3 Green martyrdom: witnessing to Christ by abandoning the pleasures of this world and living in great simplicity, like some monastics.
However, even those last two kinds of martyrdom haven’t much to do with most of us. Are there any other kinds of martyrdom/faithful witnessing to Christ? I think so.
4 Father John Behr suggested marriage as another kind of martyrdom, of witness to Christ. After all, one of the hymns sung at the Marriage Service, as the newly married couple walk around the table, taking their first steps together is ““O holy Martyrs, who have fought the good fight and have been crowned, intercede with the Lord, that mercy be granted to our souls.”
Father John wrote: “In marriage, I must die. Or rather, ego must die. As a husband, I must love my wife. Love her the way Christ loves the church. Jesus abandoned everything for His bride. He who knew no sin became sin for His bride. He who had the form of God took on the form of a slave for His bride. He who was immortal died for His bride. He who made flesh took on flesh for His bride.” (“The Martyrdom of Marriage”, in The Wheel, July 11, 2018)
5 Not to demean the popular understanding of the word “martyr”… but I think there is yet another way to witness for Christ, and that is by being a faithful, loving Christian, whether clergy or lay, whether married or single, in whatever situation is our lot in life. Our Bishop Anthony witnesses to Christ by driving far distances all over our far-flung diocese, by working long hours, by loving his people, always faithful, God bless him. People in our Saint Nicholas Church who assist at services, or serve on Parish Council or in a multitude of other ways, those who pray much, and every person who gives up Sunday mornings in bed or going out to brunch, and instead comes to church for a couple of hours. People who follow the Christian way faithfully in their work or in their family or friendships. Parents who faithfully raise their children with the great sacrifice that entails. All these people witness to Jesus Christ. And if they continue serving the Lord however they can, faithfully all their lives, always repenting when they fail, never giving up unto death, never giving in to the “voices” that whisper “Give it up; you’ve done your share now” . All these people are martyrs in the original sense of the word, true “witnesses” to Jesus Christ.
And at the end they will be able to look at this in the face…
… and say “You look tough, but you have no power over me!” – and their reward will be great in Heaven.
Next Week: Israel and Gaza
Week after next: Patriarch John the Merciful