Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.
Hebrews 12, 1
In Greek the word ‘martyr’ means ‘witness’ and our new saints, the new martyrs, are witnesses. They are witnesses to the fact that the spirit is stronger than the flesh and corruption, that the soul is mightier than the body and the world and that the Word of God is stronger than every earthly tyranny and death itself. ‘O death, where is thy sting’? they cried, knowing that Christ has triumphed over death through His Glorious Resurrection.
Despite all the predictions and plans of the atheists, thanks to the new martyrs the Romanian Church not only survived the twentieth-century persecutions against Her, but also grew. From this we understand that although ancient churches can be demolished, believers can be tortured and put to death, our Faith can be denied by those who have lost it, holiness cannot be destroyed. And holiness is the ultimate fruit of obedience to the commandments of God.
For the martyrs, the commandments of God are not abstract truths, not mere ideas, but living realities, the daily bread of their struggle, a way of life. Disobedience to the commandments and the moral virtues would have made their lives empty and vain, for the accomplishment of God’s will was written in their hearts. Therefore, together with the holy Prophet-King David, those who were faithful to Christ even unto death cried and cry: The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? (Psalm 26, 1).
How was all this possible? Firstly, the new martyrs understood that without faith, we do not pray to God, Who is Love. Secondly, they understood that without prayer we cannot obtain the grace of God, the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, they understood that without the Holy Spirit, the source of Love, we do not possess the strength to live a moral and virtuous life, obeying God’s commandments, which are the laws of Love. And finally, they understood that if we do not live according to these commandments of Love, then we shall be too weak to stand up to the enemies of Christ and so unable to inherit the eternal life of the Resurrection.
Where can we acquire this grace of the Holy Spirit? It is in prayer and repentance, confession and communion, the sacraments of the Holy Orthodox Church. And how do we keep this grace? It is in constant self-renewal through obeying the commandments, in frequenting the Church and holy people, in reading the Gospels and the lives of the saints, renewing ourselves through the sacraments.
The new martyrs understood that without faith in God, our life becomes a mass of disordered passions and hatreds. What the world calls ‘love’ is in fact not selfless love at all, but self-interest, lust, prostitution and exploitation. If we do not follow God’s commandments, preferring our human ‘logic’, then we descend into a complex web of deceit, deceiving ourselves first of all. Only God, Who is our Creator, sees all and sees what is best for us. This is why in the Gospels He gives us His simple commandments to live by. ‘Love God and love your neighbour as yourself’.
The rational Faith in God of the new martyrs in these laws of love could not be conquered, but the irrational faith in inhuman ideologies was conquered. Together with the holy apostle Paul, the martyrs proclaim: Who shall separate us from the love of God Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy names’ sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us (Romans 8, 35-37). Their lives are an all-persuasive affirmation of the truth of Christ’s Word to us and of our faith and hope in Him. As the Church writer Tertullian and the Church Father St Cyprian of Carthage proclaimed in the third century: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’.
Christ our Saviour brought into the world the new life of victory over death and so lit the fire of faith, hope and love in human souls. It is this threefold fire that enabled and enables the martyrs to sacrifice themselves, and also the confessors and ascetics, the bloodless martyrs, to continue their struggle against all the powers of this world. To this day the Romanian people has never ceased from witnessing to this Faith, the Faith in the Victory of Christ over death, the Faith in Eternal Love. And though the world with all its ‘isms’, fashions and temptations continues in our own times to seduce and trap the weak and unwary, Christ’s Victory is eternal, as the recent martyrs of Orthodox Romania remind us.
Long ago, in the fourth century, the dying words of the defeated Emperor and persecutor of Orthodoxy, Julian the Apostate, were: ‘Thou hast conquered, O Galilean’. And it is with these words of victory that the new martyrs of the Romanian lands tell us that Christ is alive amongst us and that His Body, the Romanian Orthodox Church, is also alive amongst us, calling us all to repentance and holiness. For just as in the beginning there was already Christ the Word (Jn 1, 1), so at the end of human history the last words are also those of Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God.
Holy New Martyrs, pray to God for us!
Archpriest Andrew Phillips
19 February 2010