Martyrs For Christ

Martyrs For Christ June 28, 2020

boshakti: Status of Jesus Praying / Pixabay

Jesus, before the crucifixion, prayed for the church:

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him. And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do; and now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made. I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world; thine they were, and thou gavest them to me, and they have kept thy word. Now they know that everything that thou hast given me is from thee; for I have given them the words which thou gavest me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from thee; and they have believed that thou didst send me. I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine;  all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them.  And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in thy name, which thou hast given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled” (Jn. 17:1-12 RSV).

From eternity, before the world was made, Jesus, possessed glory in his divine nature. It was something which he did not hold onto, but rather, through his love for humanity, he became man and assumed human nature, so that he could present that glory to the world. He emptied himself of his glory out of love so that he could and would share it with us. It is love which is the bridge. It is love which connects us to him. It is love which lets us not only to experience the divine glory, but to share it with others. Indeed, it is love which makes us want to share it with others. When we embrace that love, we find ourselves united with Christ, and in that unity, we then continue his work in history. We are meant to follow his example, to glorify the Father in the world by doing what he did. We are to empty ourselves of all attachments which cut us off from God, including, and especially, our attachment to our self. If we do, we will, like him, share in the glory which God rendered unto him.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7 RSV). Those who came before us, those who followed Christ, and continued his work in history, truly are the leaders who we must remember and follow if we want to learn how to be Christians and receive the glory which Christ promises to us.

Among those leaders, among those who best represent Christ, are the holy martyrs of the faith, and preeminent among them are those who served as martyrs at the earliest era of Christianity, for they helped set up and hold together the Christian faith when it was just beginning. For it is through them and their valiant work that the faith was passed down so that it could be received by us. This is not to say they were perfect. They were not. But they showed us how to overcome such imperfections. They let their love for Christ overcome their worst inclinations and impulses, so that when the time came, that love helped them prevail against temptation, including and especially, the temptation to lapse from the faith to save their temporal life.

Origen recognized the glory of the martyrs, and spoke highly of their accomplishments, exhorting those who faced martyrdom not to give into temptation, but to prove themselves to themselves by standing firm in the faith. He pointed out, however, that martyrdom lay not only in externals, but with what happens within one’s own psyche:

Let us enter the contest to sin perfectly not only outward martyrdom, but also the martyrdom that is in secret, so that we too may utter the apostolic cry: “For this is our boast, the martyrdom of our conscience that we have believed in the world … with holiness and godly sincerity” (2Cor. 1:12). And let us just to the apostolic cry the prophetic one, “He who knows the secrets of our hearts,” especially if we are led away to death. Then we shall say to God what can be said only by martyrs, “For your sake we are slain all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (Ps. 44:21-22).[1]

Thus, even if not we do not risk a martyr’s death, we can imitate and follow after them by casting aside all that would keep us away from the love of God. We might not be tempted by gold or silver or the promises of earthly tyrants, but we can be tempted by various passions and inclinations which encourage us to act contrary to the dictates of love. We must die to the self, rejecting those inclinations and desires of the self which lead us away from such love. If we do so, we imitate the martyrs and find ourselves not only sharing in the divine glory, but sharing it with others, for we will become vessels of God’s love in the world, no longer tempted to hold it in to ourselves as some exclusive glory but recognizing it as something which is to be shared and used to make everyone better.

Of course, Origen recognized the importance of those who literally died for the faith. Through their words and deeds, they professed the truth of Christ to the world, and through that confession, many came to know and love Christ themselves:

Furthermore, we must recognize that the person who confesses the Son before men commends, as far as it is his to do so, Christianity and the Father of Christianity to those before whom he confesses. But the one who is confessed by the First Born of all creation and by the Son of Man is commended through the confession of the Son of God and the Son of Man to the Father in heaven and to the angels of God. And if it is not the one whom commends himself that is tried and true, but the one whom the Lord commends (2 Cor. 10:18), must we not suppose that the one tried and true is the one judged worthy of commendation to the Father in heaven and to the angels of God? [2]

Origen himself desired to be a martyr, but it was not meant to be. He understood that true martyrdom could not be forced, that is, someone could not cause trouble, get arrested and executed, and consider themselves a martyr. But he could, and did, stand with many martyrs, including many of his own students, many of which he converted to the faith:

But while he was lecturing in the school, as he tells us himself, and there was no one at Alexandria to give instruction in the faith, as all were driven away by the threat of persecution, some of the heathen came to him to hear the word of God.

The first of them, he says, was Plutarch, who after living well, was honored with divine martyrdom. The second was Heraclas, a brother of Plutarch; who after he too had given with him abundant evidence of a philosophic and ascetic life, was esteemed worthy to succeed Demetrius in the bishopric of Alexandria.[3]

Origen not only taught Plutarch and his brother, but he visited him and his companions while they were in prison, so that Origen himself almost got his wish and executed alongside them:

The first of these was Plutarch, who was mentioned just above. As he was led to death, the man of whom we are speaking being with him at the end of his life, came near being slain by his fellow citizens, as if he were the cause of his death. But the providence of God preserved him at this time also.

After Plutarch, the second martyr among the pupils of Origen was Serenus, who gave through fire a proof of the faith which he had received.

The third martyr from the same school was Heraclides, and after him the fourth was Hero. The former of these was as yet a catechumen, and the latter had but recently been baptized. Both of them were beheaded. After them, the fifth from the same school proclaimed as an athlete of piety was another Serenus, who, it is reported, was beheaded, after a long endurance of tortures. And of women, Herais died while yet a catechumen, receiving baptism by fire, as Origen himself somewhere says. [4]

It is, of course, important to note that Origen’s father, St. Leonides of Alexandria, was also a martyr, and so, all around Origen, there were many holy martyr saints, some who trained him, some whom he trained. In and through all of them, he learned how to live his life as a witness to Christ. He knew that whether or not he was actually executed for the faith, he could follow the path of martyrdom within. This is why he wrote to tell us that we, too, can follow the example of the martyrs even if we do not suffer the threat of any external persecution. If, however, we have properly turned ourselves over to Christ, dying to the self within, the challenge represented by martyrdom will be nothing, because we have already put to death those passions and desires which would have us give in to temptation and deny Christ. If, on the other hand, we do not do so, if we glorify ourselves and reify our worst instincts, we find ourselves already sacrificing to foreign gods, cutting ourselves off from the body of Christ. We do not need any external tyrant to threaten us to have us give in and renounce Christ by the way we live and act. The martyrs were victorious because they already suffered martyrdom within. Let us hope we can learn from them and follow their example, so that, whether or not our temporal lives are threatened, we do not lose eternal life with God.

[1] Origen, “Exhortation to Martyrdom” in Origen: Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer and Selected Works. Trans. Rowan A. Greer (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 55.

[2] Origen, “Exhortation to Martyrdom,” 67.

[3] Eusebius, Church History in NPNF2(1):251.

[4] Eusebius, Church History, 252.


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