The Church of the Martyrs
It is now the year 1726 according to the Coptic Calendar, which counts from the end of the period of persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. The Coptic Synaxarium is filled with the accounts of the martyrdoms of those who resisted to the very end, sustained by God. Yet we should not think that the martyrs are only found in the pages of Church History. Even if that were so they would still be an inspiration to us, who generally live in much more comfortable circumstances.
H.V. Morton, the well known British travel writer of the 1930’s, visited Egypt and seems to have had an instinctive appreciation of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He writes:
“Copts were tortured and persecuted in every possible way. With extraordinary resilience they would recover during a lull in the storm, only to be flattened out by the next gale…we should remember that they can boast as many martyrs as any community of their size in history.”
Of course the age of martyrs has not ended. Indeed I wonder if there has ever been a year when Christians were not called upon to maintain their faith to the very end. After Diocletian there were still many periods during which the Christians of Egypt suffered for the name of Christ. Even the Christian authorities of the Empire martyred tens of thousands of ordinary people, as well as priests and bishops.
If we widen our focus and turn to the materials published today by Christian organisations such as the Voice of Martyrs, we find that even in the last days and weeks, Christians have been targeted because of their faith in India, and many have died. In the face of martyrdom many of the divisions between Christians recede into the background, and we are left with a true fellowship in suffering for the name of Christ.
What of the majority of us in the West, unlikely in the present time to be called upon to witness to our faith to the point of death? Are we absolved from entering into the spirit of martyrdom, which our Church reminds us of every time the Synaxarium is read? The early Church in the British Isles faced a similar challenge. How should we live when the prospect of violent martyrdom at the hands of the enemies of the Church had receded? The early Church here in the British Isles is interesting, not least because there were definite links with the Church in the East, and especially the Church in Egypt. They had imbibed the monastic spirit of the Desert, and promoted an asceticism which was unmatched in the West.
These Christians considered that there was a variety of forms of martyrdom, and in widening the scope of the term they were encouraged to a spiritual courage and heroism in their own lives. They described three types of martyrdom. They considered that there was a ‘Red Martyrdom’ which was the sacrifice of life itself rather than repudiating their faith in Christ. They considered a ‘White Martyrdom’ which was the abandonment of situation and social position to become an exile for Christ, either as a life-long pilgrim or as a missionary. And finally they described a ‘Green Martyrdom’ which was the struggle against self for the sake of Christ, a committed taking up of the cross in the exercise of the Christian faith.
It would not be surprising to find that this extension to the idea of martyrdom had its root in the Orthodoxy of the Egyptian Deserts. This desire for a heroic Christian life, when the prospect of a true martyrdom had receded and the relationship between the Empire and the Church had improved, was one of the main incentives for the great exodus of men and women into the Desert in the 4th century.
But what of ourselves as we begin a new year in the cycle of the Years of the Martyrs? Perhaps few of us will be called to the ‘Red Martyrdom’, though our Western societies are never as stable as we might like to think. Just a few decades ago the Soviet Gulags were filled with faithful Christians, and within the memory of our fathers and grandfathers the Nazi regime eliminated any Christians who opposed it. Only God knows what situations we may be called to face in the years ahead.
More of us are called to sacrifice social position and ease to serve our Lord as He wills and where He wills. There is that lovely verse which says:
Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. Is. 6:8
This is the authentic voice of the martyrs, the witnesses to the life of the Holy Spirit. How many priests and their families have obediently responded to the word of God and have left their own land to minister to Coptic Orthodox Christians around the world? How many monks have served with great effort a scattered community here, and then packed up and travelled as they were directed to serve another community, and then another?
We should not do less. It is not only to the priests and monks that the word of the Lord comes, ‘Whom shall I send?’ Nor is it for us to know all the will of God when He asks that question of us. There are many places where even an ordinary Orthodox Christian can serve in a White Martyrdom. What about spending six months or a year serving with the mission in Africa? Or time working with the poor, the needy, the marginalised in countless places around the world? I know of one Coptic sister who has worked with the Sisters of Mother Teresa in Calcutta, other young Copts have spent time serving in Mexico and in New York. There is need all around us, and opportunity for sacrificial witness.
And the rest of us? What are we to do? The Green Martyrdom is no less challenging. It requires a constant sacrifice of self in the more comfortable circumstances of our every day life. In the midst of plenty we are called to fast more strictly. In a time of ease we are called to enter into vigil and to celebrate the hours of prayer. In all that we do, in every moment, we are called to live and to love in the presence of God. It is not an easy option. The Virgin Mary herself is our model when in our name, as the first of all the faithful she replies to the Archangel Gabriel with the words:
Behold the handmaid of the Lord! Be it unto me according to thy word. Lk. 1:38
If we are thoughtful we may pause and consider ourselves before some hostile tribunal, and the demons assault us each day. We find ourselves facing that same daunting choice. Will we abandon our faith for the fleeting pleasures of the world, or will we take up our cross and follow Christ? Those who witness in the Red Martyrdom, and those who leave all in the White Martyrdom, are a practical and visible example of that sacrifice which we are all called to make in an internal and spiritual manner.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is still the Church of the Martyrs. There are those few who are called even now to give their lives for the sake of Christ. A greater number who leave home and family to serve their Lord. But all of us may share in this life of witness and martyrdom if we daily and intentionally take up our cross and follow Him.