4 April 2010
Today we rejoice as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ, Who by His death trampled down death, and bestowed eternal life upon those in the tomb.
At the beginning of this year, the Church offered a group of righteous martyrs in Nag Hammadi. We pray that God may repose their pure souls in the Paradise of Joy. We also pray for their families that God may grant them the joy of the Resurrection and the heavenly consolation. We also pray for their murderers so that God may open their eyes and lead them to the way of truth. Today, as we remember the victims of Nag Hammadi, it is not to mourn the viciousness of the crime and the injustice that is falling on our brothers and sisters the Christians there, but rather to see our martyrs through the light of the power of the resurrection of our Living Christ
The resurrection of Christ is a great power. It is one that changes sadness to joy. A power that changes suffering for the sake of Christ to joy in the fellowship of His suffering. It is a power that changes the blood of the martyrs to become the seeds for the growth of the Church. St Paul the Apostle, who was martyred for the name of Christ, experienced the power of the resurrection in his life and said, “that I may know Him and power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” (Phil 3: 10) St Paul called all those, who struggle or are persecuted for the sake of Christ, to look upwards to Christ, “..let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12: 1-2)
The Power of Christ’s Resurrection Changed Martyrdom in Christianity to Joy and Evangelism
The martyrs rejoiced in martyrdom, because through Christ’s death and resurrection, He defeated death. St Athanasius said, “Before the divine sojourn of the Saviour, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Saviour has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection.”
St Stephen the Protomartyr received his persecutors with an angelic face. Rather than look at their faces full of evil, instead “he being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7: 55) Because his heart was full of joy and peace, he did not curse those who stoned him, but asked for their forgiveness. With the martyrdom of St Stephen, a great persecution fell on the Church in Jerusalem and many were scattered in Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Did the Church weaken? Did evangelism stop? Actually, what happened was the opposite, “those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4)
St Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in 108AD when Emperor Trajan ordered that he be presented to the fierce animals in Rome, was joyful. And when the soldiers came to bind him, he kneeled down and cried with a joyful voice, “I thank you, O Master Lord, for You granted me the honour of loving You fully and permitted me to be bound in iron chains like Your apostle Paul.” On the way to Rome, he wrote a letter to the Christians in Rome expressing his joy and desire to present himself as a sacrifice to God on the altar of divine love, and he begged them not to interfere, because of their love for him, and stop the imperial decision to throw him to the wild beasts. Here are a few words of what St Ignatius said, “The truth is, I am afraid it is your love that will do me wrong. For you, of course, it is easy to achieve your object; but for me it is difficult to win my way to God, should you prevent my martyrdom …Grant me no more than that you let my blood be spilled in sacrifice to God, while yet there is an altar ready…How glorious it is to leave this world so I may rise again in His presence!” When St Ignatius reached Rome, he kneeled down and asked Christ to lift the persecution from the churches. Then they released two lions, which devoured him immediately.
St Justin Martyr witnessed that martyrdom is evangelism and said, “You can clearly see that when we are beheaded, crucified, thrown to the wild beasts, bound in chains, thrown in fire, or any other means of torture, we don’t relent in our faith. The more we face these sufferings, the more people become Christians and join our faith in the name of Jesus Christ” The martyrs saw that this was a fulfilment of our Lord Jesus Christ’s saying, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24) St Augustine reflected on our Lord Jesus Christ’s saying to His disciples, “Behold, I send you as lambs among wolves.” (Luke 10:3) and said, “There was a flock of wolves and a few lambs. When the many wolves preyed upon the few lambs, the wolves changed to lambs.”
My Beloved Brothers and Sisters,
Let us rejoice today in the power of the resurrection of our Good Saviour and Living Christ
Let us rejoice with the joyful martyrs as they meet the Resurrected Christ
Let us pray that God may grant to enlighten us with His resurrection so we may be ready to carry the cross and may have a fellowship in His suffering.
Let us pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters that God may strengthen their faith and sustain them in their struggle.
Let us pray for the peace of the One, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Let us pray for our beloved father and vigilant shepherd, H.H. Pope Shenouda III that God may keep him for many years and give him health and strength.
His Grace Bishop Serapion is Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles (www.lacopts.org)