|40 Martyrs of Sebaste. Russian icon. Novgorod. 15 c.
The oft quoted words, '... the blood
of the martyrs is the seed of the Church', quickly proved themselves to be true in the earliest centuries of Christianity.
The truth of the Saviour's teachings in the parables of the kingdom was proved in a very short time. The handful of the apostles,
like the seed in the sowers hand quickly yielded a great harvest. Like the mustard seed, the Church grew to great proportions
in a short time. With the onset of the Roman persecutions, the Church, confirmed with the annointing of the Holy Spirit on
the day of Pentecost grew in strength. The persecution of the Christians by both the Jews and the Romans were like the winnowing
of the grain, or the sorting of the sheep from the goats. Each and every Christian had to be ready to die at any moment, and
when those Christians received the crown of martyrdom, they became shining examples to their fellow believers. For every Stephen
who was stoned, there wer others who could be called upon by the Church, to step forward to labour in the Name of the Lord,
and if necessary, receive a crown of martyrdom in the same Name. No form of savager torture and martyrdom invented by the
Romans could tear the Church away from her Lord and Master.
Even allowing for the exulted language
of hagiography, the martyrs met the ends of their earthly lives with great courage and firm faith in the Lord. If we remember
the wonderful story of Androcles and the lion, we will recall that the Christians, so close to their violent and bloody fate
are able to save themselves by simply casting a few grains of incense before a stautue of the emperor. By this time the living
emperors had been declared gods. How easy it would have been - a few grains of incense and freedom. Some must have fallen,
but those whom we celebrate as martyrs remembered the Lord's words, 'Whoever loses his life for my sake shall gain it.' By
the time the book of the Apocalypse was written the persecutions had started and the first martyrs had received their crowns,
taking their places around the altar of the Lamb, seen in the vision of the Blessed Apostle, St John the Theologian. The worst
of the persecutions were yet to come, and when they did come, their ferocity and the number of martyrs were reflected in the
growth of the Church. The Church thrived through suffering. Christianity was lived with urgency and commitment to the teachings
of the Gospels. One of the most popular martyrs is saints George, a representative of the many Roman citizens who embraced
Christ and payed with their lives.
The martyrs, their lives and witness
form a great foundation of our Orthodox Christian faith and the Holy Church. We literally place their relics in the cornerstones
of our temples to stress their importance as pillars of faith. We place their relics inside the Holy Table or the antimins
- the altar cloth - recalling the liturgy of the catacomb Christians, celebrated on the tombs of the martyrs. We recall
their victory of the devil and his servants when we enter the narthex of a Byzantine monastery. Their great sufferings, quite
beyond our understanding are portrayed in gory detail, yet these are scenes of victory, testimony to the Risen saviour who
conquered death by death and to His teaching that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church.
The holy martyrs dominate
the calendar of the Church and are a constant cause and source of celebration - Saints George, Demetrios, Panteleimon, Barbara,
Catherine, Paraskeva, Triphon, the martyred apostles, the martyrs of the Arab and Turkish persecutions, the Old Believers
martyred for their steadfast defence of Old Russian Orthodoxy and the new maartyrs of the Communist yolk. Their names, lives
and sufferings remind us that the spectre of persecution has returned to the life of the Church again and again, and each
time the spiritual life of the people of God has been renewed, vivified, invigorated and intensified. Complacent Christians
have been forced to examine their faith. The old wood has been pruned away and those willing to bear the cross of persecution
and suffering have stood firm in faith. They have endured the pain, the sufferings and sorrows of Golgotha, but in the realisation
that they will also share in the fruits of this suffering in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Following the 1666 council
that finally rejected the ancient Russian Orthodox piety and Tradition, a new age of persecution and martyrdom started for
those Russian Christians who clung their ways of faith.
The Holy Fathers of the
Solovetsk monastery on the White Sea were steadfast in their faith, rejecting Nikon and his rejection of Russian piety. They
heroically withstood the attack of the Tsarist army between 1668 and 1676, when they were betrayed by one of their own number.
Hundreds of monks were butchered by the impious servants of the impious Tsar. Some were hanged by the neck, some suspended
by their flesh on metal hooks, some drowned in ice holes and some frozen to death. They received their deaths as a gift of
martyrdom from God, as a witness for their Lord who was broken, but rose again and was glorified.
The Archpriest Avaakum,
the Priest Lazar, the Deacon Fedor and the Monk Epifanii were banished to the far north and cast into an earthen prison in
Pustozersk. Apart from our Holy Father Avvakum, their tongues were ripped out and their right hands mutilated so that they
could neither write, not cross themselves. They suffered patiently for fourteen years holding fast to their faith. The Holy
Father of Pustozersk were martyred by being burned alive on April 14th 1682.
Over the following centuries, faithful Old Orthodox believers suffered
for their faith in Christ, clinging to the Faith of the fathers and enduring all for the sake of Truth.
Our own century brought the horrors of the Russian revolution and the ensuing
persecution of religion. Old Rite Orthodoxy has given us such martyrs as the Holy Hieromartyr, Bishop Raphael of Odessa who
was arrested by the Soviets on charges of counter-revolutionary activity and executed on October 14th 1937.
In all of the Holy Martyrs we have friends and intercessors before the
Lord. Their lives should give us strength in our weakness and their spiritual deeds should encourage us to struggle in the
As the world falls into greater apostasy and those calling themselves 'Orthodoxy'
stray further and further from the Truth, who knows what persecutions may arise. Maybe we shall be called upon to confess
the Lord, suffer for His name and perhaps, we will be called upon to pay the ultimate price and receive the crown of martyrdom.
Holy Martyrs, pray to God for us.
The Life of the Holy Martyr and Confessor Avvakum of Pustozersk