Sunday, June 28, 2015

On New Martyrdom

From the beginning, our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to a radical way of life – to a life rooted in the Gospel and striking – as with an axe – at the roots of evil in our hearts. Not always to ease and to comfort – but first to the cross. Our resurrection to eternal life where there is no pain, sorrow, nor mourning is attained only through suffering, and death, and the cross. “Take up your cross and follow me” Jesus teaches. And for most of us this possible only as a metaphor. But for many of those to whom he first spoke these words they were terribly, literally true. Andrew was crucified, and Peter, and Philip. They were literally crucified – bound or nailed to crosses and left to die in agony and ignominy.

Amazingly, this did not end at the close of the apostolic age. It is a kind of martyrdom suffered even in recent times. Tomorrow we commemorate the apostle Peter, who died this way, and the day after that we commemorate Fr. Zenon Kovalyk who, in 1941, was tortured and murdered in a mock crucifixion against a wall in a prison in Lviv. Fr. Zenon preached according to his conscience. Even when he had been warned that his sermons were likely to provoke the Bolsheviks, he preached on. And for that they arrested him and locked him in a prison that, poignantly, had formerly been a monastery. And not long after, they crucified him. So, the events of the apostolic age are not so remote from our age as we might imagine. Fr. Zenon of the twentieth century, like Peter of the first, knows fully what Jesus means when he says to take up the cross.

For centuries the early Church endured terrible, periodic persecutions. For their faith, the martyrs suffered unspeakable tortures and deaths. And their blood was the wellspring of the Church. From their blood sprouted new life all the time – conversions to Christ left and right. Those who witnessed the martyrs’ courage – how easily, how blithely, they gave up this passing life in exchange for the life that lasts in Christ Jesus – how – almost nonchalantly – they turned themselves over to wild beasts, to the torturers, to fire, to freezing, to drowning, to crucifixion in order to gain the one thing that matters then as now – union with God in Christ Jesus – even in his death. Those who witnessed this were so moved that in more than one instance, they too gave themselves over to Christ and joined the martyrs in death. That is a great purpose of martyrdom – to give witness. The word “martyr” means “witness.” There is no greater evangelism – no better way to testify the good news that Christ is risen and by death has trampled death  than the small account the martyrs give death. For what is it to suffer death if there is in Christ a resurrection to eternal life? The martyrs are like the merchant who sells all he has in order to go and buy the pearl of great price. They know that he who does not take up his cross and follow Christ is not worthy of Christ (Matt 10:38).

Eventually, through the witness of the early martyrs, so many came into the Church that the persecutions became less frequent and Christianity became the religion of the empire. And so it was no longer quite so courageous to claim faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, in many cases, it became socially or politically advantageous to profess Christianity, and there were many insincere conversions. The toleration of Christianity came as a mixed blessing, therefore. And still, Christ was calling his people to a radical way of life – to a renunciation of the things of this world – but this could no longer be commonly expressed by the red martyrdom of blood.

And so there was the rise of monasticism. Beginning, in many ways, with St. Anthony the Great, men and women in significant numbers began to go to the desert and to live ascetical lives devoted to the Lord. Though yet alive on earth, they lived as though they had already died. And so there is a connection between martyrdom and monasticism. Both are radical, both a kind of death, both are eschatological – they give witness to the life of the coming kingdom of God.  

The Church was so long allied with state power that many, at least in the West, which was somewhat more insulated from Islamic persecutions, must have thought that the age of Christian martyrs was gone. But in the twentieth century, the enemies of Christ would spill more Christian blood than had been spilled in all the centuries before. And just as martyrdom had centuries before led to monasticism, so would monasticism for many now lead to martyrdom.

A case in point is to be found in the Byantine Catholic Church. Today we commemorate two holy and venerable new martyrs, Fr Severian Baranyk and Fr Yakym Senkivskyi. These holy men both embraced a monastic life in the Basilian monastery in Drohobych. And for both, their monasticism would lead to their martyrdom in 1941.

For a long time before this, the Church was relatively comfortable and free from persecution in Ukraine and in that part of the world. But the radical commitment to Christ lived on, among other places, in the monasteries, where it is still always possible to give up your whole life to Christ as a witness to his gospel.

Here in the monastery the courage of the martyrs was lying in wait for the enemy to come and to crucify. The people of Christ had not abandoned Christ’s message. Still they clung to his cross and to their own. And so when the enemy came, they were ready.

Frs. Severian and Yakym would exchange their cells in Drohobych monastery for cells in Drohobych prison. They, together with the many other martyrs of our Church  commemorated this week, such as Fr. Zenon, about whom I’ve spoken, serve as models for us of the greatest love, of radical commitment to Christ and to His Church in the face of adversity from the worldly powers that be.

Before they died for Christ, they lived for him. Fr. Severian, Hegumen of the monastery in Drohobych, was known for his habitual joy and for his work with the young people and orphans. Fr. Yakym, Proto-Hegumen of the same monastery, had devoted himself first to theology and then to many years of pastoral work. He was gifted and he ministered both to scholars and to laborers, both to young and to old, with warmth and humility.  These two really ordinary and holy men of God were arrested on the same day in June of 1941 and taken to the prison in Drohobych. Fr. Severian was tortured to death. His body was broken and on his chest the cross was cut . Fr. Yakym was boiled to death in a cauldron.

One might expect that, in the face of such atrocities, the Christians would learn not to stick out their necks. Not so. As soon as Frs. Severian and Yakym were arrested, a Fr. Vitaliy Bairak was appointed Hegumen of Drohobych Monastery. And he bravely stepped up to the post only to face the same consequence four years later. He was arrested and beaten to death in prison. Just as in the age of the early martyrs, the courage of the martyrs inspired others to join them.

There are lessons for us in all of this. It is essential that we establish, support, and maintain monastic life in our Churches. It provides for us a model and preparation for martyrdom even when we are not enduring persecutions of such magnitude. I hope and pray that we do not face tortures and slaughters as did the many new martyrs we celebrate this week, but we must always be prepared even for that. To this end, the ascetic practices of monastic life can and must be incorporated in our own lives to a certain extent, such as by our participation in th fasts - including the Apostles' Fast, which we are not concluding. We must maintain the spirit of willingness even to die for Christ, because unless we take up our cross and follow him, we will not be worthy of him. Unless we go even to death in Christ, we cannot ultimately live in Christ.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Relative Worth of Flowers to Gold

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Matt 6:28-29)

Jesus’ immediate message with these words is clear enough, I think. Stop worrying! Rest in the Lord. Who of you by worrying can add to your life? (6:27) Food, clothing, shelter – to say nothing of comfort, television, and fast cars – all these are in the Lord’s gift. Really, it is the Lord who provides for us in any case. We are all, each of us, everywhere, and at all times in the hands of the Lord – no matter how much control we feign to have over our lives. So, let go. Trust. Be at peace. This is simple. And it is difficult.

But if we are not familiar with Scripture, I think we miss some of Jesus’ meaning.

The glory with which Solomon was clothed was nothing to sneeze at. According to the first book of Kings, “The weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold” (1 Kings 10:14). That is almost fifty thousand pounds of gold. In today’s terms, he brought in almost four hundred forty million dollars a year – just in gold. He had so much gold, that with the excess, he had hundreds of shields made of beaten gold. Besides the gold, he was wealthy in silver, precious stones, ivory, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, mules, apes, and peacocks (1 Kings 10: 10, 22, 25).

Solomon upon this Throne
from  frontispiece to the Song of Songs 
in the Tripartite Mahzor manuscript, 1320
He sat upon “a great ivory throne… overlaid with the finest gold.... At the back of the throne was a calf’s head."  There were twelve lions arrayed on each end of six steps leading up to the throne. "The like of it was never made in any kingdom. All king Solomon’s drinking vessels were of gold… none were of silver, [because silver] was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon. King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom” (1 Kings 10:18-21, 23).

I think it is important to bear all this in mind when we hear Jesus say that Solomon in all his glory was not clothed so gloriously as is… a lily.  Clearly, not as the world judges glory does Jesus judge glory. Now a lily is wonderful. It’s my favorite flower, and flowers are indeed glorious creatures of God. Regarding these, Jerome waxes poetic:
“For, in sooth, what regal purple, what silk, what web of divers colours from the loom, may vie with flowers? What work of man has the red blush of the rose? the pure white of the lily? How the Tyrian dye yields to the violet, sight alone and not words can express.” 
Such poetry may do little, however, to convince worldly men of the relative worth of flowers to gold. After all, they reason, a small bit of gold buys many flowers. Yet the Lord Jesus – by calling flowers more gloriously clothed than Solomon – has disparaged gold, and silver, and precious stones. He accounts material wealth of little worth, which hearkens back to an earlier point in his sermon: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24).

Now what is mammon? Some of the Fathers suggest that mammon is a name of a demon of greed or even of “the Devil, who is the lord of money.” But the word mammon simply means riches, treasure, wealth, or possessions. It is money – sometimes in a personified sense: the almighty dollar, the golden calf. We cannot serve God and money. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad in and of itself to have wealth – but it means that we must not live our lives with money as our master. The acquisition of more and more money as an end in itself must never become the purpose of our daily labors. “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10).

Notice that Jesus does not say that we can serve mammon, provided that we serve God first. He says that we can’t serve God and mammon – we can’t serve mammon at all if we are to serve God. On the contrary, our mammon is to be put into the service of God – and not just some of it – but all of it. Not just ten percent of it. As a friend of mine says, ten percent is a bad tip. One hundred percent of our money belongs to God.

The discipline of tithing is good and important, but we misunderstand if we think that it means that a tenth of our money belongs to God and we get to keep the rest to do with as we please. All of our money is for God. All of it. None of our goods are ours alone. We are the stewards and not the masters of what God has given us – and it is all to be used for the glory of his name.

I don’t believe this means that it is wrong to spend money moderately on entertainments, for example. I think it’s okay to go to the movies or to eat out or to buy art, because I believe that God wants us to enjoy the life he has given us and that this too can give glory to God, if by this means we take delight in God’s creation and if we also remember to give him thanks for every good thing. But I do believe that we need to be conscious of how we use what God has given us and always prayerfully seek God’s intentions for whatever wealth we have.

We must ask, Is God calling me to embrace poverty or to give all that I have to the poor and needy? He does that, you know. Or, how is he calling me to use my wealth? Whatever we have, he is to thank for it and he has his purpose for it. Serve God and not mammon and then you shall have nothing to fear.

The Lord’s point about anxiety – that we ought not to worry about food or clothing or the like – and his point about money – that we cannot be devoted both to money and to God – are intimately bound up together. When we worry, what do we most often worry about? Well, speaking for myself, I worry about money – and I don’t think I’m alone. The way out is to give it all to God – to remember that it is all his anyway and to seek to use all that we’ve been given for the glory of God and not our own glory apart from God – for the glory of God’s creatures who utterly depend on him is greater by far than the glory of any amassed human wealth.

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