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.