In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Particularly if you’re not from a Russian background, you might ask, “What is the significance of celebrating the new martyrs and confessors of Russia to us here today in Houston, Texas?” The answer to that question is found in one of the earliest accounts of the martyrs, actually the very earliest account of the martyrs outside of the New Testament: the martyrdom of Polycarp. It says, after it recounts how the hieromartyr Polycarp was martyred and then his body was burned because the unChristian or the unbelieving Jews that had rejected Christ incited the Romans to burn his body because they said, “The Christians worship him just like they did Christ, but the martyrdom says, “But of course, this is not true. We honor the saints, but Christ alone do we worship.” But then it says:
So afterwards we took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones, and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those who are already fallen in the contest and for the training and preparation of those who should do so hereafter.
When it talks about the birthday of the martyrs, of course, the birthday of the saints, we celebrate the feast of any saint on the day of their repose normally, because that is their birthday into the kingdom of heaven. What this is saying is that every year they intended to celebrate the memory of the martyr Polycarp, but not just because they wanted to remember him because it was an edifying life and that he was a holy man, but also because those who were yet to face martyrdom needed to be trained for the contest that was to come.
So were you at the vigil last night, because if you weren’t, you missed a lot of training. Now I realize that some people can’t come to the vigil for various reasons, but the point is: if you could have been here, you should have been here, because it was a very beautiful service, and we have that service pretty much every Saturday night. Not always are we commemorating the martyrs, but when we’re not commemorating the martyrs or a feast of the Lord or of the Theotokos, we’re commemorating the life of some saint which is also edifying and gives us instruction on how we should live the Christian life.
But it’s especially important that we prepare ourselves for martyrdom. Martyrdom is not just a reality in the early Church that we read about in the history books, but, as we commemorate today, millions of Russian Orthodox Christians were martyred for their faith in the last 100 years, within living memory. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to people who witnessed martyrdoms and who were nearly martyred themselves. Those of you who’ve been around a while, you might remember the Karnuk family from St. Vladimir’s, the older patriarch of that family, Pavel Pavlovich, told the story of how the Communists would try to trap Christians into coming out so they would know whom to persecute, who the people who were going to be the trouble-makers were, and so they circulated a petition to reopen the church in the village that he lived—and he signed the petition.
So then they rounded up everybody who signed the petition and put them into a prison camp where they spent the summer harvesting crops for the Soviets. But one particular prison guard took a liking to him, and he told him; he said, “They’re telling you they’re going to let you go after the harvest, but they’re going to shoot you. So if you don’t want to die, you need to escape.” And he escaped—but, of course, many people did not.
Martyrdom’s not only a reality within the last 100 years. Martyrdom’s a reality today. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, we see Christians in the Middle East that are daily facing the choice to convert to Islam or to be beheaded. Imagine if you lived in a town all your life and then one day Islamic terrorists took it over and they marked your house with the Arabic letter nun, which would mean Christian, so if we were to transfer it to America, maybe it would be a C, to mark that this is the house of a Christian. And that that meant that everything in that house belonged to them and you were given ten hours to leave.
Then when you loaded up your car to leave because you didn’t want to convert to Islam, they had checkpoints around the city, and they stopped you, told you to get out of your car, took everything of value—your wallet, your cell phone: so that you couldn’t warn anyone behind you, even earrings off of babies, diapers, whatever you had, anything but the clothes on your back was taken from you—and then you were sent packing, walking into the desert. And there were some Christian villages around that you thought you might get shelter at, but when you get there, you find the same thing has happened there.
This is the reality today. We in America, we are not facing that right now, but there is no guarantee that that will always be the case. If you lived in Russia before World War I, you wouldn’t have any reason to think that the day would ever come when you would see the state destroying churches and shooting priests and monks and nuns and anyone else who didn’t submit to the state—but it happened. In the 1930s, there was a very holy man who was believed to be a clairvoyant by the name of the Elder Ignatius, who lived in Harbin, and he warned people: “What began in Russia will end in America.” The version of that quote that I heard from someone from China added this phrase: “But it will be worse.”
Now, it’s possible that we may never live to see this. It’s possible that America could be swept by a wave of repentance and that it could turn away from its slaughter of a million babies a year and all the other evils that it’s been promoting, and increasingly so in more recent years—it’s possible—and that God’s wrath could be turned away. And we need to pray that that will be the case, because I don’t want to go through this. I don’t want to see my family go through this. But, be that as it may, we need to be prepared. We need to prepare ourselves by attending the vigils, as it talks about in the martyrdom of Polycarp, so that we can be prepared by pondering the example of the martyrs that have gone before us. We have to love the saints. We have to make the saints our friends, by studying their lives, getting to know them, asking for their prayers.
If we do all that and if we avail ourselves to the many means of grace that we find in the Church, then when we’re faced with a choice of martyrdom, we’ll be ready to pass that test. And we also need to understand that God wins despite however bleak it may look. In any given place in the history of the Church, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, and in Russia today that seed is bearing much fruit, and we need to pray that in the Middle East, that seed will also bear fruit. But we need to be prepared, so that, through the prayers of the martyrs who have gone before us, we will be prepared to win the martyr’s crown if we’re ever faced with that choice. Amen.