Holy Lives and Martyrdom: On Bearing Our Cross - A Homily on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (2021)
The whole world is undergoing a great trial, and COVID has turned the world upside down, and somehow having a vaccine, in many ways, has eased this trial very little. However, this is the cross that has come – to the world, to the Church, to Her Metropolitans, Bishops, and Priests, to the parishes and to the monasteries, and in short, this is the cross that has come to us.
This is not new since we have been confronted with the pandemic in one way or another for over a year now, even though it has hit more close to home over the past month. However, why bring this up again? Because we need to be aware of the stress that lies just below the surface for so many people. It’s an agitation and an unsettledness that requires more patience from us than was asked from us before the pandemic if we are willing to accept and embrace this virtue of patience. It asks us to be patient if someone is more irritable, more upset, more angry, more anxious, more nervous, more overwhelmed, more lonely. Or maybe, all of these are us, and we hope that others will understand and be patient with us? Whichever it may be, it remains worthwhile to acknowledge that something big and unprecedented is continuing to go on around us and maybe affecting us and others whether we are aware of it or not. Therefore, be patient – with yourself and with others.
If we thought we bore some personal cross before the pandemic, this has now been added to the crosses we must bear, and it is a weight, a heaviness, a certain amount of uncertainty, but it is not uncertain with God. If there is an event that indicates to us how uncertain the world is around us, how uncertain our futures are, how uncertain our health is, it is our present times, yet this does not escape the notice of God or the hand of God, for are we only to receive pleasantries and joy from the hand of the Lord and not hardships and sufferings?
As the wise man said, “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him: for whom the Lord loveth, He rebuketh, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.” (Prov. 3.11)
Knowledge through Suffering
The long road to Golgotha is the way upon which our Savior walked without looking back. The Creator of the universe humbled himself and accepted being bound and put to death on the Cross by His own creation. As we sing for the feast of the Cross:
Today the Master of creation and Lord of glory is nailed to the Cross, and His side is pierced by a spear. Of gall and vinegar doth He partake, Who is the Sweetness of the Church. He is invested with a crown of thorns, and He Who covereth the sky with clouds is arrayed in garments of mockery. He is smitten with a hand of clay Who fashioned man with His own hands, and He is beaten about the shoulders Who arrayeth heaven with clouds. My Deliverer and God deigneth to be spat upon and wounded, mocked and buffeted, and endureth all things for the sake of me, who am condemned, that He might save the world from deception, in that He is compassionate (Stichera at the Veneration of the Cross).
Along this path which the Lord has trod, we are called to follow, and it is Christ Himself who teaches us humility, service, and self-denial: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” (John 3.14-15); and again “but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister, And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20.26-28). And, finally, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16.24).
Consolation in Christ
The Apostle says, ‘As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.’ However, only if we look to find our consolation in Him and nowhere else; in sickness and suffering, hardships and tribulations, where else is there to go? To whom else are we going to go? It is Christ who has the words of eternal life.
Amidst sufferings and trials, we find ourselves too tired to walk in the sunlight of the day, enjoying the outdoors. Impaired health does not desire tasty foods and drink. Even friendships are taxed because we cannot be and speak as we would like due to our condition. Yet, what is this consolation that the Apostle speaks of? It is a consolation the realizes the potential spiritual transformation that can come through suffering, a transformation that affects how we think, how we interact, what we take enjoyment in, and perhaps most especially how we pray and what we expect from our prayers if only we seek Christ. How often am I too tired, or, regretfully, too sated with food or drink, or feeling too sick, to pray as I would like? Perhaps, I think, that if I am more rested, and not tired, have the right amount of food and drink and not overwhelmed with the days and weeks events that I will pray better, that my mind won’t wander and that I will be attentive. If only I wasn’t tired, didn’t have so much on my mind, was not so busy. How many times have I stood at the icon corner, or in the services, with my head all a buzz, inattentive to the words of the prayers, and allowing the whole world into my soul, and before I know it, the prayers are finished, and I haven’t even prayed? And yet, we still need to pray; we still have to pray despite these circumstances (although the circumstances that are under our control we should control). But amidst the busyness and the whirling thoughts and the sickness, prayer is possible, and so is consolation.
“The Cross is the door to mysteries,” says St. Isaac the Syrian. “Through this door, the mind makes entrance into the knowledge of heavenly mysteries. The knowledge of the Cross is concealed in the sufferings of the Cross. And the more our participation in its sufferings, the greater the perception we gain through the Cross.”
The more we participate in the sufferings of the Cross whether they manifest themselves as small irritations, as weariness, or being mentally scattered, or whether they are big with uncertainty about one’s economic or social situation, with facing illness, or the illness or the death of a loved one. It is through these events, these “cross events” that we learn to know as we should and therein learn to be as we should, about the life that remains a mystery, a mystery especially to those who seek to avoid the Cross by engaging in the many amusements of this world whose only aim is to distract us from Christ.
See what good things are born in a man from struggle! Writes St. Isaac. It often happens that when a man bends his knees in prayer and stretches forth his hands to the heavens, fixing his eyes upon the Cross of Christ and concentrating all his thoughts on God during his prayer, beseeching God all the while with tears and compunction, suddenly and without warning a fountain springs up in his heart gushing forth sweetness: his members grow feeble, his eyesight is veiled, he bows his head to the earth, and his thoughts are altered so that because of the joy that surges throughout his entire body he cannot make prostrations… Indeed, can these things be known from [writings of] ink? Or can the taste of honey pass over the palate by reading books? For if you do not strive, you will not find, and if you do not knock at the door with vehemence and keep constant vigil before it, you will not be heard.
Martyrs and Saints
In the early Church, during the transition from times of persecution to times of peace, holy hierarchs of the Church would gather together accounts of martyrdoms to read to the faithful during the divine services commemorating the day of their repose and their birth into Heaven. These Lives were for the edification of the faithful, to teach them the Christian virtues in the face of persecution, encouraging them, and aiming to increase their faith in Christ and to bear up under the pressure of their own potential martyrdom. As the Church entered a time of peace under the reign of Constantine, there were no more martyrs’ Lives to collect, and instead, they wrote Lives of holy men and women. Of interest to us today is that St. John Chrysostom equates these holy lives as being equal to the martyrs.
We will only consider this from two homilies. The first one is St. John’s second homily on the Maccabean martyrs, where he compares the suffering of their mother who watched their tortures with their suffering: “I would say with confidence that she suffered to a greater extent than her children,” he says (151). Why? Because she did not even think to stop the torture but only encouraged her sons to endure. But, he says, “She was eager to show the tyrant that she was truly their mother, they truly her genuine children, not through natural relationship, but through their sharing of her virtue.” It was this feminine and maternal instinct which she sacrificed for their sake that continued to be tried through the death of each of her children, one after the other, in succession. In this manner, he says, it is evident that she had already overcome all of her passions.
The second homily is about St. Eustathius, a bishop, an opponent of Arius, a confessor of the Nicene faith, and one who would die in exile. St. John notes that “yes, he did die in exile, but nonetheless, he is a martyr.” Why? Because it’s not just the death that creates a martyr, but also the disposition. He says that this is what the teaching of the Apostle Paul is who says, “I die every day” (1 Cor. 15.31); how? By being prepared for death. He then cites the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, noting that the Lord considered him to have not even spared his only son for the sake of obedience to the Lord. Moreover, although Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac, the Lord judged this as good as done because of the disposition of Abraham’s will because although Abraham’s hand did not kill Isaac, his will did. It was Abraham’s will that was aligned with God’s will and not his own desires.
In this fashion, there is no disconnect between the Lives of the martyrs and the Lives of the saints because it is the same life – resoluteness in the commands of God, firmness in carrying their cross, and steadfastness on the road to self-denial, whose end is not only the Kingdom of Heaven, but a journey, not alone, but accompanied by Christ, if only we would seek Him.
May this be our glorious martyrdom! Amen.
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF OUR HOLY FATHERS, LORD JESUS CHRIST, OUR GOD. HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.
 The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. (Brookline: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011), Homily 74, p. 513.
 Mayer, Wendy and Neil, Brownen. St. John Chrysostom, The Cult of the Saints: Select Homilies and letters introduced, translated and annotated. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006), 152.
 Ibid., 55.
 Ibid., 54.
Such a true and beautiful homily!
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