23 February 2015

Resplendent in the confession of the saving Name

On this date, in the year 303, the Emperor Diocletian issued a decree against Christians, particularly in present-day Turkey, that began what would come to be known as the Great Persecution. It lasted for eight years.

The historian Eusebius tells us that the persecutions, which I have numbered for you, began in this way with the first of several edicts:
A marble bust of Diocletian
It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, when the feast of the Saviour's passion was near at hand, that royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that [1] the churches be leveled to the ground and [2] the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, and ordering that [3] those who held places of honor be degraded, and that [4] the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity, be deprived of freedom.

Such was the first edict against us. But not long after, other decrees were issued, commanding that [5] all the rulers of the churches in every place be first thrown into prison, and afterwards [6] by every artifice be compelled to sacrifices.

Then truly a great many rulers of the churches eagerly endured terrible sufferings, and furnished examples of noble conflicts. But a multitude of others, benumbed in spirit by fear, were easily weakened at the first onset.

Of the rest each one endured different forms of torture. The body of one was scourged with rods. Another was punished with insupportable rackings and scrapings, in which some suffered a miserable death. Others passed through different conflicts. Thus one, while those around pressed him on by force and dragged him to the abominable and impure sacrifices, was dismissed as if he had sacrificed, though he had not. Another, though he had not approached at all, nor touched any polluted thing, when others said that he had sacrificed, went away, bearing the accusation in silence. Another being taken up half dead, was cast aside as if already dead, and again a certain one lying upon the ground was dragged a long distance by his feet and counted among those who had sacrificed. One cried out and with a loud voice testified his rejection of the sacrifice; another shouted that he was a Christian, being resplendent in the confession of the saving Name. Another protested that he had not sacrificed and never would. But they were struck in the mouth and silenced by a large band of soldiers who were drawn up for this purpose; and they were smitten on the face and cheeks and driven away by force; so important did the enemies of piety regard it, by any means, to seem to have accomplished their purpose. But these things did not avail them against the holy martyrs; for an accurate description of whom, what word of ours could suffice (Ecclesiastical History, 8.3)?
As one reads further into his history, one sees other forms of punishment and persecution besides those briefly described above, together with accounts of courageous faith and the splendor of the power of God.

In our own day, many of our brothers and sisters are suffering similar torments in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, and elsewhere because of their profession of Christianity. It is, as Bishop Anda Suriel said this past Sunday, that history is being repeated before our eyes.

Christ the Lord has promised us, "you will be hated by all for my name's sake" (Matthew 10:22; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17). Both Saint Matthew and Saint Luke record his following words as these: "But he who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 10:22; Mark 13:13). Saint Luke, though, includes a slightly different conclusion, though with the same meaning: "By your endurance you will gain your lives" (Luke 21:19). Each of the Evangelists record similar sayings of Jesus in other places, giving a clear emphasis on their importance of these words of the Savior, an importance we see reflected in the writings of Saint Paul and of Saint Peter.

Such a persecution has not yet come again to Europe or to the United States of America, but this does not mean it will not come. When and if it does, will we persevere to the end, as so many have done in recent months even as so many others did in centuries past? Will we be found "resplendent in the confession of the saving Name," as were the recent martyrs in Libya who died with the saving Name on their lips? Or will be like those others Eusebius describes as "benumbed in spirit by fear, [who] were easily weakened at the first onset" of persecution and renounce the name of Jesus?

Too often in our daily lives we are hesitant even to mention the name of Jesus in public or to pray in a restaurant before a meal. And we live in a country where 70% of the citizens claim to be Christian. This does not bode well for our endurance when confronted with a serious persecution.

At the same time, though, we cannot simply be concerned with our endurance to the end; we must share an equally great concern about the endurance of our brothers and sisters. What are we doing to alleviate their suffering and to bolster their courage and faith? In this season of Lent there is much we can do for them through works of prayer, fasting, and alms giving while imploring the Lord to make them resplendent in the confession of the saving Name. Let us not shy away from what we can and should be doing.

The Apostle reminds us that "if one member suffers, all suffer together" (I Corinthians 12:26). Let these words - together with those who suffer because of their faith in Jesus - be always before us.

All you holy martyrs, pray for us and for those who suffer like you!

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