During these blessed and joyous weeks, we celebrate the The Feast of Nairouz and the beginning of another Coptic New Year. The Church chose the beginning of the reign of Emperor Diocletian in 284 A.D. to mark the beginning of the Church Calendar, because he was one of the cruelest emperors, who severely persecuted the Christians, especially in Egypt. The Coptic Orthodox Church offered thousands of martyrs during the reign of this emperor.When we celebrate the beginning of another Coptic New Year, we are actually celebrating our martyrs, who because of their love for Christ joyfully offered their lives, preferring death to denying their faith. The courage of the martyrs along with their strong steadfast faith is what preserved the faith until our present day.
Their lives present to us many spiritual lessons, the greatest of which is how the essence of the Holy Resurrection is revealed in the their lives. In Christianity, the Resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith, and our fathers and mothers the martyrs lived the resurrection and witnessed to its power by their blood, which was shed to preserve the Christian faith. Their lives and their bloodshed portray the Resurrection as a dynamic action and not merely a historical event. Although history records a specific time as the period of martyrdom, actually martyrdom is an ongoing daily event. In every age and in every generation, there were martyrs since martyrdom is a continuous event in the Church and will continue to be so until our Lord Jesus Christ’s second coming. The Resurrection is a living reality, which we experience daily. As we reflect on the life of the martyrs, we see that they are icons portraying the Resurrection. In their lives, we read all of the deep spiritual meanings of the Holy Resurrection. May our Lord grant us the spiritual understanding to comprehend the meaning of the resurrection as we read the lives of the martyrs.
1.The Joy of the Resurrection in the Life of the Martyr
When we read the stories of the martyrs, we find that they went to their martyrdom with joy, chanting hymns on their way to the arena. Therefore, we will notice in the icons of the martyrs that their features were peaceful; joy and peace radiated from their faces. St. Abe-Fam of Ossim went to his martyrdom wearing his finest clothes and girded his waist with a golden belt. He rode his horse and said, “This is my true wedding day. This is my day of joy and happiness since I will meet my King and Lord Jesus Christ.” Also, St. Psati, Bishop of Epsay near Ekhmim, wore his white liturgical vestments. When he was asked for the reason why he did that, he answered, “I am going to the wedding celebration. How can I not wear the white vestments?”
Because of their faith in the Resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead, martyrdom became a desire for the martyrs, thus saying with St. Paul the Apostle, “Having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” (Phil. 1:23)
It is said that one of the rulers, who was on his way to one of the towns to persecute and kill Christians, saw a woman carrying her child and hurrying towards the arena of martyrdom. When he asked her why she was in a hurry, she informed him that she did not want to miss the opportunity to be martyred. When he inquired why she had her child with her, she responded that she wanted him “to share with her the glory”.
This is how the martyrs experienced the resurrection and considered their death for the Name of Christ to be, in fact, life for them. Just as our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected, we, also, when we die with Him and when we die to the world for His sake, will be resurrected with Him and will share His glory.
We have to keep in mind that the martyrs died to the world first; they died to the passions and lived a life of holiness in Christ. Therefore, martyrdom for them was a transfer to an everlasting life in Christ. If we know how the martyrs led a holy life in Christ, then we should not be surprised to see how they were joyful at the time of their martyrdom. Actually, martyrdom begins with the spiritual struggle against sin, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom. 8:13)
The Christian person experiences death with our Lord Jesus Christ through baptism. Then he continues to live this experience on a daily basis through his daily spiritual struggle. The martyr is actually that person, who experienced death with Christ through baptism and in his spiritual struggle. Then death with Christ is finally achieved for him in its depth and joy through martyrdom. The Church considers those martyrs, who believed in Christ at the time of their martyrdom, to have been baptized through their martyrdom, and their baptism is called “the baptism of blood”. For those kinds of martyrs, who die and are raised with Christ, baptism has been achieved in its depth through their martyrdom, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Fr., even so we also should walk in the newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4)
2.The Martyr and Victory over Satan
Satan attempted to wipe out the Christian faith by arousing the rulers to persecute the Christians. Those rulers used all forms of torture to frighten the Christians so they would deny their faith. However, by being steadfast in the faith, by their courage in facing torture, and by shedding their blood for the sake of Christ, the martyrs showed that Christianity was victorious, and the Christian faith spread through them even more. The courage of the martyrs and their perseverance in enduring pain attracted thousands of people to Christianity and “the blood of the martyrs became the seeds of the Church” as the scholar Tertullian said. St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, described the victory of the martyrs over Satan, who was working through their torturers, by saying, “The masses of spectators were amazed to see the heavenly war, the divine battle, the spiritual war, the battle of Christ. They saw the servants of Christ firm, courageous, and at peace. They endured the earthly swords, while being fortified by their faith and by spiritual weapons. Those being tortured were more courageous than their torturers. The beaten bodies were victorious over the instruments of torture and pain. The whips lashed violently, but were unable to defeat their unseen faith. The blood poured to put off the flames of persecution, the flames of Hades, and to water the seeds of the Christian faith.” Just as the Resurrection was the cornerstone in the Christian missionary work, also martyrdom was a powerful force in spreading Christianity and strengthening the faith. When our Lord Jesus Christ sent His disciples, He told them, “Behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves.” (Lk. 10:3) In his meditation on this verse, St. Augustine said, “When the wolves preyed on the few lambs and devoured them, the wolves turned into lambs.”
Indeed, we see in the life of the martyrs the joy of the Resurrection and victory over Satan. They witnessed to Christ not by words, but by their martyrdom, by the model of their lives, and by their blood, which watered the tree of faith, so that it became a strong and fortified tree.
As we read the stories of the martyrs, may our Lord help us to model our lives after them and to see how the meanings of the Holy Resurrection are revealed in their lives. May our Lord grant us the joy of the Resurrection and the joy of the martyrs, so we can follow in their footsteps and see how they spread the faith by shedding their blood.