By Theodore Shoebat
I remember one day, back in 2013, I approached a priest and told him about our organization, Rescue Christians, and how we were conducting rescue missions for Christians in Pakistan. I exhorted him that we needed to inform his congregation on this cause. He asked me if I could bring in some pamphlets on the rescue team, and I gladly agreed to bring some. I returned back to him with 100 pamphlets, and asked him if he could spare some time so that I could explain to him the full details on the operation. He said, “Come back to me next month. I am running a school and would be too busy.” I replied, “Well since we are here, we can talk for about 15 minutes and I could just explain it to you.” He, in a somewhat rude tone, said: “I’ve been up since 6 AM, I want to go to sleep!”
There was another priest in the room. I pointed to him and asked, “Well, he’s here, can I talk with him?” “He’s leaving too!” said the priest. There was another priest in the room and I again pointed to him and said, “What about him?” “We’re all leaving!” was his response.
He began to walk away and I followed him, still holding my box of pamphlets. “You know, we must do what it says in Matthew 25. ‘I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me drink; I was in prison and you visited me.’ Christ was speaking of the persecuted. Our salvation depends on what we do for the persecuted.”
At this point the priest snapped. He quickly turned around and pounded his finger on the box of pamphlets and loudly said:
“My salvation is based on Jesus Christ! Not your cause, young man!”
I left the room, somewhat melancholic. But as I look back at this story, I learn from it a kernel of truth that is more beautiful than anything that you can learn of this world. It is true, our salvation only comes from Christ, but to tend to the persecuted is to worship Christ; to come to his crucified brethren, is to come to Christ. To give aid to the persecuted, is to unite with Christ. For Christ says:
“Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:40)
To be persecuted is to have union with Christ, and to help the persecuted is to be in Christ, because you are revering a wounded fighter who is himself one with God.
When the Christian is persecuted, the flames of zeal are increased, and he has union with Christ. When you look upon a Christian who has caused the heathen to rage, who bears wounds inflicted by the servants of the devil, you see Love, you see Christ. God is Love, as the Revelator tells us, and “There is no fear in love” (1 John 4:18).
And so when the Christian is oppressed, placed on the gibbet of torture, scoffed and beaten, tormented and killed, he exemplifies pure love, he is absorbed in Love, that is, he is absorbed in God. “If we love one another,” writes St. John, “God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us.” (1 John 4:12) And no greater love is there, “than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:3)
There is no death greater than that of Christ, for in His sacrifice, death was vanquished. So in His conquest we too conquer, bearing His image, and emulating His victory. Christ on the Cross, this is the very image of love, for Christ is Love; the one who follows this, abides in Love and Love in him.
Thus, God abides in those who suffer and are killed for the brethren and for the cause of righteousness; He is unified with them in the divine union. The cross is carried, the soul is detached from the labyrinth of the world’s pleasures, and the self is lost and forgotten; one is lost in God, and his soul “magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46-47). So connected with eternal life that he forgets earthly life, so he says with the Apostle, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
His self is lost to God, so he can say with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). It is through this union with God that Paul was able to endure his martyrdom. For he found peace, through Christ, in suffering for righteousness’ sake, saying “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)
He is unified with Christ in a divine confluence, and from this does he receive strength; he does not stumble before the enemy, but runs the race and endures unto the end, because being one with Christ, he emulates Christ, saying with Him to the Father: “not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 42) So great is this union between the persecuted and Christ, that when Paul experienced his revelation, Christ told him:
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4)
Paul never met Christ before the Resurrection. So how could he have been persecuting Christ if he had never met Him? Before his vision, Paul saw and met Christ, in the Christians who he was killing, for they had theosis — they were in the divine union with Christ. St. Paul killed those who were united and crucified with Christ, only later to detach himself from the evil he once fervently followed and to be crucified and in union with the Savior. St. Paul, in the words of Gregory Palamas, “was that to which he was united, by which he knew himself, and for which he had detached himself from all else.” (Palamas, Triads, D, II. iii.37) The union between those who suffer for God and the One for Whom they suffer, at times is so sublime that they are carried up to Heaven.
The union between God and Paul was so great that he was “caught up into Paradise” (2 Corinthians 12:4), and he suffered for God, having been beaten, rejected and sought for death. Elijah suffered under the oppressions of Jezebel, and “went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:11) Enoch prophesied against the ungodly and all their ungodly deeds (Jude 1:15), and he had union with God, for “Enoch walked with God” (Genesis 5:24) and “was taken away so that he did not see death, ‘and was not found, because God had taken him’” (Hebrews 11:5).
The persecuted Christian is like a strong tree, not like the one who, when “tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles” (Matthew 13:21), but one who “bears fruit and produces” (Matthew 13:23) — produces good works that extend the love of God to humanity. As the holy David, in one of his most sublime Psalms, wrote:
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the death of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” (Psalm 1:1-3)
He does not meditate on the law, but in the law; he mediates in Christ; he is not under the law, but in the law, for he is in Christ, united with Him, the Word by Whom the Father “made all things” (Wisdom 9:1). Christ is the Divine Word of the Father, by Whom the Law was spoken to earth. Christ is Justice, He is Mercy, He is Love — He is the Law of Love. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote that the persecuted Christian “is truly blessed, because he uses the enemy to help him attain the Good.” And that “he who becomes an utter stranger to the corruption of sin approaches an incorruptible Justice.” (Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes, sermon 8, trans. Hilda C. Graef) The Good, and Justice, is Christ, and He awaits those with arms stretched out, as He was on the Cross, for those who crucified themselves with Him.
God spoke the universe into existence, and His Word was Christ, and by Him all of the cosmos were brought into being. And so by Him all of justice springs forth, and the holy Law of Love — in which evil is destroyed and mercy manifested — was brought in through the Word and by the Word. The same Psalm says that whatsoever the meditative man does, he shall prosper. What does it mean to prosper? It is not speaking of the enslaving materialism of the “prosperity” heretics who worship Mammon.
No. To truly prosper to is to face death and conquer it. To be prosperous is to follow the Life (John 14:6), and to be as Life when He vanquished death. To prosper is to say and believe with David, “My soul clings close to you, your right hand supports me” (Psalm 63:8), and: “I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about.” (Psalm 3:6)
The martyr meditates on the Law of Love, for he meditates on and in Christ, preferring to be like Him in His austerity in facing death. Phileas, a martyr who was killed by the pagans in the 4th century, wrote that the Christians who were killed for Christ “directed their mental eye to that God who rules over all, and in their minds preferred death for their religion, and firmly adhered to their vocation.” (Epistle of Phileas, in Euseb. Eccles. Hist. 8.10) They meditated on Christ with their mental eye, and being pure in heart (Matthew 5:8), they saw God, just as Stephen saw God in his martyrdom.
The Crucifixion of Christ was the crucifixion of Love, of Mercy and Justice. And so when we see Christians being persecuted, we are seeing a war launched by the enemies of life against Mercy, Justice and Love, for the oppressions are inflicted upon the images of Christ, the Incarnation of all Virtue. All love is sacrificial, and so Christ, illustrating the ultimate action of love, is Love Himself.
God became Humanity, and in becoming Humanity, His death was on behalf of all humanity; in becoming humanity, He is the center of humanity, connecting all men together, as one. For God created mankind at first as one man, to show that mankind was to be united. But because of Adam’s sin, mankind was struck with disarray. Christ did not become a man, but Humanity, uniting all men under Him.
God brought “together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.” (Ephesians 1:10) God became Man so that man could be like God, and to be like God is to be like Love, and to emulate the selfless sacrifice of Christ. “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16)
When one is unified with Christ, he is united with Love Himself, and “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’” (Romans 8:35-36) Thus when one is absorbed into the love of God, fear is struck dead by the sword of Christ, Who is pure Love in Whom there is no fear. No one can really fully comprehend the unity between Christ and His persecuted children, one can only behold; one can only strive to reach this union.
The love between the Father and the Son is so great that it overflows to us — that is, the Holy Spirit overflows to us — and through the Spirit we are strengthened, for Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit when he endured his martyrdom, and when He saw God in Heaven. It is the Holy Spirit Who speaks through the Christians when they are under persecution. For our Lord said:
“You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” (Matthew 10:18-20)
The words that spring from the mouth of the persecuted are inspired by the Holy Spirit. As the Jews were killing him, Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit when he said: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” (Acts 7:59-60) The Cross is the center of life, for in it is true life eternal found. In the Cross we find ourselves in Christ, becoming one with Him and the Father through the Holy Spirit. It is through the Holy Spirit that one becomes an image of Christ — the God-Man. As St. John of Damascus wrote:
“The Son is image of the Father, and image of the Son is the Spirit, through whom the Christ dwelling in man gives it to him to be the image of God.” (John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith, book 1, ch. 13)
In being an image of God, one must envision himself nailed on the Sacred Wood with the Holy One, saying with the Apostle, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). Christ was crucified, and so for the Cross are we crucified.
When one is in God, he abides within Love Himself, for God is in him, and “My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (John 14:23) God lives in the persecuted, and the persecuted live in God; they are one, and “one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:21) The world sees the persecuted and believes, for in them do they see God. From the martyrs — images of Love — is pure love conveyed to us. The martyrs are candles glimmering the light of God; they are a window into Heaven, through whom we are pulled, from the inner cries of our soul’s emptiness, into the presence of God. As the Russian mystic, St. Theophan the Recluse, wrote on how the martyrs brought people to God:
“The Savior said that unbelievers will not come to believe if they do not see signs. Most of these signs were shown after the Christ the Savior by the Apostles during the first years of Christianity, and then, after them, by the holy martyrs. The striking force of the presence of God’s invisible power often converted entire villages and towns, and was never without fruit. The blood of martyrs truly lies at the foundations of the Church!” (Theophan, Turning the Heart to God, ch. 5, p. 21, trans. Fr. Ken Kaisch & Igumen Ioana Zhiltsov)
Every persecuted Christian is an imitation of Christ. When They thirst, on account of the heathens depriving him of water, they thirst as Christ did when He said from the cross, “I thirst!” (John 19:28) When they are struck, he is struck as Christ was scourged; their blood is His blood, their wounds are His wounds, and they say with Paul, “ I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” (Galatians 6:17)
To see the persecuted is to see Christ. They bear the image of Christ, for they follow Him in His footsteps. St. Paul succinctly wrote: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) And St. John wrote:
“He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.” (1 John 2:6)
Christ died, to teach us how to live. He died on the cross to bring us to the awareness that this life itself is a crucifixion, and that that crucifixion is a war — to conquer fear, to conquer evil, to conquer death — that in death we find eternity; that in fear we find strength, that in evil we see nothing but that which is worthy of righteous destruction. As St. John wrote: “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8)
Let those who have died in the flesh, bring to death that which is evil, and which corrupts the society with the worship of death; let those who are fearless before death, destroy the cults of death! The 13th century monk, Humbert of Romans, wrote that what indicated the crusaders’ willingness to endure travails in battle was their carrying of the Cross, since the Crucifixion itself was a battle between good and evil:
“It is just that we wear [Christ’s] cross on our shoulders because of him, having it not only in our heart through faith and in our mouth through confession, but also in our body through the endurance of pain.” (Quoted in Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, ch. 7, p. 184)
King David said:
“God has broken through my enemies by my hand like a breakthrough of water.” (1 Chronicles 14:11)
God works through His Church to fight His enemies, be it in the form of teaching and exclaiming woes against evils, or in the form of the sword — and in this battle there are martyrs. But in the midst of these battles there is union, between the fighter and his Eternal General, for “he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” (1 Corinthians 6:17)
The warrior runs the race, and God is with him — he in God and God in him — and even when the knife is on his neck, when the gun is pointed to his head, he his nailed onto the cross with Christ, with arms stretched out embracing him as a father embraces his son. When martyrdom comes, he is with Christ, his head being adorned with the crown of glory, and it is here where he eternally is in the Beatific Vision. His fleshly life is cut off — but he was so lost in God that he “crucified the flesh” (Galatians 5:24) — and death on the cross is only a transition, from temporary misery to eternal ecstasy.
Look at the cross, it is a gateway, from that which is temporary to where there is no transient beginning or end, but where there is endless union with the Holy One Who is the Beginning and the End; from that which is limited, to that which is timeless. The French mystic St. Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote:
“Christ’s life has provided a pattern for living for me, but his death, a release from death.” (Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of a New Knighthood, ch. 11, p. 65)
See the cross, be as Simeon of Cyrene, and carry it with our Lord, and heavenly Paradise will be our abode. St. Theophan the Recluse wrote:
“God leads us in the way of the cross, tests us in life, and brings us to the eternal life of everlasting bliss.” (Theophan, Turning the Heart to God, ch. 5, p. 18)
The Cross is the ark that sails us across the terrifying seas of death and ascends us up the holy mountain. When the Christian is martyred, his spilt blood becomes his baptism, and is body becomes but a window to Heaven. The 5th century Spanish Christian poet, Prudentius, beautifully described this in his poem on martyrdom:
“A noble thing it is to suffer the stroke of the persecutor’s sword; through the wide wound a glorious gateway opens to the righteous, and the soul, cleansed in the scarlet baptism, leaps from its peak in the breast.” (Prudentius, Crowns of Martyrdom, 1.28-30, trans. H.J. Thomson)
The blessed Apostle St. Peter wrote that Christ “bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). To live for virtue is to fear God, and “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (Proverbs 8:13). Christ came and died to fight and destroy the works of Satan, so that we may hate evil, so that we may fight evil, that Christ may combat the contraptions of darkness and sinister teachings through us.
The wounds he bears, are the wounds of Christ; the torture that he is placed in, is the Cross of Christ, and upon the Cross does he unify with the Crucified God on the Holy Wood, and through His holy Humanity, he unites with divinity, and reaches theosis — the divine union between man and God. Christianity is sacrifice, it is martyrdom; Christianity is warfare, and if any of these modern heretics say otherwise, let them look upon the mighty armies of Israel, “who jeopardized their lives to the point of death” (Judges 5:18) to fight the pagans; let them look at Samson who let himself die under the pillars to destroy thousands of the pagans; let them look to the millions of martyrs who have died for the cause of the Faith to express their love for the One Who died for them, and then say that Christianity is not about martyrdom and fighting and dying for the cause of God and His Law.
What, must I quote the words of Christ to you? Must I present to you His words: “do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do” (Luke 12:4)? Read the words of St. Thomas More, how he equated martyrdom to spiritual warfare when he wrote these words in prison before being beheaded by the Protestants:
“Wherefore when we are come to the point, that we must of necessity fight hand to hand with the prince of this world, the devil, and his cruel ministers, so that we cannot shrink back without the defacing of our cause, then would I, lo! counsel every man in this case utterly to cast away all fear. …Yea if David in the war against the Philistines was reputed as good as ten thousand … for the proof we now speak of, in the fight for the faith against the faithless persecutors, be accounted as sufficient as if I released ye ten thousand beside.” (Thomas More, The Sadness of Christ, p.26, ellipses mine)
All martyrs are warriors; be it in battle to fight against the enemies of the Christian Faith with the physical sword, or in the battlefield of ideas, where the dauntless fighters wield the Sword of Truth against the Church’s foes, all those who die for the cause of Christ are knights of Christ. St. Gregory of Nyssa described persecution with militant words:
“Here is the goal of the battles fought for God, here the reward of the labours, the prize of our sweat, which is to be held worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
When the Turks were invading Christian Serbia, it is said — according to tradition — that the warrior Milosh Obilich said to the Serbian ruler Lazarus:
“I have never been unfaithful to my Tsar — never have I been and never shall I be — and I am sworn to die for Kosovo, for you and for the Christian Faith.” (Supper in Krushevats, trans. John Matthias and Vladeta Vuckovic)
The Christian armies of Serbia, fighting for their holy land and for the Faith, marched toward the enemy with “the cross-embroidered banner” (Musich Stephan, ibid). They carried their cross in battle, to fight the very enemies of the Cross, and in their self-crucifixion, laid down their lives to be crucified with Christ — the Center of all mortals. In one Serbian poem on the Battle of Kosovo, one Christian warrior, named Voin, says:
“I ride out to the level field of Kosovo to spill my blood for Jesus’ Holy Cross and die with all my brothers for the faith.” (Tsar Lazar and Tsaritsa Militsa)
The one who fights for God and His Holy Cross, has God with him, and he marches in the presence of the Holy One. The mystic Catherine of Siena wrote to the soldier, Messer John:
“Now my soul desires that you should change your way of life, and take the pay and the cross of Christ crucified, you and all your followers and companions; so that you may be Christ’s company” (Catherine of Siena, To Messer John)
The soldier who strives in holy war is in Christ’s company, because he is united with Him. Look to the holy Stephen and you will see how the glory of Heaven surrounded him, and how upon his persecution he saw God. He fought against the evils of the Jews, saying,
“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53)
He was driven by love, and was in Love, being so deep in God that he took no thought for his own life, but dedicated himself to the mission of the holy Faith. Before they slew him and took his life, Stephen, “being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55-56)
Stephen did not weep and cry for his own life, there was no begging nor mourning, but rather there was ecstasy, an ineffable bliss that can only be experienced in theosis. In both body and soul he was absorbed into the Holy Trinity, fulfilling the prayer of Christ: “that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us” (John 17:21). In the midst of his persecution he was united with God, for he saw God and His glory in the Heaven. St. Gregory beautifully wrote on the union between God and Stephen during his martyrdom:
“What of Stephen, the first martyr, whose face, even while he was yet living, shone like the face of an angel? Did not his body also experience divine things? Is not such an experience and the activity allied to it common to soul and body? …such a common experience constitutes an ineffable bond and union with God.” (Palamas, Triads, C, II.i.12)
In the heart of a child one can see God, for in its innocence lies the image of God. Christ said, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) If you are to become like a child, you will be persecuted. It is children that are more honest than adults; if they see something they don’t like, they say it. They are not confided by the ego, nor the societal taboos of the modern world, plagued with all of its materialist secularism and mockery of orthodox spirituality.
To have the heart of a child is to look at evil and say that it is evil, that it needs to be combated and destroyed. To have the heart of a child is to say, without being precluded by fear, with Amos, “Hate evil, love good; establish justice in the gate.” (Amos 5:15) In such an approach is pure love, for “perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) To have the mind of an adult — hesitant and frightful from modern backlash — is to be tainted by fear — fear for the self — and in such is there an absence of love, “and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18)
To be like a child is to have a pure heart, and if one has a pure heart, then one will be oppressed, attacked, scoffed, struck and killed, for “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). The pure in heart “shall see God” (Matthew 5:8), because they have union with Christ. And those who are persecuted for the cause and Law of Christ — with simple zeal and uncomplicated effort — their pure hearts have the Kingdom of Heaven. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” says our Lord on the holy mountain, “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10) And “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) The Kingdom of God, then, is within the persecuted.
St. Catherine of Siena wrote that the poor “stand in the place of God;” (Catherine of Siena, To Monna Giovanna di Corrada Maconi) so the persecuted stand in the heavenly Mount Zion with God, “tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.” (Hebrews 11:35)
Every battle that is done for the cause of the Faith, and for the glory of the Cross, is an imitation of Christ. Look upon the warriors who persevere through the travails of the holy combat, how they sail upon the ark of the Holy Cross, through the waves of adversity, through the tempests of persecutions, and you will see Christ. Because in suffering like Christ, Christ identifies Himself with them, and in the Cross do they find life eternal, for “whoever will persevere until the end will have life.” (Matthew 24:13)
The union between Christ and the persecuted is never more explicitly articulated than by our Lord Himself in Matthew’s Gospel. “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” (Matthew 25:35-36) When the Christian is starved, Christ is starved; when he is thirsty, Christ is thirsty; when he is in prison, Christ is in prison. Christ partakes in our afflictions, for while He is very God, He is very Man, in Him is the whole of Humanity, and in His suffering is the anguish of the saints.
This is the divine union, this is the unification of man with God! The man who suffers for God becomes one with God. Even the one who is not theologically orthodox can reach this union, for the Samaritan was honored above the priests, because by having love he became one with Love.
I must return back to the story that I began this essay with, of the priest who I met. He believed that he did not need to help the persecuted, because ‘all he needed was Christ.’ Yet by ignoring the persecuted he ignored Christ. He claims to be a man of God, but by avoiding the cause of his oppressed brethren, he avoided Christ, for he wants nothing to do with the ones who are one with the Savior. “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him.” (1 John 2:9-11)
To love the persecuted, is to abide in God, for you love the ones who shine ever so brightly in the light of Heaven, for in them is the Kingdom of Heaven.