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January 21, 2018

Synaxis of All the Martyred Saints from Protomartyr Stephen Up to the Present

This commemoration is celebrated on the 21st of January according to the Typikon of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Synaxis took place at the Church of Saint Stephen in Jerusalem, which was founded by Empress Aelia Eudocia circa 460 AD, wife of Emperor Theodosius II.

The Martyrs of Christ are the greatest resisters in the history of mankind. They resisted violence, authoritarianism and delusion with the power of their sacrificial love that gives life, and not by the power, or we should rather say weakness, of hatred which kills. The Holy Martyrs, free of the tyranny of the passions and demonic falsehood ("the idols of the nations are demons"), experienced the truth as reality in the person of the Word of God ("I am the Truth") and freedom as the subjugation of the flesh, or carnal mind, to the spirit. Because they experienced God's presence sensibly in the regeneration of their existence by the Holy Spirit, this is why they endured to the end without bending even to the most inhumane tortures. They sacrificed themselves, like Christ, that others may live, and did not sacrifice others that they may live. The various ideologies, as constructs of passionate people, are unable to offer life. Rather, they can even cause death, pain and suffering. In the name of a pharisaical or rather demonic justice they reduce human lives to better, as they claim, human societies, removing them from the elements which, in their opinion, prevent their progress. That is, they try with violence and killing to regenerate humanity and kill others that they may live.

Martyrdom, as it is often stressed by His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, is not the result of a mighty character and a strong will, but of the purification of the heart from the passions, illumination of the nous by the uncreated Grace of God and the vision of God. With purification, illumination and deification one receives the fullness of uncreated Divine Grace felt in one's soul and body, and this is why death is not feared, but rather martyrdom is desired. And when a confession of faith in Christ is made essentially the one undergoing martyrdom is recounting everything they saw and heard, since they know God existentially, Who reveals Himself to the "pure in heart". For it is one thing to believe in God and another thing to see Him. Cerebral or intellectual knowledge is one thing and existential knowledge or divine communion is another. The personal knowledge of the personal God of the Church is called faith according to theoria (vision) and is associated with the transcendence of death in the limits of ones personal life. The martyrs withstand torture and do not bend in the face of death because they are in fact dead and resurrected. They have an amazing bravery that is not of this world, but is the fruit of their relationship with the almighty God, the ruler of life and death.

Saint Tarasios was interred in the monastery he had constructed in Constantinople in the Church of All Martyrs, named after all those who had shed their blood for Christ. The monastery soon became known by the name of its founder, Saint Tarasios.

Saint Tarasios was wont to praise the martyrs who had "resisted as far as blood, struggling against sin" (Heb. 12:4), sparing not their bodies for the sake of God. He always implored their salutary intervention and assistance. He had a book which he set up before the eyes of all in the churches, depicting the struggles of the martyrs. His purpose in doing so was twofold: he wished to inspire zeal and emulation in the beholders and establish fighters for the faith. He believed that when the eye encounters a good subject, it is capable of producing a like state of mind. He promoted an iconographic program, depicting a series of martyrdoms in paint. He believed that such representations - that is, of the martyrs disdaining fire, whips, stocks, swords, instruments of torture, iron claws, chains, hideous punishments, and nakedness while standing on wintry ice in frosty air - would move to tears and compunction the beholders of such scenes.

Who would not give God praise in gratitude for the sight of such fortitude and heroism? These feats for the sake of piety were not accomplished only by men. Women martyrs were also shown enduring racks, wheels of torture, and other engines of punishment. Children were also portrayed suffering all kinds of outrageous chastisements for the sake of Christ. Specific reference was made to the Protomartyrs Stephen and Thekla, so that Tarasios' congregation would struggle against every beastly and insane heresy. Other icons were also made showing the first Martyr of all, our Lord and God, during the crucifixion, that the Christians might meditate upon His ineffable condescension and forbearance.

The saints endured all forms of martyrdoms, silently and prayerfully, but they did not achieve this on their own and it was not due to strong will or strong character, rather it was the work of the uncreated Grace of God that encompassed their entire existence, their soul and body, and it empowered them, strengthened them and consoled them. When a person, by the Grace of God and their personal struggle, conquers their passions and is sovereign over them, then the Grace of God overshadows them and dwells in their entire existence, and then a person acquires perfect love and all the other virtues. This is why they selflessly love others, as well as all of creation. They fervently desire martyrdom, since perfect love by nature is martyric, sacrificial and a cross. Also, it gives a fragrance to their entire existence, their words and actions, their soul and their body, which still continues to be fragrant after the departure of the soul. The myrrh-scented relics of the saints are a seal of their authenticity and holiness, and they also confirm the teaching of the Church in regards to the resurrection of the dead and about eternal life.

Anyone who reads the synaxaria of the saints will find that many of them were made worthy to spill their blood for Christ and "left" this world in a violent and martyric way, and yet others "left" in peace, namely "perfected in peace". However, the way of life of all saints is martyric, because the saints do not belong to this world, which is why the world doesn't understand them and cannot tolerate them, but rather hates them and persecutes them. The words of Christ are well known: "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you... If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you" (Jn. 15:19-20). Of course with the word "world" it does not mean the creation of God, which is a true ornament and "very good", but people who are imbued with a carnal mind, who are in "enmity with God" and death, and are contrary to the will of God, which is life and peace. He who puts to death the carnal mind and is reborn spiritually or is struggling to achieve their spiritual regeneration and their personal sanctification, will endure martyrdom without indignity against God, but continuously thanks and glorifies God for everything that is happening to him, both for things that are pleasant and things that are unpleasant. Martyrdom then, according to the Holy Fathers of the Church, is also considered to be patience during the unfortunate events of life. Saint Diadochos of Photike stresses that "patience during the trials of life and gratitude to God for suffering will be accorded by God as a martyrdom and such a person will receive a crown of martyrdom".

Of course, it is not easy for one to endure temptations with their own strength, which is why many end up in despair, hopelessness and depression. "In the fallen state, which has become 'natural' for us, we can endure only a small dose of sufferings. And when this dose of suffering reaches its highest limit then we are at the verge of death. Many have even died from suffering or ended in suicide. There exists in man, however, a certain spiritual strength that comes from Above, and then he is capable of undergoing an incomparably greater amount of suffering" (Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov). Temptations are a great blessing from God in view of the fact that they give a person the ability to mature spiritually and become a source of blessing for their family, their society, their environment and for all of creation. As for people who, intentionally or unintentionally, cause others to suffer, when we forgive them from our heart, and love them and pray for their repentance and prosperity, then our heart generously accepts the Grace and blessing of God and changes it into a real paradise. So we exude an aroma and scent of peace, love, joy and all the other virtues.

The desire for martyrdom is pleasing to God, and in a time of persecution against the Church the believer is led to seal their confession in Christ with the blood of their martyrdom. In a time of peace, however, the desire for martyrdom, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, and as explained by the Holy Fathers, is manifested in different and many ways. For example, through self-denial and obedience to Christ's commandments; by loving all people, friends and enemies, selflessly, and praying for them, because, as Saint Silouan the Athonite says, praying for others is like spilling your blood; also by being humble and enduring daily temptations, difficulties and sad situations in life, while thanking and glorifying God.

In addition, in the case where someone is heavily ill, and they do not murmur or complain, but they endure their sickness peacefully, with complete trust in the providence and love of God, this equals to being a living martyr for Christ and a martyrdom. At this point it should be stressed that the more one endures temptations and trials allowed by God, the more they will "approach" God, will know Him and will acquire personal communion with Him. Rather, God will reveal Himself to the person who endures humbly with thanksgiving, and He is with them, watching them, taking care of them, and listening to their prayers when they are praying and supplication for things that are beneficial for the soul, and contribute to salvation. "I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard my supplication" (Ps. 39:2/40:1).

Finally, our daily struggle on behalf of transforming our passions is considered a martyrdom. For, to conquer one's passions in order to purify the heart of them, to become a worthy dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, requires a person to spill blood, according to the patristic saying: "Give blood, receive the Spirit."

Every one on earth lifts their own cross and carves their own path. When you choose to walk with Christ towards Golgotha, then you will be crucified with Christ, but you will also rise with Him and live with Him in His eternal Kingdom. We all know that at some point our human life on earth will end. But life does not end, rather it is perfected. The desire for perfection through martyrdom is pleasing to God, but it presupposes great love for God, selflessness, nobility, bravery and leventia.