“They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy.” Hebrews 11:37-38
They stared out from the frescoes on the walls that faced toward the large baptismal font, their eyes determined, confident, serene. The bodies of the saints, wrapped in the vestments of archbishops and abbots, were static and grand, timeless like the figures in most Orthodox ikons. But there was something unusual in their faces—an unexpected wrinkle here, a drooping eyelid there. Was that the mark of a scar?
I asked the guide about them. They were, in fact, portraits, he said. Father Cyprian, the master iconographer, had known these men. He’d done the faces himself. The saints were leaders of his own time. Some had been his friends. Perhaps he’d served alongside some of them at the Divine Liturgy, or they’d sat in the shade to share a glass together on a summer’s afternoon, back before the awful civil war and the ransacking of the monasteries, back when mother Russia was a land of monks and holy men.
They were the modern martyrs, the guide said, they’d given their lives for the Gospel in that bloodiest of centuries, the twentieth. The Communists had sent them to glory with the machine gun and the hand-grenade. Father Cyprian had escaped, and along with the scattered remnants of several other religious houses, he’d helped to found this monastery, Holy Trinity, in the wilds of central New York State.
In the majestic church they would eventually build, topped with golden domes, the interior walls had all been covered with frescoes in the classic Russian style—scenes from the life of Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the apostles, ancient martyrs and the great holy helpers. Like so much else in the monastery, where some of the monks still converse in Russian, it was like a tiny piece of the old country planted afresh in this new world.
But the Monastery’s Baptistry was different. No church back in Russia could bear the images of these heroes, still counted as enemies of the state, their names erased from the pages of history. But the font is where new Christians are made. It’s where converts must weigh the full cost of discipleship before they pledge themselves to follow Jesus to the end. And Father Cyprian thought it was essential that they see just how much could be asked of them.
We are, all of us, “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” as the author of Hebrews recalls in today’s Epistle. And Father Cyprian was summoning the greatest saints he had known to stand alongside them, those who had been conformed to Christ in His death.
The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is sometimes referred to as the Bible’s “hall of fame.” It lists great athletes of the faith, raised up by God to advance His kingdom generation after generation. Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, the conquering judges: the heroes of all those Old Testament Sunday School stories, they are all there. Some of those listed could easily be numbered among the winners in this world: those who “conquered kingdoms and administered justice…put foreign armies to flight.”
But almost without catching a breath, the author shifts his focus to a different kind of hero. “They were stoned to death,” he says of the faithful, “they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented.” And of them, he concludes, “the world was not worthy.” But in the eyes of God, it is otherwise. Those nameless and numberless saints are listed last, because in God’s eyes their witness is most precious.
Because in their deaths, they have become like Jesus. From the “destitute, persecuted, tormented,” the author turns directly to Him, “the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame.” Jesus is the king of saints, the one whose glory is reflected in all the heroes. And He reveals His faith and fulfills His mission most clearly in suffering, losing His life out of love for God and the world.
We don’t know so much about the people for whom the Epistle to the Hebrews is written, but there are some clues in the letter. The author warns against forsaking the faith because it is hard. He says that God’s purpose can sometimes be revealed through suffering alongside Jesus. “You have not yet resisted to the point of blood,” he announces at one point, but the suggestion is that this may still lay ahead for them.
The Epistle was written for people like the suffering Orthodox Christians of the Russian Civil War, like the Christians of today in Northern Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan and Syria, who live under constant threat from hostile regimes. It was written for people like the parishioners of Saint Etienne du Rouvray in France, whose priest was killed last month by Islamic terrorists, his throat slit at the Altar.
When the Islamic State beheaded 25 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya last year, each one cried out “Jesus is Lord” before the sword’s stroke. It’s the cry of a hundred thousand saints, in generation after generation. As Jesus himself said, His last and greatest beatitude, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Jesus assured His disciples that faithfulness to Him would bring the hostility of the world. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?,” he announced, “No, I tell you, but rather division!”
The division and hostility Jesus describes are not inevitable or accidental—a sort of generalization about what happens when people try to do good in cruel world. They flow directly from the kinds of claims that Jesus made about Himself and His mission. He did not only claim to speak the truth, He claimed to reveal God’s own mind and will. Jesus did not only offer advice about how to live, He claimed that the only way to God came by following after His footsteps. To pledge allegiance to Him was not just to find a fulfilling and meaningful approach to life, but to become a citizen of God’s true and final kingdom. Jesus doesn’t permit us to ride the fence on these matters. To choose Him is to reject all others.
When we are baptized, we promise to follow and obey Jesus as our Lord. If we are sincere about that commitment, and seriously consider it as we make choices each day about what we will do, we could well encounter this kind of hostility and division. It’s not that Jesus is calling us to be troublemakers. Indeed, New Testament texts repeatedly urge believers to be at peace with their neighbors. But we have already made promises about what is first in our lives—not the market, or the state, or our overbearing mother or our boss—but Jesus Christ Himself, the Lord of heaven and earth.
For centuries now, it has been quite easy to make these promises and live pretty much like everyone else. In part, we’ve been surrounded by pretty mild sorts of unbelievers, at least in this country. But it’s also because we’ve been far too eager to compromise and prevaricate, to wrap the cross in the flag or to tie it up in a dollar bill.
Things may well change, perhaps in my lifetime, almost certainly in the lifetime of my sons. Cardinal George of Chicago said a few years ago that though he expected to die in his bed, his successor might well die in prison, and the archbishop after him a martyr in the public square. He was probably exaggerating, but only so much. Our social power may well continue to erode. No one will seek our votes. And a culture that has allowed us to stand with a foot in two worlds may well call us to make our choice.
If it comes to that for you, and I expect it will come in some form for most of us, may you look to the author and perfecter of our faith, and his company of brave and patient saints. Remain true to your promises, acclaim Jesus as Lord, and trust in God’s protection and deliverance. There is only one Lord. He is your master. Do not forsake Him.