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In Praise of New Martyrs

New Martyrs of Batak, Bulgaria, glorified in April, 2011New Martyrs of Batak, Bulgaria, glorified in April, 2011By Fr. John Fenton, from the October 2014 issue of The Word

Life comes from death. Virginity gives birth to Life. Weakness perfects strength. Defeat leads to victory. Wisdom begins with fear. Humility overwhelms pride. Sorrow turns into joy. The dead become immortal. 

The Christian faith is filled with many seeming contradictions. Our Lord's Passion not only teaches but instills and inculcates in us this key truth. Yet it is a truth that we too quickly forget, and which our lives too easily deny. This truth alone is able to sustain us in our darkest hours, when all hope seems lost, when faith seems pointless. This is why we must continually hear, and take to heart, the stories of the saints, especially the martyrs.

Consider St. Venantius. At the age of 15, because he confessed Christ, Venantius was scourged, imprisoned, tortured with torches, dangled head-down over smoke to suffocate, beaten so that both jaws were broken and he lost all his teeth, thrown into a dungpit and then fed to the lions. All these things he suffered without complaint. During all these afflictions holy Venantius was strengthened by angels. And his quiet patience and longsuffering, his firm constancy and conviction, his meek endurance and lack of complaint – this impressed all who saw and heard, so that these gruesome tortures did not frighten, but rather fortified the faithful and attracted the unknowing. When Venantius was finally beheaded, so were many new Christians who desired the certain hope and the strong faith that he evinced.

And so here is another seeming contradiction. Torture reveals hope. Persecution attracts men not to bloodlust, but to believe, and martyrdom does not weaken resolve or decrease numbers, but rather increases and builds up the church. This is true not only then, but now. Even now, especially in Syria, new Venantiuses – teenage boys and girls – are boldly testifying to their faith with their own blood. Martyrdom continues, and even now increases. Those who kill and torture are thinking that they are destroying the Church, but they don’t see the truth that we know. They don’t understand the seeming contradictions that are the bedrock of our faith. So they will not believe that this is our finest hour. So even now in the arid lands of the Middle East, these are the days when the Tree of Christ is being watered with the blood of new martyrs, so that she may grow and flourish and feed our faith. 

So another seeming contradiction: the gruesome scenes we hardly hear about should not depress us, or scare us, or cause us to wring our hands. These grisly martyrdoms ought to enliven our faith, and increase our hope, and rejoice our hearts; even as they also concentrate our own minds, so that we more eagerly and more quickly “cast away all uncleanness and abundance of naughtiness.” For how can we continue giving into our ungodly desires and appetites, when we see the passion of these new martyrs? How can we not want all the more to “put to death the deeds of our flesh,” when we hear of the death of these new martyrs? How can we think twice about giving our meager sacrifices, when we see these new martyrs give all that they have and all that they are for the love of Christ. 

Spurred on by their merits, let us with increasing “meekness receive the ingrafted word.” For in these new martyrs, that ingrafted Word manifests His grace to us. In them, the Spirit of truth is evident – the Spirit who builds up his Church using such witnesses, and the Truth who reveals Himself so clearly in these seeming contradictions. 

What we hear in today’s news, what we see in St. Venantius – this is not new to us. It is simply the continuation of our Easter joy – the joy where “death and life have contended in the combat stupendous,” so that “the Prince of Life who died reigns immortal,” so that we, who are not bloodied nor bear any wounds, nevertheless win the victory. 

So, as we hear these of these saints, let us not be overwhelmed with sadness. And certainly let us not pity them. Rather, let us remember yet another seeming contradiction: that such sadness ushers in gladness; that those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. For while this kind of “anger of man worketh not the justice of God,” it certainly does testify to our hope and point to our salvation. Of this we can be supremely confident: that such hatred will be defeated by love. For that is our faith – that Love Himself is at work today, even as He was in His Passion, in ways we cannot always see or understand; to Whom, by the prayers of His holy martyrs, belongs all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.