"Without a doubt, great is the mystery of evsevia," or true piety (1 Timothy 3:16). Piety in the early church was another term for the faith of the Christians. Keep in mind that the name "Christian" was initially a pejorative term, something that stigmatized this class of people, those of the Way, the followers of Jesus Christ. So according to St. Paul, the mystery of Christianity is great, it is a great and profound mystery indeed. Certainly it is not a social, political, or philosophical system, or a kingdom of this world. Christ's teachings did not focus on earthly happiness or prosperity, as many false prophets claim today. The prosperity gospel is a heresy, and a brainchild of the Antichrist.
On the contrary, Christ was very frank about the immediate payback of those who would choose to become His disciples. He clearly stated that, "In the world, you will have tribulation" (John 16:33). "You will be persecuted and hated by all because of my name.... Do not fear those who kill the body.... You will be scourged in the synagogues.... When they persecute you in this city, go or flee to another one.... He who loses his life for my sake will find it.... Do not worry about clothing.... Do not lay up treasures on earth" (Matthew 10). "Woe to the rich!" (Luke 6:24). "Sell everything and give it to the poor and follow me" (Mark 10:21).
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, being a gospel of self-sacrifice, a gospel of the cross, is diametrically opposed to the gospel of the prince of this world the gospel of self-gratification and self-centeredness. Christ is the suffering Messiah, "the scandal of the Jews and the foolishness of the Greeks" (1 Corinthians 1:23), and His disciples were not promised comfort, pleasure, and riches, but trials and tribulations, pain and suffering, scourging and death.
During the first three centuries, the Church boasts about eleven million martyrs who fertilized the tree of faith with their martyrs' blood. The martyrs are the most intriguing and most beloved saints of Christianity. Our most popular and beloved saints, with innumerable churches dedicated to their names, are those who died for the faith, like St. George, St. Demetrios, St. Stephen, St. Catherine, St. Barbara, and the forty martyrs of Sevastia, just to mention a few.
The daily reading of the lives of the saints is most beneficial to all Christians, because the saints are those who understood and interpreted the Scriptures correctly. The lives of the saints are the Gospel in action, and the epitome of this love for the Gospel is the desire to die for the one who revealed this Gospel to us, our Lord Jesus Christ. That's why martyrdom has been called the highest gift of the Holy Spirit by Elder Athanasios Mitilinaios, who further teaches that faith alone is inadequate for this endeavor. "Faith alone," which was taught by Luther, will not suffice during times of martyrdom. What is needed rather, is faith that passes through the testing of temptations, and which graduates to true Christian love. So let's not rest on our laurels thinking that we have faith, and that because of our faith we are accomplished Christians.
Years ago, I was verbally attacked by an Orthodox church administrator who claimed, "Mister, I will match my faith to yours any day of the week!" Being a fairly new member of that community, I kept my composure and my silence, but my spirit was troubled. I sensed some delusion on her part, because she participated in the Mysteries of the Church just once or twice a year, and only when the bishop was present. Tragically, this excellent veteran administrative volunteer, after suffering a brief illness, visited some relatives who convinced her to espouse the Uniate faith, and who later gave her a Catholic funeral, prohibiting the involvement of our priests.
Intellectual faith, then, does not make us good or great Christians. So let's not boast about our faithfulness to the Church, our perfect attendance, and our involvement in various church functions. This faith will be useless to us in times of persecution if we don't travel the path from faith to hope, and from hope to love. What kind of love? Certainly not love for our country or even our neighbor, but love for God and more specifically, love for the God-human person of Jesus Christ a love that will throw us into flames, into furnaces, into snake pits the burning love for martyrdom. If our spiritual discipline fails to cultivate this type of love, then perhaps not only is martyrdom out of the question, but our salvation itself may also be uncertain. This loving relationship between the believer and Christ is indispensable. Faith does not promote the "inner mysticism" so much expressed by St. Paul. Love is the way to this mysticism, to the mystical union between man and Christ.
During the Mystical Supper, the disciples partook of the precious Body and Blood of our Lord. They became one with Him. This is the ultimate union the only new thing under the sun where man unites himself with his Creator in a mystical union of love. St. Paul's flaming love gives us the underlying anthem of this mystical love in Romans 8:31, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or distress?"
This mouth of Christ continues, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of Christ." Here, "height" refers to wealth, positions, medals and glory, some of the most common methods used by almost all persecutors to persuade the martyrs to deny Christ. , And depth refers to extreme defamation and public humiliation. Would height or depth separate the martyrs from the love of Christ? -- Invariably not.
Faith is a presupposition of this love; we start with faith. We believe in the promises of our Lord, and we hope to reach that goal, but when we believe, we are not automatically saved. "Faith without works is dead," St. James says. Once we believe, we enter the stadium of virtues. We begin to follow the commandments of God the necessary therapeutic discipline to provide us with the total realignment of our sinful will to the holy will of God. The keeping of the commandments will continue to pedal our entire psychosomatic existence along the path of God. The keeping of the commandments is indispensable in the Christian struggle, because this is the key to the acquisition of the martyrical love beautifully hymned by St. Paul. According to the unlying lips of our Lord, "Who is he who loves me? He who keeps My commandments" (John 14:21)..
The element of martyrdom is always and will always be in the Church. We must point out that martyrs are not just those who die at some point and finish their life in that way. Today, a single parent who sacrifices his life and does not remarry for the well-being of his or her children, the young people who offer their bodies as a pleasing sacrifice to the Lord by maintaining their purity and virginity, the spouse who patiently endures an unfaithful husband or wife, the mother who risks her marriage by refusing the wishes of her husband who may want an abortion all these things are great examples of Christian martyrdom. The Church will always have this element of martyrdom among strong and faithful Christians.
According to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, some of the greatest martyrs will be at the end times. He states in his catechisms, "Who will be these fortunate people? Who will be these Christians who will have an opportunity to confess and martyr during the years of the Antichrist? I say that they will be the greatest of all martyrs!" St Cyril exclaims. The martyrs of the past fought with the servants of Satan--the emperors, governors, presidents, etc.who enacted the persecutions against Christians; but the martyrs of the last days will fight against Satan himself.
In the twentieth paragraph of his sixteenth catechism on the Holy Spirit, St. Cyril continues to give us great insight about the main constituent, if you will, in Christian martyrdom. He holds that martyrdom is completed by the Holy Spirit. As we know, millions of Christians were tortured, persecuted unjustly, subjected to untold tortures, thrown in fire, faced with wild beasts, and sunk to the bottom of the sea. St. Polycarp was placed in flames and St. Ignatius was fed to the lions. Often the martyrs were placed in sacks, tied to stones that ended up on the ocean floor. On certain occasions vipers and poisonous snakes were included in the sacks along with them!
How do these people,normal in every respect,persevere in these horrible tortures that we can hardly imagine? According to St. Cyril , during these trials, the Holy Spirit comes and whispers to the ear of the martyrs.. The Holy Spirit whispers, "Wait on the Lord, man, await the Lord! Your ordeal is temporary and minor! The heavenly glory is immense! You will suffer for a short period of time, but you will be forever with the angels! For I reckon that the sufferings of this present age are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us." According to the forty martyrs of Sevastia, whose martyrdom we will include in this booklet, "The winter is harsh, but the paradise is sweet." If we were to place the sufferings of this age or the tortures of martyrdom on a weighing scale, the sufferings are nothing compared to the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is eternal.
The Holy Spirit whispers in the ears of the soul of the athlete, according to St. Cyril. When the athlete receives this revelation from the Holy Spirit, he becomes galvanized. The athlete receives inner information. He is reminded of scriptural verses, etc. The Holy Spirit then comes and describes, the Kingdom of God to the athlete. It is well known that the Holy Spirit does not reveal celestial images, images of the Kingdom of God to the Christian, until the soldier of Christ chooses by his own will and his own disposition to go through martyrdom, and often not until the martyrdom itself begins and the tortures are in progress. This shows that the man has chosen the way of martyrdom on his ownAfter martyrdom becomes humanly unbearable however, the Holy Spirit overshadows the martyr by giving him a taste of the Kingdom of God. This action of the Holy Spirit can be seen in the martyrdoms of all our great martyrs, all through the centuries, from protomartyr Stephen all the way through the last neomartyrs during Turkish occupation.
The martyrdom of St. George the New, the neomartyr from Ioannina in northwestern Greece, in 1838 AD, was stereotypical in those lands at that time. Many young men,for different reasons, or because of immaturity,were convinced at some point to change their faith and become Muslims. Later on, when the Holy Spirit whispered to them, they almost always renounced the faith of the false prophet, and they confessed the faith of Christ in front of the Muslim rulers, which always guaranteed death. St. George was instructed by other faithful to leave, to escape that region, because the rest of Greece was then free, but he decided to stay and confess the truth of Christ and expose the falsehood of Mohammed in front of the Islamic Muslim rulers.
Inside the jails, the other captives witnessed the presence of a peculiar light around the martyr all through the night. St. George the New of Ioannina received the energy of the uncreated light, which is the light of the Kingdom of God. This is what the Kingdom of God is all about, it is the light of Christ. Christ allows, or grants, to His creation to have what He has, which is the uncreated light, the divine glory. Christ is the Kingdom of God the uncreated energy of God is the Kingdom of God. As citizens of paradise we will participate in this divine glory, which is the uncreated light of Christ. God visits His saints and gives them a taste of the Kingdom of God, of the incomprehensible mysteries of God, and once the martyrs have this experience they cannot turn back.
Let's listen to St. Ignatius, who begs the Christians not to hold him back, and he states that "If the lions don't want to eat my flesh, I will compel them to!" The martyr gives it all, he can't wait, he cannot hold back his joy, and he rushes to cross over to the other side. This is the cause of the joy of the martyrs they tasted the Kingdom of God.
St. Stephen the protomartyr confessed Christ to the Sanhedrin. He offered an outstanding apology to his countrymen, beginning from the Old Testament, from the Patriarchs, their adventures all through Egypt, the birth of Moses, the leadership of Joshua, and the kingdom of David. At some point, young Stephen is overcome by the zeal of Elijah, and he goes on the offensive. "You stubborn people! You are just like your fathers! Is there a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered Him!" (Acts chapter 7). When they heard these things, they felt their heart ripped by a handsaw. They gnashed at him with their teeth.
Stephen could have been somewhat more diplomatic. St. Paul met many times with the Sanhedrin. He spoke in the synagogues, and many times he walked away from the synagogues because it was not time for him to end his life. But Stephen charged! He went on the offensive, and the Holy Spirit rushed into Stephen. The Holy Scripture states that Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He saw heaven. He saw the Kingdom of God. He saw the glory of God Christ in the uncreated light. So Stephen was invincible at this point. He was unstoppable once he saw the Kingdom of God. He tasted the Kingdom of God and he charged ahead.
At the initial states of the martyrdom, the opportunity is given to man to choose his journey. He has the choice to say yes or no. The free will of man is not violated. Are you a Christian? A simple "no," and the trouble would be over. The response must be confessed by the martyr by his or her own free will. He needs to show his faith and love. After this confession takes place, the martyrdom begins, and when it begins to become unbearable, the Holy Spirit intervenes dynamically. He shows paradise to the martyrs. They have their faces turned towards the persecutions, but by the power of the Spirit they are at the same time in paradise spitting upon their imminent trials and tortures.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem continues in his sixteenth catechism, "Do you want proof that the martyrs are led to martyrdom by the Holy Spirit? The Lord tells His disciples, 'Now when they bring you to the synagogues and magistrates and authorities, do not worry about how or what you should answer, or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say'"(Luke 12:11-12).
Glancing through the martyrologia,the lives of the martyrs all through the centuries,from the early centuriesall the way through the neomartyrs after the fall of Constantinople, we will find a standard response to the various courts whether Roman or Muslim: "Christiano eima." "I am a Christian." This phrase was repeated over and over again when the martyr was offered wealth, positions and honor to change his faith or to sacrifice to idols.
This was usually the extent of the missionary work of Mohammed, who spread his faith by the sword: "If you become a Muslim, you get to keep your head." Well, hundreds of thousands of neomartyrs decided not to keep their heads, and they put to shame this demonic missionary work of Mohammedanism.
Neomartyr Michael Paknanas was less than twenty years old, and he worked as a gardener in Athens in the 1800s. The Turks, who enslaved Greece at the time, were trying to convince him to become a Muslim. When flattery and wealth failed to persuade him, they put to use some of their more convincing standard missionary work by torturing the teenager. When all the tortures proved to be futile, the executioner was preparing to behead the young man, but at the same time he was feeling some compassion for him. So he began cutting his neck slowly with the sword by administering very light blows, while asking the martyr to reconsider. The martyr's response? "I told you, I am a Christian. I refuse to become a Muslim." The ax-man strikes with another light blow to make some more blood flow, to possibly convince him. The martyr repeats, "I told you, I am a Christian. Strike with all your might, for the faith of Christ." This totally aggravated the executioner. He did exactly that, and St. Michael was sent to the heavenly mansions.
Who taught these very simple but profound words to the teenage martyr? Who else but the Holy Spirit? "Strike with all your might, for the faith of Christ," was the most elegantand apropos response, superior to all the rhetorical abilities of Demosthenes, Socrates and Plato put together, and all the words of the greatest preachers. This most eloquent rhetoric is the work of the Holy Spirit. The confessors and the martyrs make up the spinal cord of our Church. The blood of the martyrs is the greatest proof that Christ is not an idea. Christ did not come to bring us a book. Christ is real.
Only a few weeks ago, while traveling in Texas, we noticed an announcement on CNN news. "Judge in Italy charges Catholic priest with fraud for stating that Jesus Christ existed." So at these perilous timeswhen not only the divinity of Christ is being denied and doubted, but the very existence of Jesus Christ is being questioned by the atheistic human beings who have the spirit of the Antichrist,, the lives of the martyrs are extremely important to all Orthodox Christians who want to keep the Holy Spirit aflame and ablaze in their lives. In the pages that follow, we will present four, very inspiring, stereotyped martyrdoms. Two are from the Roman persecution of Christianity, and another two from the Ottoman Empire (now reduced to today's modern Turkey). The first two are group martyrdoms: the deacon Ammoun with the forty virgin martyrs of Thrace, located in northern Greece, and the forty martyrs of Sevastia. From the neomartyrs, we will translate the martyrologion of St. Niketas, 1732, and the martyrologion of St. Chryse, 1795.
The Forty Virgin Martyrs and Their Deacon Ammoun
One of the prophesies about the life of virginity,very prevalent in the New Testament,can be found in the 44th Psalm of David. There, Prophet David sees his distant, precious daughter,the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary,and prophesies: "Virgins shall be brought to the king after her. With joy and gladness they will be led to the temple of the king." The life of the Theotokos, the Birthgiver of God, as a model and fortress of the virgins, propelled many souls to devote themselves to Christ totally.
The Holy Spirit in the epistles of St. Paul, especially in the beginning of 1 Corinthians, exalts the state of virginity: "Now concerning the things which you wrote to me, it is good for a man not to touch a woman." In verse eight, St. Paul continues, "But I say to the unmarried and to the widows, it is good for them if they remain even as I am," meaning celibate. A few verses down (v. 32) St. Paul says, "But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares for the things of the world how he may please his wife, or husband."So according to these verses of St. Paul, it is very clear that virginity and celibacy is more conducive to a higher spirituality. This is not to say that holiness cannot be reached within marriage that is also very, very possible. However, the great life of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Ever-Virgin, and the grace given to us in the New Testament and these great verses of St. Paul, spark a great love in Christians for a life of virginity and total devotion to the Lord.
Many young women lived in the homes of their parents. Just like the daughters of the deacon Philip, they lived a life of virginity, prayer, and devotion to the early Church. Although we did not have organized monasticism before the fourth century, all the elements of the ascetical or monastic lifestyle flourished in the life of the Church, and added to the Mother Church millions of martyrs.
On the first day of September, which marks the opening of our ecclesiastical year, the Church opens its golden pages of martyrdom by celebrating the resolve of the forty women virgin ascetic martyrs who put to shame the torture mechanisms of Licinius. The forty women virgin martyrs lived in Adrianoupolis of Thrace, in northeast Greece, and they were disciples of Deacon Ammoun. During that time, around 305 AD, the emperor of the eastern region of the Roman Empire was Licinius, a dreadful persecutor of Christianity. Licinius had instituted a decree for the annihilation of all Christians who refused to sacrifice to idols. The decree of this bloodthirsty tyrant soon reached all cities, towns, and villages.Christians were slaughtered like lambs, refusing to submit to his soul-destroying promises and choosing rather to die for the love of their heavenly bridegroom.
During these horrible years, the forty virgin martyrs were apprehended and put to the test along with their deacon Ammoun. The names of these glorious Christian women are as follows: Adamantine, Athena, Akrive, Antigone, Arivea, Aspasia, Aphrodite, Dione, Dodone, Elpinike, Erasmia, Erato, Ermeneia, Evterpe, Thaleia, Theanoe, Theano, Theonymphe, Theophane, Kalliroe, Kalliste, Kleio, Kleonike, Kleopatra, Koralia, Lambro, Margarita, Marianthe, Melpomene, Moscho, Ourania, Pandora, Penelope, Polymnia, Polynike, Sapfo, Terpsichore, Troada, Haido, and Harikleia.
By their daily ascetic struggles, by their prayers, vigils, and fasting, the seed of faith rooted, sprouted, and blossomed in the fertile ground of the virgins' souls. Steadfast faith, precise keeping of Christ's commandments, and obedience to their pious spiritual father Ammoun, made them as pure as lilies. This purity invites and hosts the two theological virtues of humility and love, which further house the Trinity in the Christian heart.
The intimidations, threats, and tortures did not sway the virgins. The idolater archon Varos of Adrianoupolis did not sway the unshakable faith of this holy team of virgin martyrs. They united their godly prayers, and immediately and miraculously the priest of the idols was airborne. He remained suspended and hung in midair, thus punished for many, many hours, and finally he landed on the ground and breathed his last.
Deacon Ammoun was hanged, and had his ribcage opened with knives. After this, a red-hot iron helmet was placed on his head. The above tortures caused no apparent harm to this athlete of Christ, so he was transported to Heraklea of Thrace, to the tyrant Licinius, along with the holy virgins. Licinius ordered to have ten of the virgin martyrs burned by fire, and another eight beheaded, along with deacon Ammoun. Another ten were put to death by the sword, being struck in the mouth or in the heart, thus giving up their spirit. Of those remaining, six were martyred by being forced to swallow sizzling hot iron marbles, and the last six were cut to pieces by knives.
Dismissal hymn of the martyrs, Plagal First tone:
O athletes of Christ, come and participate,
And the forty maidens, along with pious Ammoun,
Exalt with glorious festivities,
For they fought the great fight,
And by their ascesis in Christ,
Were made powerful and radiant.
Intercede to the Lord,
For the salvation of our souls.
The forty martyred women and the martyr Ammoun exercised their faith, hope, and love toward Christ in an amazing way. They proved to the world that the Christian Gospel is not some ideology, but the source of life and power. They proved indefatigably that the Church of Christ is a divine creation. The fools for Christ defeated the wise.The weak defeated the mighty.. The words of St. John the Chrysostom find their full justification through the centuries: "The Church, under persecution, scores victories. When insulted, it becomes even more radiant. It receives injuries, but it does not succumb to the wounds. It sails through rough seas, but it does not sink. It fights, but it is never defeated. O man, there is nothing more powerful than the Church."
With the unshakable and steadfast faith in the Resurrected Savior, the forty virgin martyrs did not simply show patience and perseverance through these various tortures. They didn't simply display boldness and heroism, but a characteristic element of Christian martyrdom the presence of joy, a joy quite inexplicable to the idolaters, and the cause of many conversions. Curious bystanders were often the eyewitnesses of a great marvel and profound mysteryPeople heavily injured dismembered, severely beaten, hanging on a cross (or about to be hung), engulfed by flames were full of joy. Instead of mourning,weeping and chest-beating, they were glorifying God. The day of martyrdom was a day of joy. They were rejoicing because they were deemed worthy to confess Christ, the cause of all joy. They irrigated the tree of the Church with their blood. There is no greater sermon, there is no better way to show to the unbelievers and idolaters that Christ is the true God. The blood of one martyr would bring in dozens of new believers to the Church often thousands.
Eusebius, the early church historian, informs us, "They didn't seem to worry when faced with persecution and all kinds of tortures, but they displayed fearless boldness through their faith in the God of all, and they welcomed their final decision of death with joy and laughter and great rejoicing. Therefore they chanted hymns and offered thanksgiving to the God of all, up until their last breath" (Ecclesiastical History, Volume 8, 9:5).
Stichera Prosomia of Vespers, Fourth Tone:
Let us all hymn Deacon Ammoun, Athena and Antigone,
Elpinike, Moscho, Haido, Harikleia,
With Pandora, Lambro, Kalliste,
Troada, and Dodone, Erasmia, Erato, Kleonike and Thaleia,
Marianthe, Evterpe, Arivea,
Akrive with Aspasia, let us praise with joyous songs.