“Fighting The Good Fight and Receiving Your Crowns:” Christian Martyrdom and The Perfection of Love

by Deacon Peter Defonce

Part of St. Mary's Lenten Lecture Series 2004
Delivered at St. Mary Orthodox Church, Cambridge, MA
Friday, February 27, 2004

“And [Jesus] called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it’” (Mk. 8:34-35). Throughout the twenty-one centuries of the Church’s sojourn on earth, every human being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ has been called upon in one way or another to witness to the reality of his or her faith, regardless of the cost. Some have lived lives of great austerity and voluntary sacrifice of worldly goods, others have stood fearlessly before kings and emperors to convict them of their sins and to call out for their repentance, others have left family, friends, and homelands to preach the Good News across the four corners of the earth, and many, many persons have laid down their own lives—often in unspeakably horrific ways—as final acts of witness to the ultimate victory of God over sin and death, through the glorious resurrection of His Son, and to the salvation of the world.

When a person is received into the communion of the Orthodox Church, that person declares war on Satan and vows to preserve inviolate the purity of his or her baptismal garment, knowing that God has already granted this victory by raising the Lord Jesus from His three-day burial in the depths of the earth. In the first prayer of exorcism read over a newly-enrolled catechumen, the priest says: “For I adjure thee by Him who walketh upon the surface of the sea as if it were dry land, and layeth under His ban the tempests of the winds… Fear, be gone, and depart from this creature, and return not again, neither hide thyself in him, neither seek thou to meet him nor to influence him either by night or by day… but depart hence to thine own Tartarus, until the great Day of Judgment which is ordained.” Satan has been challenged, and he accepts willingly.

Following this prayer, a very important moment occurs in the journey of the catechumen, one that clearly sets the tone for the remainder of his or her life. There is a rhythmic dialogue between the catechumen and the priest, wherein the person seeking Holy Illumination officially proclaims his or her “divorce” from the devil and subsequent “marriage” to Christ. Each part of the dialogue is said three times, a practice used in the Ancient Near East to solemnize any official activity, since it would ostensibly require a greater commitment to vigorously consent three times to something than to only affirm it once, possibly halfheartedly. (The Evangelists gave us a particularly striking example of this, in the threefold denial of Christ by the Apostle Peter in the court of Annas, father of Caiaphas. In a rare moment of complete agreement between all four Gospels, Jesus declared that—before cock-crow, the break of dawn—Peter would deny three times that he even knew the Lord… which poor, confused and frightened Peter indeed wound up doing. Likewise, when the Lord appeared by the sea of Tiberias following His resurrection, He questioned Peter’s love three times and expected three affirmations of it, after each of which He reinstated Peter as an apostle [cf. Jn. 21:15-19].)

During this pre-baptismal dialogue, the catechumen must turn for the last time to face the kingdom of darkness and its ruler, effectively declaring to the devil’s face that their relationship of involuntary servitude has come to an end. Note that this entire event takes place at the back of the church; in order to directly address Satan, the catechumen must now turn and face west—that is, the direction of the setting sun. The priest asks him/her three times, “Dost thou renounce Satan, all his angels, all his works, all his service, and all his pride?” The catechumen responds each time, “I do.” Just to make absolutely sure, he verifies, again three times, “Hast thou renounced Satan?” Each reply is, “I have.” Then, in a final act of defiance, the priest commands the catechumen: “Breathe and spit upon him,” which is clearly the last straw, as far as Satan is concerned. From the moment the catechumen turns back to face the east, and announces his/her intention to be united to Christ, the devil begins looking for ways to derail the faith of Christ’s newly-enlisted warrior, and to destroy as many other people as possible along the way.

Thus, we see that from the beginning of a person’s life as an Orthodox Christian, a gauntlet is thrown down in front of the devil; baptism is in effect a declaration of war, although the Scriptures proclaim that victory already belongs to Christ. Satan no longer has any direct power over the newly-baptized communicant of the Holy Mysteries, and he is limited in his attacks to the power of persuasion from outside… once God reigns upon His throne in our innermost heart, there is no room left there for the Dark Prince to run his operations. This point is extremely important to remember, because it forces Satan to switch gears and use a new form of attack, whereby he seeks to hide himself and throw the wool over our eyes—making us believe that external forces beyond our control, inanimate objects, and other human beings have become our true enemies, and thus the ultimate origin of all the suffering and misery which the demons continue to inflict upon us. As a matter of fact, one might well say that the greatest empirical evidence of the devil’s influence over someone’s life, is for that person to deny Satan’s existence.

In what sense, we might ask, can this be? What advantage has the devil in convincing us that he no longer exists and has no power in the world? The answer, unfortunately, is rather obvious. Consider this analogy: You are a major bully, teasing little children in a schoolyard, until one day you pick on some poor soul who has a big brother about twice your size and three times your strength. If that child runs to get his brother, your career will come to a screeching halt, and your ultimate destiny will amount to being thrown headlong into a tall garbage can! The best way to avoid this fate is to convince your prey that he is stronger than you are, so that he has no need to call on his brother for assistance; you will seek to work his pride to your advantage, and then pounce upon him when he is absolutely helpless. To do this, you find several small but irritating little kids, and tell them how to make that boy’s life miserable; whatever you tell them, they will do for you—and all you need offer them is an endless supply of candy.

This time-honored technique of the devil is a goldmine for him; he can manipulate every conceivable human emotion, every possible unforeseen circumstance, and any human being blind enough to do his bidding, all in a major offensive to convince believers that they can really win the unseen spiritual war without throwing themselves entirely on the mercy, grace, and love of God. Once we realize this, we can start to view the various difficult events in our lives through another lens… namely, the lens of spiritual deception. The master of smoke and mirrors, the great purveyor of lies in disguise, has perfected the art of throwing blame for everything inspired by his evil minions onto the backs of other human beings and—when possible—God Himself. When he convinces us to rise up in hatred either against God directly, or against our brothers and sisters who are fashioned in God’s sacred image, the devil sets the stage for his final victory. If possible, he will destroy each one of us from inside out, turning us from gazing within at the splendor of the Holy Trinity, to scowling in rage, fury, and defiance against our neighbor. By our “acquiring the spirit” of delusion and hate, “a thousand around us” could be destroyed.

On this point, let us consider a really thought-provoking image presented to us by St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662), in the last section of his landmark work Four Hundred Texts on Love. He acknowledges the most difficult situations we could face in life, as Christ’s disciples: “Disgrace, injury, slander either against one’s faith or one’s manner of life, beatings, blows, and so on—these are the things which dissolve love, whether they happen to oneself or to any of one’s relatives or friends.” He gives us the usual advice—“Strive as hard as you can to love every man; if you cannot yet do this, at least do not hate anybody” (Century IV:82)—but then reminds us of a crucial teaching of the Scriptures, which is the foundation for the rest of his argument. “Has someone vilified you? Do not hate him; hate the vilification and the demon which induced him to utter it. If you hate the vilifier, you have hated a man and so broken the commandment. What he has done in word you do in action. To keep the commandment, show the qualities of love and help him in any way you can, so that you may deliver him from evil” (IV:83).

In other words, all our energy should be directed toward fighting the devil, who is our only true enemy, as St. Paul himself noted: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:11-12). As it turns out, this will not only help us to follow Christ, but it will also work to effect change in the lives of those who persecute us in any way. St. Maximus bases it on one of the primary principles of his divine philosophy, the ultimate goodness of God’s nature. “Only God is good by nature (cf. Mt. 19:17), and only he who imitates God is good in will and purpose. For it is the intention of such a person to unite the wicked to Him who is good by nature, so that they too may become good. That is why, though reviled by them, he blesses; persecuted, he endures; vilified, he supplicates (cf. 1 Cor. 4:12-13); put to death, he prays for them. He does everything so as not to lapse from the purpose of love, which is God Himself” (IV:90). By so doing, rather than being “overcome by evil,” we will ultimately “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21)!

On a wonderful icon of St. Anthony the Great I have at home, there is a text upon which I have reflected many times. St. Anthony is holding a scroll, upon which is inscribed the following: “I saw the snares of the Devil laid out upon the ground, and I said, ‘Who can flee from these?’ An angel said to me, ‘Humility.’” Humility is the key to victory in unseen warfare, and thus the foundation for accepting and transforming any suffering in the Christian life, because it links us to the most visible and noteworthy trait of Jesus Christ Himself. In one of his finest works, Living Prayer, the late Metropolitan +Anthony Bloom gives this remarkable description of humility: “Basically, humility is the attitude of one who stands constantly under the judgment of God. It is the attitude of one who is like the soil. Humility comes from the Latin word humus, fertile ground. The fertile ground is there, unnoticed, taken for granted, always there to be trodden upon. It is silent, inconspicuous, dark and yet it is always ready to receive any seed, ready to give it substance and life. The more lowly, the more fruitful, because it becomes really fertile when it accepts all the refuse of the earth. It is so low that nothing can soil it, abase it, humiliate it; it has accepted the last place and cannot go any lower. In that position, nothing can shatter the soul’s serenity, its peace and joy” (p. 98). What better image of the Lord Jesus could there ever be?

This rich passage gives us a snapshot of what sort of character traits one must have in order to properly fight the good fight, and receive the crowns which are laid up for us (cf. 2 Tim. 4:7-8). It describes perfectly the attitude demonstrated by Christ on the night He was betrayed, and during His entire ordeal the following day, culminating in the most extreme icon of His humility—His lowly, quiet, inconspicuous burial in the new, personal tomb of St. Joseph of Arimathea (Mt. 27:60). The “ground” which once received His lifeless yet immortal body has “given substance and life” back to all of creation, having become “fertile” by accepting within itself One who was tortured and murdered by the very people He fashioned with His own hands. As we read on the bottom of the crucifix, “The Place of The Skull Has Become Paradise,” the translation of the cryptic letters M.L.R.B., from Church Slavonic (mjesto lobnoje rai byst). There is no more wonderful and powerful way in which this terrible but life-giving truth can be made known… the gates of Hell have been transformed into the gates of Paradise, the Tree of Death has become the Tree of Life, the utter and complete defeat of one Man has been turned into His utter and complete triumph over sin, death, and the power of the devil. The silence in which He stood before His unjust accusers (cf. Mt. 26:53, Is. 53:7) has become the “Word of The Cross” (1 Cor. 1:18), which now echoes throughout the world and from earth to Heaven.

It is vitally important that we make the connection between the humility of Jesus Christ in the face of slander and unspeakable suffering, and His resultant victory over His enemies, because this is the model that is given to us by the Holy Orthodox Church for living our own lives and facing our own enemies. There is no other way for us to enter into the joy of Christ’s third-day Resurrection than to pass through His Golgotha and die on His Cross: “If any one serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there shall My servant be also” (Jn. 12:26). God knows how hard this is for us, and He has certainly done everything He possibly could to help us, but we need to make the commitment to follow the Lord wherever He will lead us, knowing that He has already gone before us to prepare a place for us in His Heavenly Kingdom (cf. Jn. 14:2-3). Whatever difficulties and trials face us each day, there is absolutely nothing that can happen to any one of us that is outside the all-seeing providence of God and beyond our power to endure, in Christ who strengthens us.