Sunday, Oct. 28, was an anniversary that, for the most part, went completely unnoticed. The date marked the 1700th anniversary of the Battle of Milvian Bridge, fought between the Roman Emperors Constantine the Great and Maxentius. The outcome of the battle led Constantine to become the sole Roman Emperor, but the battle’s importance has much to do with Christian history as well.
It was at this famous battle that Constantine had a vision, the details of which are sketchy, perhaps a Christian cross with the words in Greek “Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα” (in this sign conquer), or a Chi-Rho, a common symbol that looks like a capital-P with an X over the top, which signifies the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek.
Either way, following his vision, Christian symbols were painted on the soldier’s shields and Constantine was victorious in battle, leading shortly after to the Edict of Milan, which ended the persecution of Christians.
With Constantine’s legalization of Christianity and subsequent embrace of the faith, Christianity further spread to become the dominant religion of the empire.
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We forget, as Christians in America who enjoy great freedom to believe and worship as we please, that this freedom was not always the case. For the first three centuries of the church, Christianity was outlawed and Christians often faced great persecution. All but one of the twelve disciples faced martyrdom, as did many early Christians: Stephen, the first-martyr from the Book of Acts, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Cyprian of Carthage, as well as so many other well-known Christian saints.
Christian martyrdom was frequent, and yet, the number of Christians continued to grow. Tertullian, writing about the year 200, summed up this phenomenon: “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”
This was the golden age of the martyrs; a time when to profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and God could lead to prison or death, often as sport – entertainment in the Roman Coliseum.
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And yet today, so often we fail to realize that Christians, and many religious minorities across the world, still face persecution. In fact, it is reported that more Christians were killed for their faith in the 20th century than all of the previous centuries combined.
We saw that throughout the past century: in Russia and Eastern Europe under the Soviet system, Christians killed alongside Jews under Nazism, the genocide of Armenian Christians in Turkey, “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans, and the often intolerable hostility against Christians in Africa, especially Sudan, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
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My own Orthodox Christian Church, in recent days, has been greatly affected by the current violence in Syria. In Syria, Christians have been singled out, driven from their homes, and targeted.
In January, we heard of the death of Fr. Basil Nassar, a priest and a monk from Hama, Syria, who was killed by a sniper while offering first aid to a man in the street. Fr. Basil was a priest of my own Patriarchate, a man my own age. He had been classmates with a good friend of mine. He was shot, targeted, while clearly identifiable as an Orthodox Christian monk from the clothes he wore.
In October, Fr. Fadi Haddad, pastor of St. Elias Church outside Damascus, was kidnapped and later found dead; his body badly tortured. He had been negotiating the release of a parishioner who had also been kidnapped.
Most recently, we have heard of the death of an 84-year old man in the city of Homs, Syria. Elias Mansour knew of the great danger in his city, but remained after other Christians were evacuated in order to care for his handicapped son.
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We thank God that in we do not face the same threats in our own country. We thank God that we are able to practice our faith with a great deal of freedom. But we must not forget that this same freedom and security is not universal.
The Bible assures us that followers of Jesus Christ will face persecution. Just as the world could not tolerate the man who taught that the meek shall inherit the earth, or that the poor in spirit shall see God, or that those who mourn shall be comforted, so too do those who profess a saving faith in Christ face danger.
And yet, Christ offers us great hope. In the wake of this violence, we are reminded of the Gospel Message – the message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the message of his final defeat of death.
We turn to our beloved children and affirm that we are children of resurrection and life because our Lord taught us when he said: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6)
We are children of the hope that conquers all human feeling of weakness. We remind them that the Savior’s crucifixion preceded his resurrection from the dead. The path to Golgotha ends with life bursting forth from the tomb with the light of the Savior’s glorious resurrection.
We affirm to all our children that we remain steadfast in our faith and our hope in the power of our Lord who desired that we have life, and more abundantly (John 10:10). We call on them in the love of Christ to remain in their land and their nation and for us not to stand at the border of tragedy and weep for our dead, since it is the will of life for us to grow in faith and hope. We urge them to look to our future which we are building by the power of faith, to realize free and dignified life for the children of our nation and our people.
-- Statement issued by the Orthodox Christian Patriarchate of Antioch in Damascus, on the martyrdom of Fr. Fadi Haddad, October 25, 2012. (Translation provided by http://araborthodoxy.blogspot.com)
May our almighty Father receive the souls of his martyred saints into his heavenly Kingdom. And may the families of all those who suffer be comforted.
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. (Psalm 116:15)