The following was taken from the book The Art of Salvation by Elder Ephraim. This is one of my all-time favorite books, if not my absolute favorite. I can read these homilies over and over again and never tire of them. When we first bought the book, last summer, this was the homily my boys loved most. I happen to agree, so I’m sharing it with you today.
Our Christ thundered and continuously thunders from His Holy Gospel: “If any one of My servants, who is baptized in My name and remains faithful, confesses Me before men, if any brave athlete competes in the contest of My name and proclaims that I am the True God Who came in the flesh, Who was crucified and resurrected for the love of man, I will also confess Him before the angels of My Father, before the angels in Heaven” (cf. Luke 12:8). Blessed and fortunate is the man, the Orthodox Christian, who will confess the Divinity of our Christ before tyrants, atheists, materialists, and rationalists.
Our Church believes and proclaims that until the end of times, until the end of this present age, the Saints will not cease to exist; rather, She will continue giving rise to holy children worthy of crowns and glory.
As we see, today there are no hermits living ascetically in the desert; no one lives with the austerity endured by countless hermits of the past. Since there are no such ascetics and strugglers today, how can we be assured that the Church will not be deprived of saints up until the end of the age?
Who will the saints of the final years be, now that even we as monastics no longer lead an ascetical way of life or possess virtues like the hermits and monks of past generations? Even though this is the case, we must wholeheartedly believe that during the end times, which we are now entering and will journey through, the holy people will be they who will confess our Jesus and who will proclaim and thunder that our Christ is the true God Who became incarnate for man. With this confession, they will be crowned and become holy.
The martyrs made their good confession during the first years of Christianity. There were numerous miracles taking place at the time. Christians would perform miracles with ease. Holiness was widespread. Virtue was cultivated abundantly. Today, conversely, we have no virtue. Nowadays, we make minimal effort, and the virtue we attain is trivial. Darkness, deception, and destruction are present everywhere. Sin and darkness prevail in all levels of human society. This darkness of unbelief and immorality will continue to escalate, multiply, and worsen as we proceed toward the close of this age. Thus, even the slightest virtue, even a slight amount of spiritual struggle will have immense value in the eyes of God.
In past times, one Christian would help another spiritually. Conversely, today one person pushes another toward sin and spiritual deterioration. All you hear people talking about and discussing among themselves is sin in one form or another. Needless to say, carnal sin is the dominating topic of discussion that reigns in every sector of society. The devil has managed with his wickedness, cunningness, coercion, and skill to prevail upon the thoughts and desires of people.
“The fool has said in his heart: there is no God” (Ps. 13:1). Who declared that “there is no God?” The “fool”! Foolish is the person whose mind does not function properly; who cannot manage his thoughts correctly; who does not make sound choices. Such a person erroneously concludes and proclaims that God does not exist. The most absurd thing a person can say is that “God does not exist.” God is within man, within his soul; however, man has become estranged from God. He has no relation or contact with God. The devil and sin have erected a wall of division that now separates them.
Today, the number one warfare-let us refer to it as warfare, even though it can more accurately be deemed an epidemic-is the carnal mindset. This sinful impulse initially seeks to taint our thoughts and the five senses (of both our body and soul), and subsequently to defile us, leaving no room for the Holy Spirit to dwell in us. Furthermore, it tries to prevent us from receiving God’s blessing and render us incapable of accepting the fire of God’s love, which has the power to rejuvenate us, revive us, strengthen us to confront all the difficulties that lie in store for us.
We must try to purify ourselves both externally and internally, especially our mind-because all the evil that takes place in our heart and with our body originates from the mind. Evil is externalized through the bodily members once the mind and intellect have succumbed to sin. Bees do not land on flowers lacking nectar. Rather, they fly to flora containing nectar, which they convert into sweet honey. Similarly, the Holy Spirit races around the earth in search of a pure mind and serene intellect, where He comes to rest and bears fruit. Therefore, in order for us to receive the Holy Spirit, Who will strengthen us and render us worthy of confessing the Divinity of our Christ, we must first struggle to purify ourselves spiritually and physically, and then be crowned.
In addition to the martyrs of the first centuries, we have an entire cloud of new-martyrs: the martyrs who made their confession during the Turkish occupation. Most of the new-martyrs had renounced their faith and denied Christ due to various reasons, circumstances, and causes. However, in following, they regretted their mistake, they confessed Christ, they were martyred, they were crowned, and today they are saints in Heaven. Their example is magnificent and powerful. Whoever reads the lives of the new-martyrs is totally set ablaze with the desire to suffer martyrdom also.
I will make reference to one of the new-martyrs names John. He confessed our Christ before the Turkish ruler with these words: “Christ is my God, whereas Moh@med is a deceiver and false prophet.” Shortly after the ruler tortured him and locked him in jail, Holy Week arrived. The new-martyr John entreated the Lord to be executed on Holy Pascha. His prayer was heard, and on the day of Holy Pascha the ruler called him to stand trial a second time.
The soldiers took and led him to the courthouse. As he entered the courtroom, his soul was entirely ablaze, full of love, and filled with Paschal resurrection. As he came forward he joyfully chanted, “Christ is risen…” The Turks were yelling at him, “Are you crazy? Have you lost your mind? What are you saying?” However, he continued chanting, “Christ is Risen!” Finally, after he was sentenced to have his head cut off, the soldiers took him and led him to the town square where he would become a public spectacle. Our Christians were praying for this martyr and entreating God to help him be crowned victoriously and thus put the devil and the Muslims to shame. Indeed, this is what happened.
As he headed for martyrdom, the new-martyr was rushing to meet the sword in order to depart for Heaven as quickly as possible. On account of his eagerness and joy, he stepped on both Turkish soldiers who were escorting him.
“Where do you think you’re going, you infidel?” they asked him. “To a festival?”
“If only you knew where I’m going!” replied the martyr.
Finally, when he arrived at the place of his execution, he stirred up the executioner, “Let’s see what type of man you are! Do you think you can cut off my head with one swipe?”
What bravery and beauty! This provoked the executioner, and he responded arrogantly, “You bet I can…”
He struck him with his sword, and his head rolled away on the first blow.
We see that this cloud of martyrs was full of zeal-and of course during a time period that is not too far before our days, even though they had the same desire and love for martyrdom as the first Christian martyrs-and they were crowned with the same glory as the great-martyrs of old. The same God Who existed then exists today, and He will remain the same in the future. The Holy Spirit is also the same. Just as He strengthened them, He will strengthen us. If God (out of love and compassion) decides to have mercy on us, concedes, and deems us worthy of making the good confession before impious atheists, we may also be blessed with martyrdom. Our works are worthless, our sins are numerous, our passions are uncontrollable beasts-only a martyrdom and a confession of the faith can save us. The saints of the final years will be confessors: they will be the ones who confess, as we stated in the beginning of our talk, that our Christ is the true God Who came in the flesh.
Imagine how beautiful it will be for a Christian of the present age to bear witness to the Divinity of Christ and the Trinity before impious people, to become a confessor, and to have his soul taken by the angels who will begin chanting heavenly anthems of victory and praise!
All of us wonder: “How will we be able to endure martyrdom? We cannot even tolerate a toothache!” I am the first who cannot. If a needle or another sharp object pricks us, we immediately feel pain, we cry, we look for alcohol and other medical supplies. As soon as we feel even the slightest pain, we reach for medicine and run to our doctor. Things will not be so in the case of martyrdom. All that will exist then are the horrific tortures! What will happen then? Desire for martyrdom exists; however the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (cf. Mt. 26:41). The body resists, objects, and does not want to endure pain and suffering.
I will give you an example of a young boy who was martyred many centuries ago, and you will see how a person endures martyrdom and how “with the temptation there also comes a way of escape” (1 Cor. 10:13). When God calls a person to martyrdom, the former coward who feared pain becomes a lion. How does this take place? Listen.
Stay tuned for part 2….