Word Magazine March 2000 Page 4-5
THE FORTY HOLY MARTYRS OF SEBASTE
By Basiliki Sherry
When I came into the dimly-lit church this morning, half a dozen young girls were gathered around the chanter’s stand. Their voices rose pure and passionless; there was no weight to their singing. The tones of the Lenten chant were minor, and as I listened I remembered the Greek word for sorrow mingled with joy: harmolupi, “joyful sorrow.”
It was the exquisite minor tones of the Byzantine chant that made me feel at home when I first entered an Orthodox Church, though I had never felt at home inside a church before. The Byzantine music resonated with my soul, where joy and sorrow are intertwined and inseparable. Until I became Orthodox, I believed that this thread of sorrow running through every joy was a flaw in my character. If only I could be healed of this condition, I would be like other people.
I imagined in my youth that other people were happy most of the time. I envied and longed to be like them, yet I was troubled because what passed for happiness rang false to me, especially boisterous laughter, loud jokes, and drinking. To be happy, to be unburdened by the cares of this world, seemed to come with a price. One had to pretend not to know that there is, at every moment, great suffering in the world, and in one’s own soul. Happiness was an illusion, a mirage, if one could only be happy by forgetting.
Somehow I never managed to forget, nor find solace in any of the temporary escapes — television, alcohol, movies, parties — offered by the world. I wondered how anyone found pleasure in these escapes. They did not stop suffering for a moment; they only made you forget, or cease caring, that you could not stop it.
Was religion any different? I heard those same false echoes on those few occasions I attended a church service while growing up. The cheery words of self-congratulation by the “saved” and the strained, triumphal hymns with no hint of melancholy rang empty in my ears. Either God was a false God who ignored the suffering of creation, or Christians were liars. They talked of joy and peace and love, but where was joy and peace in this world? If Christians had peace and joy, then it would never be mine, because I could not forget.
Every feast in the Orthodox Church is a feast of remembering. On March 9, we remember the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste, who froze to death in a lake rather than deny Christ. We remember their suffering and we rejoice. In the middle of Lent — the altar still purple, the lampadas darkened — we come upon this day of respite and joy. We are fasting, we are singing in slow, minor notes, and yet this day is subtly different, a day of celebration on our arduous journey to Pascha.
In Orthodoxy I found a Church which understands suffering, but I could not comprehend the saints, especially the martyrs. Their terrible deaths — recounted in bloody detail in the Synaxarion — were always voluntary. When so much of humanity suffers without volition from poverty, illness, and violence, why would someone choose to suffer? Why would the Church love and glorify the martyrs, who embraced a terrible death, above all other saints? Of what benefit were their foreshortened lives to us, or to those in involuntary pain? I couldn’t find an answer.
As the presanctified liturgy for this feast neared its climax with the Great Entrance, our priest bore the precious body and blood of Christ into the nave, over our bowed heads. There came this thought, “Now perfect Love enters the world.”
We cannot come to God’s perfection on our own — by now we’ve seen, with preparations for Great Lent, that there is nothing perfect, nothing good in us — but He comes to us, nevertheless. And how does perfect love enter this broken world? How can the perfection of God possibly enter a world of pain and sorrow and touch the dark center of our hearts? He comes, of his own will, to suffer and die. He comes to be broken as we are broken.
In this moment, I know that in the brokenness of God is the answer to everything. What is Christ’s triumph over evil, what is His hymn of glory? His triumph is to become broken like us. His glory is the cross. His sorrow is joy and His joy is sorrow.
He, God, Who is perfect and whole, becomes by choice the lowest of all. It is by becoming broken that He touches us, that we touch Him, that all sorrow and suffering becomes, not pointless agony and despair, but Life itself. Life is His body, broken in the Eucharist so that we can, even in this broken world, taste what it means to be whole.
If God has shown us that to love is to become broken, then we can understand the Forty Martyrs. We can understand why we need Lent. How do we become whole, how will this broken world and its broken hearts be mended? By allowing ourselves, of our own volition, to be broken.
We allow the hammer of Lent to fall upon our egos in the hope not that God will preserve us, but that He will allow us to break. When our pride is in pieces, when we know ourselves to be lower than anyone around us, then and only then can love dwell in us. And it is when the martyrs die that perfect Love enters the world.
Where would I be, what hope would I have, without the martyrs? I know that my heart is as hard as the black walnuts I used to pound as a child. After so many blows the shells finally cracked open, but the good meat remained stuck to the blackened skin. To free the edible pieces meant even more work, stains on your hands, and in the end so little to show for it. I usually gave up, after a walnut or two, and looked for an easier job. But today I have the Forty Martyrs with me — those who did not give up, those who allowed themselves to be broken — to hold the hammer.
There beside them, always, is our Holy Lady the Theotokos, the perfection of humility. How does God receive us and how does He, broken, enter into our hearts in the Eucharist when we are all pride and there is no love in us? I saw this morning how it happens: how the Theotokos covers us with her own humility like a mother covering a child in her skirts. And because we are clothed in her humility and love, not our own, God knows us and accepts us as His own.
Basiliki Sherry is a member of Saints Peter & Paul Orthodox Church, Topeka, Kansas