In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Beloved in the Lord, St. Apostle Paul once wrote to his disciple Timothy, “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, and in purity. (I Timothy 4:12) Though these words were written from St. Apostle Paul to his young protege Timothy, they could have easily been the message Saint Sophia used to raise her three daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (in Russian Sophia/Sonya, Vera, Nadezhda, and Lubov) whose memory we commemorate this day. It is the message that all of God’s children, no matter what their ages, can and should serve as his witnesses, his martyrs. And on this Sunday following the Exaltation of the Precious, Life-creating Cross, these four women and child martyrs serve as evidence that no power on earth can compare to this witness of the life to come.
What wouldn’t we parents do for our children? From the time they are born until the time they leave the nest and even beyond, their life is so intertwined with our own. Parents invest so much time, talent, and treasure into their children, it is a great temptation to believe that they are somehow our possession. But their life, like the lives of their parents, are ultimately hidden with Christ in God. So what do we parents desire for them? For what purpose are we raising them? To grow up to be good citizens of a democratic republic? To graduate from an Ivy League and go off to find a cure for cancer, maybe? To get married, have children of their own, and die rich and famous? Each and every one of these goals, although perhaps worthy in themselves, will in the end fall short of doing all we can for our children. For all these goals are centered in this world which St. Apostle John tells us in his first epistle is passing away along with its desires (I John 2:17).
In the Litany of Supplication which we hear several times during the divine services, the deacon prays for, “… a Christian ending to our life, blameless, painless, peaceful. And a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ.” This is precisely the goal of our life: To do whatever we do in this life with the end in mind. And that end is not early entrance into Harvard, a six figure salary in a fortune 500, or an early retirement to a mansion on the Gulf Coast of Florida. It means orienting our life so that when it is our time to die, we die as a martyr for Christ, a witness of a life that is blameless, painless, peaceful. The martyrs we commemorate today give us a picture of just how to do this.
St. Sophia lived as a pious widow and mother of three in Rome in the second century A.D. She raised her three daughters Faith (age 12), Hope (age 10), and Love (age 9) in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The fame of this family’s wisdom and virtue reached the ears of the jealous Emperor Hadrian who sent his exarch Antiochus to examine them. Not suffering them to worship the true God, the Emperor’s man demanded of them simply to confess the greatness of one of their false gods, Artemis:
I see, children, that you are fair, and I feel pity for your youth. I advise you as a father to worship the gods who rule the universe. If you obey me and do what I command, then I shall call you my own children… But if you do not obey me and do not submit to my ordinance, then much evil will befall you, and you will bring much grief to your mother in her old age. You will yourselves perish at an age when you should be happy and dwell amid the sweet, good things and the joys of this world. I will cause you to perish miserably and will cast out your severed limbs to be food for dogs, and you will be despised by all. Therefore, obey me, that it might go well with you. I care for you and do not wish to destroy your beauty and to deprive you of this present life; rather, I desire to have you as my children… [and later to the last daughter, Love, he said] Maiden, say only that the goddess Artemis is great, and I will release you.
When each of the maidens refused and confessed their ardent love for the Lord Jesus Christ, Antiochus subjected the young warriors to all manner of torture including floggings, dismemberment, boiling, burning, and finally beheading. Not only did they endure, but Christ rendered the floggings to feel like a massage, the burning to feel like a refreshing dew, and the final death by beheading as a sweet triumph of life and not a hideous defeat of death. The words of their pious and persevering mother Sophia kept them steadfast to the end:
My sweet children, do not allow yourselves to be deceived by the enemy’s allurements, for the Emperor will entice you greatly and promise you rich presents, offering you glory, wealth, honor, and all the beautiful and sweet things of this corruptible and vain world. But love none of these things, for they all vanish like smoke and are scattered like dust by the wind and like a flower or grass wither and return to the earth. Neither be daunted by the prospect of grievous tortures, for having suffered them but a short while and having overcome the foe, you will rejoice forever.
This dear mother witnessed the torture and beheading of all three of her children and worried only that they would give up and deny Christ before the end. But her patient instruction and life-long sacrifice had inspired them to remain true, and she too was granted a martyr’s crown with her daughters because of the suffering of her heart.
And so, I ask you again. What do we desire for ourselves and for our children? The witness of the martyrs helps us better to focus this question. What kind of end do we want to our life in this world? The martyred priest Daniel Sysoev, killed by a Muslim fanatic in 2009 near Moscow, said,
For a Christian, the best type of death is, of course, martyrdom for Christ the Savior. In principle, that is the best type of death one may attain. While some people sent condolences to Optina Hermitage after the murder of three monks [on Pascha, 1993], for a Christian, [such death] is in fact a source of great joy. In the ancient Church, people never sent condolences when anyone was killed. All of the churches immediately sent their congratulations. Imagine! To congratulate them with the fact that they had a new defender in Heaven!…. In fact, one should not take the word «martyr» to mean one who has suffered death by torture. It literally means «witness.» Thus, a person is a martyr if, with his death he bears witness to the fact that Christ has conquered death, that He was resurrected from the dead. One’s witness lies in this, and not in the fact that he has been tortured. If we are talking about the natural end of life, the best such natural death is one whose approach you anticipate … For a Christian, the most awful possible death is one that is sudden and unexpected, for such a person departs into eternity unprepared.
May He who rose from the dead, Christ our true God, teach us all young and old, rich and poor, healthy and infirm how to live our lives in this world with the end in sight, so that when we are called to our true home in heaven, we may rejoice with the joy of the martyrs. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.