Friday, August 18, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: The Body of the Martyr is a Living Eucharist

Arabic original here.

The Body of the Martyr is a Living Eucharist

After years of work, Dr Elias Rachid Khalil and a team of researchers have published, at the initiative of Association of Alumni of Maronite Seminaries in Lebanon, an Encyclopedia of the Martyrs of the Churches in Asia Minor, the Middle East and North Africa (one volume, 1072pp.). This scholarly encyclopedia, which received the blessings of the heads of the Orthodox and Catholic churches in the Middle East, is distinguished by something new in the history of the Church, which is that it has brought together the lives of the saints who are celebrated in each of the churches. As for the importance of this encyclopedia, the letter from His Beatitude Patriarch John X at the beginning of the book says it best: "We find in this new work a fundamental step towards greater acquaintance with our shared Middle Eastern heritage, a reminder of the history of the Church militant in our country and a confirmation of our united witness in this stormy time."

Below are selections from my study "The Body of the Martyr is a Living Eucharist: The Witness of the Rum of Antioch" published in the encyclopedia.

The history of the Church celebrates the accounts of the holy martyrs who did not fear death but faced their tormentors with resolve and courage beyond description and did not flinch from declaring their firmness in faith in the Lord Jesus as Lord, God, Redeemer and Savior. The causes of their martyrdoms varies across circumstances, contexts, eras, regions and states. The first of them, Saint Stephen (cf. Acts 7), was killed by the Jews. Some were victims of the pagan Roman emperors, some were martyred under the Islamic caliphate, some were martyred in our present era under states based on the principle of "secularism", and some met their fate at the hands of other Christians who regarded them as heretics who must be punished with death.

Archimandrite Touma Bitar, who has the distinction of having published the Orthodox Synaxarion in Arabic, states that, "The first of those to forge the path to being honored in worship were the martyrs. The faithful honored them in the places where they had been tormented  or were martyred and buried. Their remains were kept with care as the most precious treasures, not necessarily because they had miraculous effects, but because they had fought the good fight, completed their struggle and kept the faith (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7). They offered their bodies as a holy living sacrifice pleasing to God (cf. Romans 12:1). They imitated the Lord's death (cf. Philippians 3:10). They bore the marks of the Lord Jesus on their bodies (Galatians 6:17). They are those who no longer live, but Christ lives in them (cf. Galatians 2:20).

It goes without saying that honoring the martyrs began at an early phase of the Church's history. In the account of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (d. 158), the author mentions the Christians' celebrating the first commemoration of his martyrdom. One of the witnesses recounts that Polycarp's killers refused to hand his body over to the Christians for burial and then burned it. But those who loved him collected his bones, which for them were "more precious than gold and silver." From this arose the holy tradition that continues to this day which requires churches to be built over the graves of martyrs or the placing of pieces of their relics in them. The Council of Carthage (397) ordered the destruction of churches that were not constructed over the graves of true martyrs, while the canon seven of the Seventh Ecumenical Council says, "Let the remains of holy martyrs be placed in the churches that were built without them and let him who consecrates a church without any remains of martyrs be deposed for his violating the traditions of the Church."

It is possible for us to say, then, that in Christianity, it is the martyr who celebrates the liturgy, offering his body as a living Eucharist in place of bread and wine. His body is transformed into the body of Christ. His body is transformed into the "Church" in every sense of this word. Did not the Holy Apostle Paul liken the Church to the "body of Christ"? Therefore we honor his relics because they have become a holy Eucharist. In the life of Saint Eubulus (d. 204), it confirms this prevailing belief, as the saint cries out in the face of his tormentor who asks him to offer sacrifices so that he could pardon him and he could stay alive, "Yes, I will offer a sacrifice. But I will offer myself up before Christ God and I do not have anything else to offer."

In this context, Metropolitan Georges Khodr says, "The early Christians performed the sacrifice over the bodies of martyrs because the martyrs are alive and the liturgy is new life... All this means that the martyr or the saint is alive with his Lord and contributes to giving us life." But with the spread of churches and the lack of relics of martyrs, the Church deemed it proper that "the remains of the saints and martyrs be places in the foundations of a new church and likewise the altar. There we make a small hole where we place these remains during the consecration of the church and then we cover the altar with a covering." Metropolitan Khodr closes his discussion of this topic by stating that "the relics of the saints are not merely bones. They are the body of someone in whom holiness has dwelt, the body of someone longing for the resurrection."

As for the necessary conditions for declaring the sainthood of a believer who is witnessed to be upright, it is not a matter of a formal decision being taken by the Orthodox Church after a process of investigations, examinations and interrogations. Rather, each local church may declare the "sainthood" or "glorification" of a new saint. This is because honoring the saints begins with the people who call upon them, honor them, and visit their tombs. Then the spiritual leadership recognizes the truth of this popular movement and declares the sainthood of the person in question. It is worth mentioning that the Orthodox Church does not require miracles as a measure of sainthood, but rather two things must be determined, as Metropolitan Georges Khodr says:

1) The one whose beatification is sought must be of upright belief if he wrote anything. Someone whose beliefs deviate cannot be declared a saint even if, according to his outward behavior, he was a good person.

2) He must have great virtues and have no crime attributed to him.

When talking about Christian witness, we must recall the centrality of the cross in spurring Christians to bear witness to the truth and to keep themselves from bearing false witness. The cross is the essence and epitome of Christ's teachings. Christian behavior cannot be sound without accepting the cross as the sole standard for life in the world and the sole path to the perfection to which are called those who believe in the crucified and risen one. Therefore, the cross is not merely a banner that we raise here and there. It is a way of life and an imitation of the life of Christ the Lord from its alpha to its omega.

No comments: