The Saints and Martyrs of March
by David Balmer
St. Barbara Mission, Fort Worth, Texas
The remembrance of those who have gone before us distinguishes us from nearly all other Christians. In addition to other petitions of remembrance, one of the petitions from the Anaphora of our Liturgy specifically mentions: ancestors, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.
We particularly remember the martyrs among the saints. Their names are part of our services, on our calendars and in our hearts. A calendar or book of rubrics can hold only a few names for each day. How large would the complete list of martyrs and saints for each day actually be? One hundred thousand names per day? Three hundred thousand names perhaps? God knows.
The martyrs for Christ's Church have always been special men and women whose belief in the eternal life in Christ went far beyond their desire to retain an earthly life. Currently there is a book which attempts to erode their memory and Christ's Church by trying to explain martyrdom as a kind of fad based upon ancient hero mythology. (Title of book listed below) Those who were pulled from their homes by Emperor Nero's troops or worked to death 1900 years later by Stalin's minions might argue that an earthly death, rather than living a shameful life, is not a whim.
Among the martyrs of March are the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, Armenia (March 9) and Saint Nikon and the 199 monks of Sicily (March 23).
The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste were a garrison of Roman soldiers who had converted to Christianity. In 320, under the policy of the pagan Emperor Licinius, they were set out unclothed on the ice to either freeze or denounce their faith. Thirty nine chose to keep the company of Christ. One guard left the safety of the fire on shore, discarded his clothing and joined the others in death. Forty young men live eternally.
Martyr Nikon of Sicily was also a soldier. He left the army and became a monk, priest and bishop. His monastery in Sicily attracted many people to hear the Word of God. In 251, the governor of Sicily ordered Nikon to leave and to disband his monastery. Nikon and the 199 monks refused and died by sword and torture. Saint Nikon pray for us.
Five truly great theologians also remembered this month, who witnessed Christ's resurrection through their actions, teachings and theological writings were Saint Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem (March 11), Saint Symeon the New Theologian (March 12), Saint Benedict of Nursia, Italy (March 14), Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (March 18) and Saint John of the Ladder (March 30).
Shortly before he was elevated to Patriarch of Jerusalem in 634, Saint Sophronios wrote and preached against Monothelitism. This heresy was an attempt to confuse our clear understanding of the perfect-God and perfect-Man natures of Christ through legalistic "double talk". In 680 the Sixth Ecumenical Council, which convened in Constantinople, formally condemned Monothelitism.
The priest-monk Saint Symeon, (957-1022) spent much of his life in ecclesiastical controversy and in an informal exile from Constantinople where he wrote profound theological discourses.
Saint Benedict of Nursia, (480-550) was the founder of western monasticism which was transmitted to him from the east by the monk, John Cassian.
Saint Cyril (315-381), Patriarch of Jerusalem, spent much of his life in defiance of Arianism, the original attempt to lower Christ from His equal place in the Trinity. Saint Cyril's writings have distinguished him as a Father of the Church.
Saint John Climacus (Klimakos) (579-649) a monk of Saint Catherine's at Mt. Sinai, wrote the famous handbook on leading the ascetic life, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.
In addition to the theologians, there are two extraordinary evangelists remembered in March. Saint Patrick (c. 390-461), Bishop of Armagh and Enlightener of Ireland is known to nearly everyone (March 17). The actual life of Saint Innocent (1797 - 1879), Metropolitan of Moscow, Enlightener of the Aleuts and Apostle to the Americas (March 31), is highly reminiscent of a high-adventure movie script.
Lenten Thoughts from "March's" Saints
"The flame of a fire always reaches upwards, even if you turn the lighted stick upside down. And in the same way the heart of a proud man is incapable of humility. The more you give him suitable advice, the more he elevates himself. If you admonish or rebuke him, he answers back aggressively, but if you praise or encourage him he is shamefully puffed up." St Symeon 1.44
"As soon as the cluster of holy humility begins to flower within us, we come, after hard work, to hate all earthly praise and glory. We rid ourselves of rage and fury; and the more this queen of virtues spreads within our souls through spiritual growth, the more we begin to regard our good deeds as of no consequence, in fact, loathsome." St. John Climacus Step 25 para 6.
"Cleanse thy vessel, that thou mayest receive grace more abundantly. For remission of sins is given equally to all, the communion of the Holy Ghost is bestowed in proportion to each man's faith. If thou hast labored little, thou receivest little; but if thou has wrought much, the reward is great. Thou art running for thyself, see to thy own interest." St. Cyril of Jerusalem L1 para5
"Accordingly, brothers, if we want to reach the highest summit of humility, if we desire to attain speedily that exaltation in heaven to which we climb by the humility of this present life, then by our ascending actions we must set up that ladder on which Jacob in a dream saw angels descending and ascending (Gen. 28:12). Without doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts the Lord will raise it to heaven. We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend." St. Benedict Rule ch 7, vs. 5-9
(The aforementioned book that attempts to reduce the role of martyrs is: Riley, John, One Jesus, Many Christs, Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA. 1997.)
The remarkable life of Saint Innocent (canonized 1977) is definitely worth studying. A good overview is found on the internet at our OCA web site (www.oca.org). There is also the excellent book: Garrett, Paul, St. Innocent: Apostle to America, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, N.Y.
Publication of the Diocese of the South, Orthodox Church in America