Learning to Rejoice in Persecution

Fr. Gabriel Bilas | 08 June 2019

A reflection on the life of St. Theodore Stratelates, in honor of the patron of the newly baptized servant of God Theodore.

On the last Sunday of Pascha, we were blessed to witness the Baptism, Chrismation, and First Communion with little Theodore, our newest warrior for Christ.  It is a long standing and beautiful tradition to name our children after the heroes and heroines of our faith, as a reminder to them (and us) of the true heroism that is needed in order to conquer the devil.

I believe that this is the first time since I have been here, that someone has chosen the name of Theodore, after St. Theodore Stratelates…a wonderful warrior saint who is the patron and protector of all those who are members of the armed forces.

There is a wonderful quote from St. Herman of Alaska, who once said:  “A Christian is a true warrior…fighting his way through the regiments of the unseen enemy, towards a heavenly homeland.”  This is not only a very striking picture of our own spiritual lives, but it is also a very good description of the life of St. Theodore. He was a very well-liked Orthodox Christian in the 2ndcentury, which if you know your Church history, was a time where being Orthodox was illegal!  It was dangerous to even mention the name of Christ in Public!  But Theodore was a man of great courage, and it was that courage that helped make him famous, and further his career as a military commander.

In his hometown of Asia Minor, there were rumors going around town of a giant serpent who had been terrorizing the locals.  It had killed several livestock and had even taken the life of some of the townspeople. In a very public display of courage, St. Theodore took up his sword, and began to hunt for the serpent.  When he finally found it, while publicly glorifying Christ, he successfully rid the town of the threat!

After Theodore was named a military commander, he continued to preach Christ and convert others to Holy Orthodoxy, just by the way that he lived his life.  Hundreds of prominent pagans in the city of Heraclea began to convert, and this of course upset the emperor Licinius, who was doing his best to stamp out this new faith of Christianity.  In an effort to rectify the situation, the emperor ordered that Theodore go into the local pagan temple and offer a sacrifice to the gods.  But once again, showing his courage, Theodore instead went and smashed all of the gold and silver idols in the temple, and secretly distributed them to the poor.  He was eventually arrested and sentenced to be tortured and executed.

In an attempt to scare the locals, Licinius has St. Theodore dragged through the streets.  His bones were broken with iron rods, he was burned with fire, and to top it all off, just as the sun was going down, he was crucified on a cross in the middle of town.  The next morning, imperial soldiers were sent to come and take the bodies off of the cross to burn them.  We can only imagine the shock on their faces when they saw St. Theodore, sitting at the base of the cross waiting for them, completely unharmed and alive!  All of them eventually became baptized, not far from the place of the unsuccessful execution!

Eventually, after spending some time with the new Christians, St. Theodore told the faithful that he never wanted to escape martyrdom for Christ, so he voluntarily surrendered himself to the Emperor, and received the crown of martyrdom which he had sought, in February of 319.

There are so many things that we can take away from this account, but I wanted to focus on two pieces of advice that we can take away from the life of baby Theodore’s patron saint.

First:  Never live your faith in fear.  Despite all of the threats of death and torture, even from the Emperor of Rome itself, St. Theodore never hid his faith and trust in the love of God.  He was the true example of what it means to live a life of Christian courage!

Anyone who has opened up a newspaper or watched the evening news (depending on what station you watch), can easily see that the world is once again trending towards an era of Christian persecution.  In the middle east, we are witnessing the daily murder of Christians, which is now reaching genocide levels.  Here in the west, although physical persecution has been happening few and far between, we are starting to see more and more cases of disdain for the Christian way of life.  Stories of Church vandalism and arson are starting to increase, as moral issues like marriage and abortion are starting to come into play.

It is more important for us now, more than ever, to begin to study the lives of our heroes and heroines, and to emulate their example in an increasingly hate-filled world. I think we all know the main attributes that are needed:  Return anger with Love, double our prayer for our enemies, never let intimidation or hate affect our love for God and His Church…but perhaps the most important of all (and the one that all martyrs had in common):  We need to learn to rejoice in the midst of persecution.

In the news this past week (and seemingly every week), I saw a story about a Roman Catholic Church that had been vandalized in Pennsylvania, with hate messages spray painted on the doors. I often have played this scenario out in my head, about what we would do if these acts of violence were ever brought to our little Church in the woods, and I would hope that after the dust and shock had settled, we would give thanks and glory to God for the assurance that not only are we on the right path…but the devil is starting to get desperate!

Second:  Whatever Position we are at in life, we are called to use our experiences and connections that God has given us, to bring the light of Christ to others.  St. Theodore had tremendous public influence which he used to help change the world.  Although we might not all be public figures, each one of us has a role to play in spreading the light and love of Christ to the lives of those we are connected with.

Priests endeavor to put their lives aside in order to unconditionally love those entrusted to their care.  Monks give up their place in the world in order to pray for the world.  Orthodox business owners put profits and convenience aside in order to show compassion those whom they employee.  Orthodox Government workers use their influence to improve and save the lives of those that are in their jurisdiction.  Orthodox Husbands and Wives strive to cease being individuals, choosing instead to become martyrs for each other.  Orthodox Mothers and Fathers lay aside their own lives for those of their children.  Orthodox Sons and Daughters return the love of their parents in the same way by caring for them in their old age.

No matter what our role is in this life, each and every one of us has the responsibility to spread the love of Christ to the lives of those who need it the most!  In an increasingly dark world…that light is needed now, more than ever!

Through the prayers of St. Theodore Stratelates, may we all find the Christian Courage to lift each other up towards the light and life of Christ…Amen!

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