NOTE: This is the 63rd Catechesis given on the 3rd Sunday of Lent.
Brethren and fathers, in the present instruction I want to urge you to consolation from a certain story. The story is this: In Bulgaria, as those who were accurately informed have reported, an evil decree went out from the ruler there that the Christians in captivity and our brothers were to eat meat during the period of the holy Forty Days; those who obeyed would live, those who disobeyed would be killed. The word of the godless was exceedingly strong and the people assembled and there was weeping and groans and much lamentation with women and children, on the one side of those clinging to the Christian law, on the other of those quailing before the death of the flesh. Finally — ah, the pitiable announcement — they were defeated and submitted to the godless order. Fourteen of them though broke away and stood apart saying it was not possible either to obey or to eat meat in violation of the Christian law. At this, appeals and exhortations by the people: Let them yield to constraint, not die foolishly, and through repentance they can be restored again. But nothing could persuade them or weaken them from keeping their gaze fixed on God and on the blessedness that was laid up in his promises.
The Scythian then, when he saw the implacable determination of the men, thought to subdue the rest by means of one, and having slain him he at once distributed his children and his wife among the Scythians as slaves, so that the others weakened by this would be brought over. But they rather remained unbowed and shouted out, ‘We are Christians, and our lot is that of our dead brother’. At this confession they were crucified on planks and died in the Lord. You see, therefore, brethren, that even now too the Gospel of the kingdom of God is active. One who loves father or mother, it says, more than me is not worthy of me; and one who loves son or daughter or wife more than me is not worthy of me; and one who does not take up his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me [Matt. 10,37-38]. And again, Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul; rather fear one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna [Matt. 10,28.].
They were obedient then to the commands of the Gospel, they obeyed the authority of the Lord and were wreathed with the crown of martyrdom, imitating the holy Maccabees and doubling their number, for the Maccabees were seven, but they were fourteen; the former so as not to taste swine’s meat in violation of the law, the latter so as not to partake of any meat in violation of the Christian rule; this latter seems stricter, because for the Maccabees partaking of pork was utterly forbidden, but for these men it was permissible to partake of any meat under necessity, as St Basil says. But since the order from the Scythians was aimed at the rejection of the faith, they refused; but they considered all things as secondary for the love of Christ. O blessed men! O blessed action! in a single instant to have received in exchange eternal rest! What will they say to this, those who deny that heretical communion is a breach of faith? For if there there was a breach of faith by the people over eating meat, how much more here over the heretically sacrificed communion. Where too are those who say that there is no ground for martyrdom in the image of Christ? For if there there was ground for martyrdom for those who did not eat meat, how much more here is the ground for martyrdom resplendent for those who have not denied. But the heretics, because they are dark themselves, also speak things that are dark as they try to embroil others in their own falls.
But let us, brethren, glorify our good God, who glorifies those who have glorified him, who reveals martyrs in this generation too, as we reflect on the fact that if men who were apparently lowly, uneducated, married and with children gave everything up for the love of Christ, how much more should we, who are unmarried and outside the world, when the moment calls, become as zealous as the saints. But this is for a day when Christ calls us; now though, let us stand firm for the uninterrupted martyrdom according to the conscience. Let us not bow the knee to Baal, brethren, and let us not give in when struck by the thoughts [‘The thoughts’, logismoi, are a technical term in the monastic literature and I retain the slightly awkward definite article in English. The expression is effectively synonymous with ‘the demons’. See the important treatment by Prof. A. Guillaumont in Évagre le Pontique. Traité Pratique ou le Moine, tom. 1, pp. 54-98 [SC 170]]; let us rather quench the fiery arrows of the evil one with tears, with supplications, with compunction, with the other batterings of the body, so that we too may be able to say with the Apostle, Every day I die, that is as certain as the boast in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord [1 Cor. 15:31.]; and with the holy David, Because for you we die all the day, we were reckoned as sheep for the slaughter [Ps. 43:23.]. With them may we be found worthy to become heirs of the kingdom of heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and might, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.