The Feast of Nayrouz
By H.H. Pope Shenouda III
The Feast of the Nayrouz means the feast of commemorating the martyrs and we do not commemorate the martyrs once a year, but it is as if we commemorate them every day. If those amongst you read the Synaxarium you will find that every day it says, “In this day the Church commemorates…” and inevitably they contain a number of martyrs.
The Feasts for the martyrs is not just a feast unique to the Coptic Orthodox Church only, but all the churches have some form of commemoration for the martyrs. This is because the martyrs have in the church a special position which is greater than all the saints of the church. It is greater than all the patriarchs in the service and all the monks in the contemplative life. The martyrs occupy the number one position but the question is why?
The martyrs in their martyrdom demonstrated the deepest form of love towards God. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” Jn15:13. The martyrs loved God more than their personal lives, and they laid down that life for Him. In their martyrdom they not only displayed the depth of their love to God, but it also contains the depth of their courage.
It was with the depth of courage that they witnessed to Christ publicly even though the consequences of that witness may have lead to their death. This is why St. John the Baptist for example, whom the Lord described as, “among those born of women there was not risen one greater than John the Baptist” Mt11:11, was a witness and a martyr at the same time. It is very likely that the term ‘martyr’ came from the term ‘to witness’, to witness to the faith, even if this ultimately lead to the person’s death for the sake of that witness.
We notice that our fathers the apostles who received the faith from Our Lord Jesus Christ and spread it in the world, almost all ended their lives with martyrdom. This is with the exception of St. John the beloved who ended up being severely tortured more than those who were martyred.
The martyrs therefore have the depth of love for God whom they loved more than their lives. They also have the depth of faith. The faith which they held onto until death and this faith was not stopped by any threats or sufferings. They fulfilled the true depth of our Lord Jesus Christ’s command, “you shall be witnesses to Me” Act 1:8.
Furthermore they were an incredible example to all the generations in witnessing to the faith and being steadfast despite all the torture and persecutions. They are the ones who preserved the faith for us with their blood until it was given to us intact. This is why we consider the martyrs to be the seeds of faith, and the foundation of faith in the church.
It is possible for any one to witness to the Lord but it is not possible for just any one to die because of their witness to the Lord. They were therefore an example to all the believers in their love, and in their faith, and in their witness to the Lord, and also for their courage. When you read the stories of each one of these saints you find that they had complete faith in their witness to the Lord, and they had exceptional courage. In their steadfastness and bearing their sufferings they were brave.
Martyrdom began from the beginning of Christianity and has remained with her throughout her journey through time. It started from the beginning of Christianity for as our Lord said, “In the world you will have tribulation” Jn 16:33. Many are those who tried to run away from this tribulation but the martyrs did not run away from tribulation, rather they bore it and persevered through it. He said to them, “the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” Jn 16:2. He also said to them, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” Mt 10:19. When Our Lord Christ called people to Christianity, He did not call them to a path strewn with rose petals, but He told them you will be taking a path containing tribulation and the threat of death.
Despite this they bore, and were patient, and steadfast all their lives. There even came a time when death was desired by people. It was not just the overcoming of the fear of death but it had become a desire for them to depart this world and be with Christ. As St. Paul says, “having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” Phi 1:23. To the extent that once 30000 Copts went out of Damanhour towards Alexandria seeking martyrdom and they sang hymns and praised God on the way. Death had become a desire to them.
When the day of St. Fam the Soldier had arrived he wore his finest clothes, and when they asked him about why he had done this he said that today was the day of his wedding feast and that he was going to the wedding feast. St. Antony, the father all of all the monks also sought martyrdom, despite monasticism being an escape from the world it was never an escape from martyrdom. He came out of the wilderness to Alexandria seeking martyrdom. He would on many occasions strengthen the believers publicly in front of the people, but God did not permit for him to be martyred for God had preserved him for another purpose.
What is amazing is that someone like St. John the Baptist received his martyrdom whilst Christ was still on the earth. It was possible for Christ to have save him if He so wished. However Our Lord allowed for him to be martyred so that He can add to St. John’s crowns the crown of martyrdom.
From those martyrs who loved martyrdom there is also the great St. Ignatius the Bishop of Antioch and who the Antiochian patriarchs are named after to this day. They take the name Mar Ignatius as well as another name. This saint was being taken to Rome to be martyred, and the believers in Rome wanted to save him from death, and kidnap him from his captors and prevent him from being brought before the emperor. St. Ignatius sent them a remarkable letter which can be found in the writings of the apostolic fathers, as he is considered an apostolic father. In it he tells them quite plainly that he feared that their love for him was going to cause him harm. Having laboured all this way in his life to this point are they going to cause him to begin the journey again? They are going to throw him to the lions and that if the lions did not eat him, he will provoke them into eating him. It is a wonderful letter in the writings of the apostolic fathers. This saint was ultimately thrown to the lions that devoured him, but in that night he appeared in the spirit to the believers and strengthened them.
The people by martyrdom use to feel the approaching joy of meeting Christ, and meeting those in heaven, and this was for them far more important than the joys of this earth. So in addition to their faith in Christ and Christianity they believed in heaven and the angels, etc…
They use to consider death the quickest way to paradise. The strike of the sword took a minute or part of a minute. This was insignificant compared to finding themselves in the arms of Christ all of a sudden. Even the mothers would encourage their children with this understanding as they faced martyrdom. Martyrdom enlisted all types of people from the community: children, youth and elders, women and men. For example, St. Demiana was martyred and the forty other virgins with her. She rebuked her father initially when he fled from martyrdom; he then returned and gained the crown of martyrdom. Her father was a ruler over the area of Zaafaran.
The most severe persecution for Christians came during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. This is why from the beginning of the reign of this emperor we started the Coptic calendar. I told you that they looked upon martyrdom as the quickest and most secure way to entering paradise, but that depended on them being martyred straight away. However there were those who were not that fortunate and were tortured for long periods. Often it took someone to intervene and try to influence the officials to martyr the person.
It was bearing this torture which raises their importance as well. There was also during these times of torture a special grace granted to them which allowed them to bear the suffering, and be patient in their pain. When you hear the stories of the martyrs and what kind of tortures they went through, you are amazed and ask how could they have accepted all this? There is no doubt that there was a special grace that protected them. It protected them in bearing the pain, and in being steadfast in the faith despite all their sufferings.
I told you that the severest persecution was during the time of Emperor Diocletian but that does not mean that the persecution has ended. When we talk about St. Peter the seal of the martyrs it does not mean that martyrdom has ended. When we talk about ‘the seal of martyrs’ it may mean that he was the last Pope to be martyred by the Roman Empire. It could also be a reference to him being the last Pope in whose papacy the communal martyrdom ended, because martyrdom can take place to individuals or it could take place to entire cities. For example the city of Isna, is called the city of martyrs because the entire city was martyred. Also like the Theban Legion which involved the martyrdom of over 6000 individuals.
It was through these martyrdom and steadfastness that they embarrassed the state. It was either for the state to win over the Copts and for them to become her support, by stopping the persecution, or it losses them without gain. The state eventually ended the persecution and the Emperor Constantine in the Edict of Milan of 313AD granted the freedom of religion and the Copts were no longer killed because of their Christianity.
We want to know how the Church prepared her children for martyrdom. It prepared them with a deep steadfast faith and it would tell them of what use to happen in the days of the early church and our fathers the apostles including the great miracles that took place. It also prepared them with the books of those who defended the faith or the apologetics. They would also encourage them by telling them that the time is near, and the Lord is coming soon. They would often write in their letters the term ‘maran atha’ meaning ‘The Lord is coming’. The term ‘maran’ in the Syrian language means ‘the lord’ and ‘atha’ means ‘coming’. They would also say that the Lord is near.
They also encouraged them in strengthening their spiritual lives, so the life of chastity spread, not just for the sake of a love for the life of chastity, but at the least so as not to bear children to worry over in the time of persecution and death. This is why St. Paul when he talks about his life of chastity says, “But I want you to be without care.” 1 Cor 7:31. When he talks about being without care, he means without care in the time of persecution as to what will happen to their children.
Furthermore the Church took care of the families of those martyred and provided for them. The Church also took care of the relics of the martyrs. St. Youlios began to write the stories of the martyrs and preserve the relics of the martyrs.
The time of persecution use to be a time of strengthened faith and not weakness. Spirituality becomes deeper during the time of persecution, the fast becomes deeper, the prayer becomes deeper, and the relationship with God becomes deeper.
The final point I would like to bring to your attention, is what do we benefit from the Feast of the Nayrouz? Its spiritual lessons is not just that we have a fascination for the faith, courage, steadfastness of the martyrs and we become proud that we are the children of the martyrs.
The spiritual lesson is that we must walk in their ways. St. Augustine was once asked by someone, he wished to be martyred but how could he given that the era of martyrdom had passed? St Augustine said to him, if your heart has the same desire as the martyr then you are counted as a martyr. Having the desire of the martyr means you have no desire or care for this world. Notice that the church also use to encourage the believers by telling them the same thing and not to have a care for this world. When ever they attended church it would tell them “Do not love the world or the things in the world… the world is passing away, and all the lust of it, but he who does the will of God abides forever” 1 Jn 2:15,17. A continually repeated lesson for the believers.
There was once a monk who wished to be martyred. He was advised not to leave the monastery but despite the advice not to go down this route he refused and he stubbornly went out. He entered the wilderness and there he found a group of Bedouin camped who spotted him and brought him to the camp, and these Bedouin were cannibals, and they planned to do horrible things to him before they chopped him up and ate him. The man began to shake, and became very scared. He remembered the advice of his spiritual father and how he told him to stay away from this path. He started praying that God would save him from these people. If it weren’t for a large group of armed merchants arriving on the scene he would not have lived. The Bedouin escaped, but by the time the Bedouin escaped his nerves had escaped and he was found by the merchants a nervous wreck. Therefore do not think that martyrdom is an easy thing.
We are also in the beginning of a new Coptic Year, in this new year we pray for a good beginning, and we advice that you should take at least one virtue and train your self in it. Take the virtue of long-suffering for example. Train yourself to accept bad word from others against you or the insult of others and so on.
Glory be to God forever Amen.
H.H. Pope Shenouda III
A Sermon on- 13 September 2006