I was reminded of the words of Christ while reading last night. The Christians in the ancient Roman Empire (third century) were being persecuted, turned from their homes, burned, tortured, and beheaded. A civil war broke out and then a plague infested the area, which distracted the unbelievers from the persecution.
I was deeply moved by the account which St Dionysius the Great wrote* regarding the total selfless and divine love the Christians displayed. I will quote him at length here:
DIONYSIUS TO THE ALEXANDRIANS
Certainly very many of our brethren, while, in their exceeding love and brotherly-kindness, they did not spare themselves, but kept by each other, and visited the sick without thought of their own peril, and ministered to them assiduously, and treated them for their healing in Christ, died from time to time most joyfully along with them, lading themselves with pains derived from others, and drawing upon themselves their neighbours’ diseases, and willingly taking over to their own persons the burden of the sufferings of those around them.
And many who had thus cured others of their sicknesses, and restored them to strength, died themselves, having transferred to their own bodies the death that lay upon these…Yea, the very best of our brethren have departed this life in this manner, including some presbyters and some deacons, and among the people those who were in highest reputation: so that this very form of death, in virtue of the distinguished piety and the steadfast faith which were exhibited in it, appeared to come in nothing beneath martyrdom itself.
And they took the bodies of the saints on their upturned hands, and on their bosoms, and closed their eyes, and shut their mouths. And carrying them in company, and laying them out decently, they clung to them, and embraced them, and prepared them duly with washing and with attire. And then in a little while after they had the same services done for themselves, as those who survived were ever following those who departed before them.
But among the heathen all was the very reverse. For they thrust aside any who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died, steadily avoiding any kind of communication and intercourse with death; which, however, it was not easy for them altogether to escape, in spite of the many precautions they employed.
BECOMING AN EVERY DAY MARTYR
This passage brings to mind our own Lord’s example. St Peter writes of Him,
“Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps…Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed”
(1 Peter 2:21,24)
These early martyrs did indeed “follow his steps” in suffering. Like Christ, who bore our disease of sin and death in his body upon the cross, these martyrs took upon themselves bodily the sickness of their brethren.
This is the example that we have been left by both Christ and his saints. It is daunting.
Most of us will not have to endure that form of martyrdom, which I related above. However, we are commanded to love our neighbors, which means to die to ourselves. This includes suspending judgment of our neighbors; not speaking critically of others no matter how wrong or annoying we think they are; giving preference to all others over ourselves; giving to those in need; thinking more highly of all others than we do of ourselves; using our God-given talents to benefit others; etc.
When others hurt us, act ungratefully, have bad attitudes or seem to be lacking in compassion, we must forgive them “for they know not what they do.” We must be like Christ and the early Christians who bore their neighbor’s disease of sin within themselves. This is truly one of the deeper forms of intercession and love for our neighbors. To intercede is not simply to say a prayer for someone, but to also quietly bear within us their burdens.
These are the “little martyrdoms” that we can embrace with each day. And after we do so, we must not think we have accomplished anything special. We must not pat ourselves on the back and say, “Wow, you’re such an awesome Christian.” Instead, we must do as Jesus commanded us,
So you also, when you have done all those things which you are commanded to do, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have only done our duty!’
From Dionysius The Great’s Epistle to the Alexandrians. From the Ante Nicene Church Fathers, translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Book 6 of 10. Published1886.
All scriptural quotes are from the KJV except the last one, which was taken from the Eastern Orthodox Bible.