Tuesday, 3 March 2015



‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’, wrote St Cyprian. When ISIS terrorists in Libya beheaded 21 innocent Coptic Christians they unwittingly confirmed that shining truth. The victims died with the names of Jesus on their lips. Beshir Kamel, brother of two of the slain, even thanked the slayers. He said his brothers’ death was ‘a badge of honour’ for Christianity.

The crown of martyrdom is the supreme witness to Christ and the martyr is the model Christian. In his ‘Exhortation to Martyrdom’ the theologian Origen evokes the example of seven Maccabean brothers who suffered atrociously for their faith at the hands of Hellenistic King Antiochus Epiphanes. He was a megalomaniac – ‘Epiphanes’ means ‘God Manifest’ - so his enemies mocked him with a pun: they called him him ‘Epimanes’, the Madman. That impious lunatic believed himself omnipotent. He determined to force idolatrous customs on the Hebrew people.

The Second Book of Maccabees relates the hideous sufferings of a pious family, seven brothers and their mother. One by one the imprisoned young men under torture were ordered to apostatise from the laws of their fathers. The tortures are no reading for the faint-hearted. Some youths were tormented with whips and cords, others scalped, their hands and feet cut off, tongue cut out and at last fried alive in a pan. The sixth brother chided the tyrant: ‘We are suffering these things for our sins but…You will not go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!’

The boys’ mother saw all her seven sons perish within a single day. Yet she exhorted her children to remain steadfast. Whereupon Antiochus realised he was treated with contempt. He tried to seduce the seventh, youngest son with promises of untold wealth and honours if he embraced idolatry. When that failed, he sought to get the mother to convince the boy to give in. Instead she rallied him: ‘Do not fear this butcher, my son, but prove worthy of your faith. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.’ Antiochus fell into a rage and ‘handled him worse than the others’. Last of all, the mother also was killed. Years later the wicked ruler suddenly died and the persecution ended.

You may query the analogy with the death of the Copts. Because the men who murdered the martyrs are not idolaters, like Antiochus. Inspired by Wahhabi fundamentalist ideology, the Jihadis pretend to attack idol-worshippers, while upholding a putatively pure Islam. Al-Wahhab, their spiritual founder and paragon, did agitate in 18^th century Arabia against sacred trees, Sufi shrines, graves of holy men and the like, urging their destruction. The same ideology has led Caliphate zealots in Mosul to smash priceless ancient statues.

Actually, very few people adore human artefacts. The Decalogue rightly forbids the worship of graven images but there are far worse forms of idolatry. Like mental idols, graven in the mind. Ironically, you need not worship a stone to be an idolater. A more menacing idol may be engraved in your imagination. A hideous, mental Moloch that demands from his votaries a constant sacrifice of innocent human lives and blood. Are the Jihadi-Wahhabi militants who believe themselves to be serving the Creator of the Universe actually worshipping a bloodthirsty idol imprinted on their deluded brains? It looks that way.

Extolling martyrdom looks weird, even offensive to a secular, unbelieving culture. When John Henry Newman told Anglican bishops they should desire to be martyrs, those bloated Establishment placemen felt insulted. It figures. Being reminded of the obligation to embrace the Cross is shocking to a worldly, pseudo-Christian person. ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me’ says the Saviour (St Matthew 16:24). The same terrible Cross on which Christ was hung for our sins. Emulating the Lord’s sufferings should not be directly sought but it must be endured if God wills it.

Infidel culture, i.e. the present-day British, baulks at eternal life. Christians triumphed over ancient paganism because of four vital values they exemplified: zeal, belief in a future life, moral lifestyle and a strong sense of community. Belief in survival after death has waned in the Church, as well in a society at large. The hegemonic, suffocating dictatorship of materialism and scientism has made Christian leaders ashamed to confess for real that bracing article of the Creed: ‘I believe…in the Resurrection of the dead’. Yet, proclaiming the resurrection of the body and the reality of life beyond the grave are essential to the Faith. ‘If the dead are not raised…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins’, warns St Paul. Sinfulness and futility describe rather accurately the bankrupt state of the current C of E…

Should the Coptic martyrs be avenged? One of the dying Maccabean brothers tells King Antiochus that the Almighty will punish him with tortures that ‘have never been seen’. A sentiment perhaps more Hebrew than Christian. The Egyptian President, General Sissi, has sworn revenge on the terrorists but the Church recoils from bloodshed. It would be wrong if the sacrifice of the martyrs was an occasion for the shedding of more blood.

Better leave it to the wrath of God.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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