Today I came home from Palm Sunday worship at Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Ormond Beach, only to discover that two Coptic churches in Egypt were bombed by the Islamic State (ISIS) and more than 40 persons martyred only hours ago. I write “martyred”, and not “killed” because the simple facts hold that they were killed, but the deeper truth is that they died as witnesses to — and participants in — the Passion of Christ in the coming Holy Week. This is a a profound difference.
I am going to paint an icon of today’s martyrdom in the weeks ahead, but first I need to reflect on what happened today in our Palm Sunday worship. It is the spiritual background to explain what martyrdom is — and how it is profoundly linked to Palm Sunday.
In today’s homily at the Orthodox Church, Father Michael reminded us that the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem was a prophetic gesture. He was not entering Jerusalem uncertain about the outcome. Rather He was boldly challenging the powers of the state (Rome) that oppressed the people of Israel.
But it was more than that, it was a challenge not only to earthly, but also cosmic, diabolic forces — Death, Sin, and the Evil One. But Christ entered not as a conquering worldly king riding in a golden chariot or on a white stallion with legions of soldiers around him. Rather, Jesus humbled himself by riding a donkey and surrounding himself with his ragged band of disciples. Christ had just revealed His power over Death by raising Lazarus: The crowds recognized this, and they welcomed him waving palm leaves and singing,
Blessed is He
who comes into the Name of the Lord.”
He rode in confidently knowing that he would wrestle with Evil, be locked in Deathly combat, be Crucified, and then descend into Hades where he would Harrow Hell, freeing those trapped by Death… later leading Paul the Apostle to taunt the Evil One by crying out,
“Where is thy victory, O Death?”
1 Corinthians 15:55
And so we pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Cross re-enacted — and became one with — that sacred moment outside the gates to Jerusalem. We walked outside and around the church, waving our palms and chanting the song of hope and victory over death.
Yes, we still need to go through the passion of Holy Week. Like the people of Egypt this Palm Sunday, we will grieve, suffer, and weep from our inmost being. We will keep vigil on Good Friday at the foot of the Cross. But we know the same secret Jesus knew as he rode the donkey: Death thinks it will have the final victory, but we know that Life has already won.
We Christians have that sure knowledge, and a peace-filled confidence, that next Sunday is the Beginning of the End… of Death and Evil. And to those zealous servants and handmaidens of the Evil One who are ISIS suicide bombers, we confidently say:
“Where is thy Sting, O Death? Where is thy Victory?”
1 Corinthians 15:55
Here are my three icons of modern day martyrs: (1) Father Jacques Hamel martyred in France in July 26, 2016. Finished
(2) Twenty-One Copts, all men, martyrs. beheaded by Islamic terrorists in Libya in February 12, 2015 Unfinished
and (3) Twenty-Six Copts, mostly women and children, martyred in Cairo in on December 11, 2016. Unfinished
The first icon is finished and blessed. The second and third icons are still being painted. When they have faces, I will take them to be blessed.
And, this Holy Week I begin a new icon: “The Palm Sunday Martyrs of Egypt.”
A prayer of the Eastern Church:
Christ is with us. He is in our midst.
Dr. Robert Béla Wilhelm
April 9, 2017