By Fr John Palmer (Delivered on August 10)
Last week we celebrated the memory of our Holy and God-bearing Father, Anthony the Roman and in so doing we were reminded that Orthodoxy had at one time been embraced by the West before it was led away into the pride and arrogance of heresy. According to Saint Justin Popovic, there have been three great Falls in the world’s history: first that of the angels, second that of Judas and third that of the Pope. And O, brothers and sisters, how great a Fall it was! For before the Schism the West bore great fruit in all areas of the spiritual life. It produced great ascetics like Saint John Cassian, and Saint Benedict of Nursia; it produced great hierarchs like Saint Gregory the Great, whose work The Pastoral Rule is unsurpassed in Patristic literature, and Saint Paulinus of Nola, who sold himself into slavery in order to free one of his flock who had been taken captive; it produced great theologians like Saint Hilary of Poitiers and Saint Leo the Great, Popes of Rome, who defended the Orthodox faith during a period when many in the East were wavering; it produced devout rulers like Saint Edward, King of England; and it produced many, many martyrs for the Orthodox faith. Crowning these is the Saint whose memory we keep today, the Holy, Glorious and Right-victorious Martyr, Laurence the Archdeacon of Rome.
Today, then, in honor of the occasion, we will look briefly at the life of Saint Laurence as it is presented in the Synaxarion, adding here and there some interpretive comments from an encomium written in praise of the martyr by Saint Leo the Great – for anytime we seek to do something as Orthodox we should look for the advice of the Holy Fathers.
Laurence, through whom – in the words of St Leo: “Rome has become as famous…as Jerusalem was ennobled by Stephen,” lived in Rome during the time of the Emperor Valerian who reigned from 253 to 259. He lived a devout Christian life and having being found as the Scriptures say, “…a serious man, not double-tongued, nor given to the love of money, and holding the faith with a pure conscience.” Having been found “blameless”, in other words (1Timothy 3:8-10), he was ordained to the holy diaconate, serving at the Church’s services and managing the Church’s property. Laurence’s virtue and devotion were noted and he was soon raised to the office of Archdeacon of Rome, meaning that he continued to fulfill the usual responsibilities of a deacon but he did so now on a broader level; instead of serving with a priest in a small community, he now served, as the Synaxarion tells us, with the Pope at Divine Liturgy and administered the entire wealth of the whole Roman Church.
To serve publicly in the Roman church during this period was to choose death for the faith, for Emperor Valerian was one of the cruelest persecutors of Christianity in Roman history. It was thus no great surprise when Saint Sixtus – the pope whom Saint Laurence served, and who is also commemorated today – was imprisoned by the Emperor. Laurence came to visit the Pope in prison and upon seeing him in chains cried out with tears, “Where have you gone, father? Why have you forsaken your archdeacon, with whom you continually offered the Bloodless Sacrifice? Take thy son with thee, that I may be thy companion in having shed blood for Christ!” Saint Sixtus explained that he has not abandoned Saint Laurence and that they would not be apart for long, prophesying that Laurence would by martyred three days after his own martyrdom. Before they parted, however, the Pope gave Saint Laurence one last obedience: he instructed him to go and give the whole of the Roman Church’s money to the poor living in the Roman streets which he immediately did upon leaving.
When Saint Laurence returned he told his bishop that he had done what was asked of him. A guard, however, overheard that money was being discussed and immediately arrested Laurence, knowing that the Emperor was bound by a love of money and would want whatever riches the Church of Rome possessed. While in prison Laurence cared for many of his fellow prisoners, converting and baptizing many of them. Even one of the guards, witnessing his pure and Christ-like love, would embrace the Christian religion and seek baptism.
Saint Laurence before Emperor Valerian
After a short period of time word reached the Emperor that there was a man sitting in prison who held the key to the Roman Church’s wealth and thus he had him brought forth from the prison to question him. Valerian’s evil was not singular but compound – he did not want the money alone; he was armed with a “double weapon”. St Leo writes that as Laurence was incomparable in terms of the devotion with which he served the liturgy, but also in terms of the care with which he managed the Church’s property, so Valerian desired not only to for him, “to surrender the sacred treasures,” namely, the Church’s money and likely sacred vessels, but also to “drive him out of the pale of true religion,” in other words cause him to renounce his faith. Valerian’s double vice was met by Saint Laurence’s double virtue.
First, Valerian asked that the wealth be brought to him. To this Saint Laurence replied that he would need three days to gather it. Excited, Valerian sent him off. When the Saint returned, he brought with him all of the city’s poor, as St Leo says, “the many troops of poor saints, in the feeding and clothing of whom he had a store of riches he could not lose, and which were the more entirely safe that the money had been spent on so holy a cause.”
We are constantly trying to find the safest bank, the best investment, the surest place to put our money. Where is the surest place in truth? It is to give it away in almsgiving because the reward we get for this investment is eternal; it is the Kingdom of Heaven. This cannot be taken away from us by anyone. Only we can forfeit this reward. It is in almsgiving that we get the best exchange.
Hating a “religion which had put riches to such a use,” the Emperor sought, “to pillage a still greater treasure.” What treasure is this one might ask? The treasure of a pure confession of faith. This is greater than any material treasure, for wealth we can live without – though it may aid in our salvation if it is used properly – but the corruption of our faith means our sure perdition. If we renounce the Gospel, as this has been expressed by the Holy Fathers within the Church, if we renounce the Orthodox tradition, then we are cutting ourselves off from Christ. We must live in a manner befitting of the Gospel of Christ, but we must also confess the true faith in obedience to the Church which speaks out of an unquestionable experience of Christ, indeed with the very voice of Christ himself. Valerian thus sought to rob Saint Laurence of his faith through torture.
Saint Laurence was first tied to a pillar and sliced with spears and knives and then, as if this was not cruel enough, a giant grill was heated up and the Saint was placed upon it and seared. His torturers then flipped him from front to back in order, “to make the torment fiercer, the death more lingering.” The tortures accomplished nothing, however, and Laurence maintained his faith until the end when his soul was released from his body. To this St Leo adds a final word, saying that in Saint Laurence, “The flame of Christ’s love could not be overcome by the flames, and the fire which burnt outside was less keen than that which blazed within. Thou didst but serve the martyr in thy rage, O persecutor: thou didst but swell the reward in adding to the pain.”
The life of the martyrs seems so distant from us; we don’t face heavy persecution – though the anti-Christian tide in society is growing – we don’t stare torture in the face on a daily basis, nor do we face death for our belief in Christ as did St Laurence. And yet the Church is ever projecting their example to us. Almost daily there is a martyred saint celebrated in the liturgical calendar – I dare say even the most common amongst the ranks of saints are the holy martyrs – and in the Oktoechos or the Paraklitiki – the liturgical book used especially at Vespers and Matins – at least one hymn is dedicated to the martyrs each and every day. For example we sing the following at Vespers on Tuesday night in the weeks where Tone One is used: “How good is your trade, O Saints: you shed blood and gained heaven. Smitten for a time you rejoice in eternity. Your trade is good indeed. By forsaking corruption, you inherited incorruption.”
Part of the reason for the Church’s emphasis on martyred saints is that the martyrs exemplify the chief of the virtues: that of love. Just as a sparrow requires two wings to fly in the sky, so our soul needs two wings to fly towards Paradise: the love of God and the love of neighbor, and according to Saint Leo, “surely in none is this love found more conspicuous and brighter than in the blessed martyrs”.
The martyrs love God so deeply that they prove willing to abandon all the things of this life in order to preserve their relationship with Christ and it is this same love that we are called to manifest in our own lives. Saint John Chrysostom writes: “…it is not just death which creates a martyr, but also the disposition…It is not I, but Paul who gives this definition of martyrdom when he speaks in this way: ‘I die every day’. How do you die every day?” (Homily on Saint Eustathius ) We die daily by using our love of God to overcome our attraction to the things of this life, to overcome our old man, and to push us towards the life of the commandments and to the undertaking of godly endeavours. When we get up from the television to say prayers even though we really don’t want to: this is a bloodless martyrdom. When we keep the fast even though we are tempted to break it: this is a bloodless martyrdom. In these small ways we use the little love we bear for God – just a fraction of the total love embodied in the martyrs – and put our old selves to death. This is one way in which the example of the martyrs can inspire us.
There is one other way in which the example of the martyrs ought to speak to us. Though we don’t face the threat of being put to death for our beliefs, we are in frequent positions to confess our faith – to keep the faith in the face of an atheistic and syncretistic cultural environment.Do we make our cross in public, or are we ashamed? Do we allow others to blaspheme our Lord and Saviour, the Most Holy Theotokos, the memory of the Saints and say noting? Saint John Chrysostom says blasphemers ought to fear their own shadows, in case it is a Christian coming up behind them to give them a slap on account of their blasphemy! How often do we let others – or worse we ourselves – say to non-Orthodox, “We are all the same, anyway!”. And this when Saint Cyprian of Carthage teaches us that heresy is the one sin that even martyrdom cannot wash away! This is not to say that we ought always to confront such statements head on, but we must ask ourselves whether our avoiding confrontation comes from discretion or rather from a hesitancy to confess the truth of the Orthodox faith. Boldness is a part of living the Christian life, something exemplified in Saint Laurence, but forgotten in our life within modern, pluralistic societies.
Let us, then, encouraged by Saint Laurence’s example, and strengthened by his prayers, live a bloodless martyrdom, putting to death all those things of the old man which still dwell in us, while at the same time putting aside the fear of boldly confessing Christ with our mouths!
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