SOME FEBRUARY SAINTS
I have always been a reader - I don’t mean a Lay Reader, licensed to do various things in Church, but an avid reader of books, essays, newspapers, and the printed word in all its varied forms - and within the last few days by chance I have found myself reading two such wildly contrasting pieces on the subject of the Christian Church that I decided to make them my subject today, Sunday, February 23.
The first comes from a small book, which I bought some years ago second-hand for sixpence - or some such sum. It is a Calendar of Saints, and its one hundred and fifty-two pages are devoted to short accounts of the lives of various Saints, Martyrs, Hermits, Confessors, dedicated Virgins, holy Abbots, saintly Bishops and other heroes and heroines of the Christian faith, and to the days upon which they are to be remembered. I seldom open it, but I did so the other day, and I was fascinated to discover that in February alone there are days devoted to such impenetrably obscure saints as Bishop Sadoth of Seleucia in what is now eastern Turkey, but was then - that is to say, in the early years of the fourth century - part of Persia. Together with over a hundred fellow Christians, whose names have been forgotten, he was martyred in A.D. 342 by a singularly nasty Persian monarch named Sapor II.
According to my little book the day on which they are to be remembered is February 20 - last Thursday, in fact - and I wonder very much whether anyone anywhere did, in fact, remember them. However that may have been, not content with the murder of Bishop Sadoth and his anonymous companions, apparently a few years later King Sapor proceeded to slaughter a number of other Christians with such improbable names as Bishop Acepsimas of Honita in Assyria, who went to his death accompanied by a saintly Deacon from the same diocese named Aithilahas, whose day - they share it - falls on March 14; and I could easily describe the lives and fates of other obscure saints and martyrs, whose days fall round about this time of year, and of whom we have never heard. But I won’t, for enough is enough.
All this was in marked contrast to an article last month in that august journal - a good deal less august nowadays than it used to be - the Times newspaper, which described with slightly patronising approval how one diocese in the poor old, run-down, comatose, and irrelevant Church of England had decided to solve its problems by advertising. The results had been startling. Church attendance over Christmas had gone up by twenty-seven per cent, and according to the Times, bishops, priests and deacons all over the place were rubbing their hands and chortling with glee, as the end of the religious recession hove in sight. But I am afraid that I groaned; or, if I did not actually groan, I asked myself whether we should treat the Gospel of the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit as merchandise to be advertised - even perhaps advertised on commercial television. As Omo, Persil, or whatever washes whiter, is the day coming when we put Jesus on the box as a superior product needed in every home? He is indeed needed in every home; we know that; but I dread the day when I turn on the television and hear someone saying in an over-jolly yet suitably unctuous voice, ‘Suffering from spiritual dryness? Come to church and have a dose of Jesus, He works wonders.’
I know that I am being unfair. We have not yet plumbed such nauseous depths, though I believe that some programmes on American television have come near to doing so from time to time; but unfair or not I am raising a serious question - a question also raised implicitly by that sixpenny Calendar of Saints of mine. It is this. What constitutes success for the Christian Church? By what standards as Christians do we judge success or failure? By every worldly standard, King Sapor II, who was determined to prevent the Christian Church spreading throughout his domain, succeeded in doing so by killing those of his subjects idiotic and misguided enough to adopt the Christian faith, while those two obscure, largely forgotten, long-dead bishops with hopelessly unpronounceable names and the Christians, who died with them, proved to be too weak to stand up to him, and membership of the Church in Persia decreased alarmingly. But must this be accounted a failure on the part of the Church, and a victory for King Sapor? Three hundred years earlier, the Procurator of Judea had condemned the founder of the Church to death, and Jesus had duly been executed; but this has never been regarded by anyone - even non-Christians - as much of a victory for Pilate, let alone a defeat for Jesus: while, for Christians, by turning the death of Jesus on Friday into a victory over death on Sunday, God also turned the standards by which we should judge success and failure radically upside down, allowing us - amongst other things - to remember the deaths of Sadoth, Acepsimas, Aithilahas, and their anonymous companions as a success story rather than a desperate defeat.
This has far-reaching consequences, which were spelled out by St Paul with his usual clarity. ‘When we are weak,’ he told the infant Church in Corinth, ‘we are strong….for the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men.’ To make quite sure that the Corinthian Christians should understand the full implications of what he was saying, he went on to tell them bluntly that ‘God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the mighty….and the things that are not to confound the things that are.’ It could not have been a popular message, for no one likes to be told that they are weak and foolish. they much prefer to feel proud of what they are doing to help God get on with his work of salvation by taking part in evangelistic campaigns with such titles as ‘Outreach’, ‘Why Believe?’ or ‘Jesus Needs You’.
But does he need us - I am being unfair again - to do that sort of thing in order that his Body, the Church, should gain a few more members - hands and feet and voices - with which to bring the knowledge of his love into the lives of more people in the twentieth century world than it already does? Before pursuing that question, it might be a good idea to look for a moment at what has happened to the Orthodox Church in Russia and elsewhere in the last hundred years. For as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the Church in Russia appeared to be both politically unassailable - at the height of its power - and supported by everyone with the exception of a few intellectuals, liberals, and Marxists, who considered it to be an anachronistic relic of a superstitious past. You all know the rest of the story. After the triumph of Communism, churches were burnt or closed, Christians persecuted, their faith derided, and the world - or much of it - concluded that the Church there was dying; it had been very inflexible, very old fashioned, very stuck in its ideas and its ways, and so its fate was perhaps not entirely surprising. All this was perfectly true. The one thing, which the world failed to notice - it was not allowed by the Soviet authorities to do so - during those long years of the Orthodox Church’s weakness and agony, particularly during Stalin’s reign, was how deeply respected for its courage and faith it had become, many Russian people, including young people who had been born under Communism, seeing it as a beacon of hope in the darkness of their world. As a result, the world was astonished when, with the collapse of Communism, the Russian Church emerged very much alive in spite of - or maybe because of - spending nearly seventy years in the wilderness.
It would be easy to conclude from all this that unless the Church is violently persecuted, it cannot be what God would have it be; but that would be nonsense, even though it is undeniably true that the Church is as liable to be corrupted by power as any other body of men and women; history affords ample proof that that is true. It would also be easy to conclude that all our national crusades, diocesan initiatives, and parish missions are a waste of time; and that would also be nonsense, though I personally don’t think that they achieve very much. But there are two things that we can - and indeed should - learn from the fate of those February saints with remarkable names. First, we should never be depressed by the apparent weakness of God’s embattled Church nor by the derision heaped on it by the world, for Christ could move neither hand nor foot as the world derided him on Calvary, and the more Christ-like the Church becomes, the more effectively does it do its job. Secondly, the best advertisement for the Christian Church and the Christian faith is a Christian man or woman filled with faith, hope and the love of God.