A Message Signed in Blood

I am not a fan of horror movies. I don’t enjoy feeling frightened by suspense and terror as a means of entertainment. But back in February I forced myself to watch a video that was about as horrifying as anything I have ever seen. It was so awful that I could not bear to watch it to the end. What made it especially horrifying was that it did not feature actors following a script but was a real-life documentary. The video was titled: “A Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross”. It was the gruesome video of 21 Orthodox Christians of Egypt beheaded by Islamic terrorists on a beach in Libya.

The video was designed to send a message filled with fear and terror to the world, especially Christians “the Nation of the Cross”. The terrorists who murdered these men message did send a message to the world but the message was the opposite of what they intended. The video included a subtle message of triumph, victory, courage, and faith. The unintended message has encouraged and united Christians around the world. One of the captions their murderers wrote said “these insisted to remain in unbelief”. Do we understand what this simple sentence means? It means these Orthodox men were given the choice to deny their faith in Jesus and to recite the Muslim confession of faith. It means these men refused to deny Christ and embrace Islam. With a knife at their throats they were given the chance to be rewarded and be returned to their wives, children and families. Each of them refused! What faith! What courage! And as they were being simultaneously slaughtered they were seen to be whispering prayers and some were heard to cry out “Lord Jesus!” No wonder, then, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt has already honored these men as holy martyrs and included them in their calendar of saints. This video gives us an illustration, in living color, of the words of Jesus:

But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you word and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls

(Luke 21:12-19)

Our Church has always honored the martyrs: from the earliest days of the Faith we have documentation of how the early Christians honored the memories of those who died for Jesus. Our church calendar is filled with the commemoration of martyrs who are remembered on the day of their martyrdoms. We know the stories of some of these better known martyrs such as St. George and St. Demetrios. But with this video “A Message Signed in Blood...” for the first time in Christian history we can see for ourselves the courage, faith and witness of individuals laying down their lives because of their love for Jesus. We can now see for ourselves why we honor men and women like them throughout history. We can see for ourselves why we have icons of martyrs in our churches. We can see for ourselves why we honor them on their feastdays.

Why would these men make such a choice? Why did they not choose the easy way out, deny their belief in Jesus and return home? They were not priests, monks, or theologians but simple men from impoverished Egyptian villages who went to Libya to find work to support their families. But these men were Orthodox Christians and knew the promises of Jesus:

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
(Matthew 5:11-12)

To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.(Revelation 3:21)

Those Muslim terrorists never learned the lesson learned by the Romans and the Communists: persecution and the killing of the followers of Jesus only leads to a flowering of the Faith. Love and forgiveness always eventually triumph over hate and violence. As the ancient Christian writer Tertullian noted “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. The release of the gruesome video has united Christians all around the world: Orthodox, Catholic and Protestants in praise and admiration of these men. Even the Muslim majority population of Egypt, often hostile to the Coptic Orthodox minority, have expressed widespread sympathy and support for their Christian neighbors. Rather than suppressing the Christian Faith this awful video has strengthened and reinforced the faith of Christians around the world.

Our Faith

How does the Christian Faith in America compare to the Faith exhibited by these new martyrs? Churches in America: Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant often try to make Christianity appealing to people and to fill the pews by making the Faith comfortable, easy and convenient. Fasting is eliminated or made easy. Hard pews replaced with padded seats or theater style chairs. Sermons have to be upbeat, uplifting and humorous. Worship has become entertainment with rock style “praise bands”, live dramas, and video clips to illustrate the sermon. Pastors have to “watch the clock” and not extend worship too long or people will grow restless and not come back. Christianity in America is a mile wide but an inch deep. Few American Christians are willing to undergo any kind of self denial, self sacrifice or inconvenience for the sake of Christ.

Thankfully, there is no knife at our throat – yet - but is being slowly killed by an American culture which preaches a gospel of secularism: there may be a God but it doesn’t matter, life is fine without Him. We are being martyred by a gospel of relativism: there are many paths to God and they’re all the same, or as I was recently told “Church is church, they’re all the same.” We are subtly being asked to deny Christ and His gospel and if we do not we are mocked, considered weird, bigots, close-minded, ignorant, homophobes, fundamentalists. The command of Jesus is to follow Him in ways that are uncomfortable, hard and inconvenient:

If anyone would come after Me, let Him deny Himself, take up His cross and follow Me.
(Mark 8:34)

The call of Jesus is a call to a radical faith, a faith that is challenging and often inconvenient and uncomfortable. This message in blood from these new martyrs challenges me. Would I be willing to remain faithful to Jesus with a knife at my throat? Honestly, I’m not sure. But at least for today I am encouraged by this video to respond to the call of Jesus with new willingness to take the hard way, the uncomfortable way, the inconvenient path. Do I rather tend to respond in ways that are comfortable, convenient and that make few demands on me? What small steps can I take in the coming weeks to respond to Jesus in ways that are directed towards a more radical faith? By the prayers of the Holy New Martyrs of Libya, may we be strengthened and renewed in our love and commitment to the Lord Jesus!

- Father Edward Pehanich