Preached at St Alban, Holborn
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, One God. Amen
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew V:5)
Of all the attributes commended to Christians I suspect that meekness is pretty low in the popularity ratings. Patience, humility, forgiveness, justice, mercy – these all present a positive image of the qualities they represent, whilst it is difficult not to regard meekness as rather insipid. “Gentle Jesus meek and mild” seems to belong to the imagery of the nursery rather than the world at large. When we discover that the etymology of our “meek” derives from the Germanic meuk, ‘soft’ and Old Norse mjukr, ‘soft, pliant’, whose linguistic cousins are words like muck and midden, it is not surprising that meekness is understood as passive submission.
Yet this image of weakness and pusillanimity conveyed in the English is absolutely the opposite to what our Lord was saying in the Beatitudes, or indeed, elsewhere, in the New Testament. Praütes, the Greek word used in the scriptures, however, consists not in a person’s outward behaviour only; nor yet in his relations to his fellow-men; but rather is an inwrought grace of the soul and the exercise of it is first and chiefly towards God. It is that temper of spirit in which we accept His dealings with us as good, and therefore neither dispute nor resist them. The meek are God-controlled, and through their prayers, God gives them mastery over their passions – especially anger. Meekness is not passive gentleness, but strength under control. It is the fruit of power, not weakness. The common assumption is that when a man is meek it is because he cannot help himself; but the Lord was ‘meek’ because He had the infinite resources of God at His command. Meekness in fact is the opposite to self-assertiveness and self-interest; it is equanimity of spirit that is neither elated nor cast down, simply because it is not occupied with self at all.
It is this same spirit that we see in the lives of the early martyrs of the church. So powerful was their witness to the pagan world around them that the early Christian apologist Tertullian boasted that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Yet modern Christians would find their attitude to martyrdom quite difficult, if not downright disturbing. St. Ignatius of Antioch, in one of his Epistles to the Romans, declared “Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let breakings, tearings and separation of bones; let cutting off of members; let bruising to pieces of the whole body; and let the very torment of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.”
It is a consistent theme running through all the early patristic writers. St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, reminds his flock, “The Lord desired that we should rejoice and leap for joy in persecutions, because, when persecutions occur, then are given the crowns of faith, then the soldiers of God are proved, then the heavens are opened to martyrs.”
Jesus’ promise of future blessings is not for the powerful, the rich and the violent, but for those who are meek and humble: they will inherit the earth, the new earth which is everlasting.
The mission of the Christian Church is rich in its martyrs and the circumstances and details of those martyrdoms have all the variety which the nobility and integrity of the human spirit can rise to, as well as the spiteful ingenuity and dehumanising cruelty to which man’s baser nature can descend. I rejoice in my presence here today in a church dedicated to the Protomartyr of Britain, St. Alban, and recall that his own confession of the faith was linked to a simple act of humanity, protecting the priest Amphibulos from the Roman authorities.
My own mother church, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, is especially rich in martyrs and still uses the ancient Calendar of the Era of the Martyrs, dating from the accession of the Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 284. Our Synaxarion, containing daily readings from the lives of the saints and martyrs, keeps their memories and triumphs constantly before the eyes of the faithful, while some of our most popular saints are martyrs who were contemporary with St. Alban. In the Coptic Orthodox tradition the shrines and relics of saints are not only regular places of pilgrimages; their festivals or ‘moulids’ attracting thousands of pious pilgrims for several days, but the martyrs’ prayers and assistance are sought with the same intimacy and affection as one reserves for close family friends. It doesn’t matter that St. Demiana, St. Mina or St. Mercurios all received martyrdom in the fourth century, they are the friends and intercessors of many devout Copts today and their miracles and interventions at the end of the second Millennium is as vibrant a witness to the ‘communion of saints’ as any I know.
For many people, however, martyrdom in the twentieth century suggests an extremism, a measure of fanaticism which is best avoided. We live in an age of dialogue where confrontation is eschewed by reasonable people. We are more likely to agree with Dr. Johnson’s aphorism that “If a man is in doubt whether it would be better for him to expose himself to martyrdom or not, he should not do it. He must be convinced that he has a delegation from heaven.” In an age when religious uncertainty is most characteristic of the average Christian, we tend to regard the man claiming a delegation from heaven as mistaken, deluded or worse. Gandhi’s passive resistance appeals more to our modern sensibilities and men like Nelson Mandela, who can achieve a peaceful transition to a fairer society without suffering and martyrdom rightly command our respect.
The modern age, however, has yielded its harvest of martyrs. I was delighted last year when the ten empty niches in the west front of Westminster Abbey were filled with statues of twentieth century martyrs. Chosen from divers cultures and different Christian traditions, they remind us that the Christian faith is still something which requires of us the ultimate sacrifice. Among these, Father Maximilian Kolba, who died in Auschwitz trying to save another prisoner, has parallels with our own St. Alban; Wang Zhiming, who suffered for his faith in the Cultural Revolution in China just thirty years ago, and Esther John, the gentle Pakistani convert from Islam, remind us that Christian martyrs do not belong merely to the Imperial Age of Rome.
Sadly, whenever the newspapers or the television deal with the subject of the Orthodox Church, they have an irritating tendency to conjure up an atmosphere of timeless mystery: of flickering candles catching the gold halos of saints in the holy ikons, of heavily bearded clergy emerging from clouds of incense and with ceremonial and vestments reminiscent of Byzantine court ceremonial. You may wonder why these things – which make the Orthodox Church appear so fascinating and uncommon – should be a cause of irritation. For Orthodox Christians, however, such an approach merely trivialises something profound. Ceremonial, reduced to mere “bells and smells” has all the charm of a Dickensian Christmas with actors dressed in top hats and crinolines but seems to say little to the human condition for Christians struggling to proclaim their faith in often hostile conditions.
Christians in the once ancient strongholds of their faith – all those places shown on the maps of St. Paul’s missionary journeys, in Antioch “where the disciples were first called Christians”, in the cities of the seven churches to which St. John the Theologian wrote his apocalyptic letters; in the cities where the early councils of the church hammered out and refined the credal statements of our faith, now eke out a meagre and precarious existence on the point of complete extinction. You won’t find a single Greek Church in Turkey east of Istanbul, where wholesale exchanges of populations forbids a Greek presence. Thousands of ruined churches and monasteries littering Eastern Anatolia remind us of the Armenian Genocide in which a million and a half Armenian Christians were slaughtered and their villages depopulated within weeks. It is hardly to be wondered at if these ancient Christian communities feel betrayed and forgotten by the Christians in the West.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in recent years has also brought its own trials to Christian minorities. Always disadvantaged by laws which reduced Christians to the status of dhimmitude in which their security could only be guaranteed by payment of the jizya poll-tax, or ‘protection money’, they do not enjoy the same equality as Muslims. The introduction of Shari’ah law, with harsh penalties for blasphemy and innumerable bureacratic restrictions on the lives of Christians both as individuals and as communities, has increased this burden severely. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, with a Christian minority of about 2% (about the same as the proportion of Muslims in the UK) has easily oppressed that minority, most of whom belong to the lowest levels of society and perform despised jobs such as street-sweeping. Access to higher education, good jobs and even justice is severely limited, whilst many Christians have fallen foul of the easily exploited blasphemy laws, leading to the imprisonment and murder of Christians and the destruction of their property. The government of the Sudan, once a model of harmonious coexistence, through its relentless pursuit of Islamicisation, oppresses Coptic Christians in the north and wages a destructive civil war in the south, where Christians are a large minority.
In Egypt, where some ten million Coptic Christians still constitute a vital and significant presence in the Middle East, poor villagers in Upper Egypt (where the government’s control is weak) suffer economic and sexual oppression, leading to extortion, violence and murder from Islamic extremists. In February 1997 four armed terrorists stormed the Coptic Church in Abu-Quorqas in Egypt’s Minia governorate where 29 young people were listening to a priest’s sermon. Thirteen were brutally murdered and the church was awash with their blood.
Consider Nigeria, where over half the population is still Christian, but violent clashes and tension, have arisen from the desire of Islamic extremists to declare Nigeria an Islamic state; and let us not forget Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslims may not worship together in private homes, Christian literature is outlawed and the death penalty is imposed on any adult Muslim who converts to another faith.
In December 1993, after 11 years of prison and torture, Iranian evangelist Mehdi Dibaj was sentenced to death for apostasy from Islam. Although he was released next month, following an international outcry, he was abducted and murdered six months later. In July 1996 a Pakistani girl named Rahila was killed by her brother who claimed he was doing his Muslim duty by killing an apostate. Rahila had run away from her home to avoid a marriage hastily arranged by her family when they found she was attending Bible studies with a Christian girl friend.
Because we are able to practice our faith freely we must not allow ourselves to be indifferent to the needs of our brothers and sisters suffering persecution. It is our duty to sustain them in prayer, to support agencies such as the Barnabas Fund which offer practical support to struggling Christian communities and to keep their needs high on the list of our priorities. We can also emulate their example in the way we conduct our daily lives, by sacrificing our vanity, our selfishness and the superfluity of this world’s riches for the sake of truth and meekness.
Meekness is being content with both honour and dishonour. It is an imitation of Christ who said, “Learn from Me, for I am gentle [meek] and lowly in heart” (Matthew XI: 29). A sign of Jesus’ lordship is His meekness – He is gentle and lowly. In Psalm XXV (v.9) King David prophecied that the Lord would teach His ways to the meek. In Matthew XI the Lord invites all who labour and are heavy laden to come to Him and He will give them rest, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”. This yoke is submission to the Kingdom of God. A yoke is a symbol of hardship, burdens and responsibilities. Although it may feel heavy due to our sins, Christ’s yoke is easy. In Him the soul is refreshed and sees that the Lord is gracious. Meekness is the mother of love, the foundation of discernment and the forerunner of all humility. Jesus finds rest in the hearts of the meek, while the turbulent spirit is home to the devil.
Peace be with you.
And now to God the Father ….
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