Lights of the World: Our Lord and Our Holy Martyrs

He defied the injustices of worldly powers, to shine a light of Truth through his suffering. That’s one way to describe the ministry of Jesus. But it also describes the role of Christian martyrs through the ages—including our Armenian Martyrs of 1915.

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THE ROMAN EMPIRE OF THE FIRST CENTURY was an entity of many glories: arguably mankind’s greatest political achievement to that time. Yet when we remember it today, we are transfixed by its cruelty and disregard for life; its mask of civility hiding a darker truth.

Ordinarily, this truth would have been left in the shadows of history. But something exposed it, illuminated it. What could have shined this light of truth?

The unexpected answer is this: The sufferings of an innocent person—and the miraculous event that followed.

Most important of all, the source of both the miracle and the light was love: God’s love, embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.

That thought holds a special meaning for us in the present season. For in the final days of April, we will be reminded of how another empire meted out suffering to other innocent souls. As in our Lord’s case, so too for those other innocents—our own parents and grandparents—their suffering was not an end, but rather a passage to something else. For the departed, it was a pathway to enduring memory in our community; for the survivors, it was a passage to continued lives of goodness, kindness and, miraculously, love.

From Survivor to Savior

Now, 106 years after the Genocide, nearly all who endured it have been gathered to our Lord. Whatever precious survivors remain among us would have witnessed the cataclysm only as infants.

But this is another point of contact with our Lord Jesus. For we cannot forget that he, too, was marked for extinction in his infancy. He too began life as the survivor of an attempt to wipe out an entire class of human beings.

Such memories must have left their impression on him. Was our Lord’s tenderness towards children—so rare for that day—a reflection of the burdensome knowledge he carried, that infants in Bethlehem had died, while he had lived?

Throughout his ministry our Lord showed the greatest love for those who most acutely felt man’s essential neediness: our vulnerability to the abuses of the world; our incompleteness without God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he preached in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-16). “Blessed are the mourners, the meek, the pure in heart.”

His blessings flowed to those who had felt the sting of persecution, and the absence of mercy; who craved peace, and hungered for the world to be set aright. A portrait emerges of those who are touched by God: not the powerful, but those aware of the illusion of human power; its tendency to turn against others, to reduce and dehumanize them.

Jesus did not utter these things out of some romantic idealization of defeat; nor out of commiseration, or pity. To the contrary, he taught that it is in the forge of such bitter experience that one could see the reality of the human condition, and the reality of God, with the greatest clarity. The experience of suffering and loss, bravely and faithfully endured, would be a beacon of truth, to illuminate mankind.

“You are the light of the world,” he told his careworn friends. “A city set on a hill cannot be hid; neither do men light a candle to cover it, but they put it on a candlestick—to give light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.”

What Would We Tell Our Martyrs?

In such words, Christ subtly anticipated the meaning of the Resurrection: the uncanny miracle that drew life out of death, victory out of defeat, truth out of a deceitful world. Above all, it was a miracle of love: God’s love for mankind, his willingness to sacrifice his only Son on our behalf. When, in the hours prior to his own suffering, our Lord said, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12), he was assuring us that he would always stand with those who testified to the truth through their affliction.

And so he stood with our elders who endured the Genocide: for they too have testified to the truth—against the powerful, the persecutors, the deniers of our own age. Their victory—the lives of love, grace, and dignity the survivors went on to lead—was of a piece with the Resurrection: not entirely a supernatural miracle, to be sure, but an affirmation of the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. In the deepest sense, each of their million-and-more stories was a recapitulation, a memory, a revelation, of the deepest meaning of the Resurrection.

Now we are saying a final farewell to that generation—both in public as a community, and in the most personal way, as in the loss of a parent. If we could tell them something, from one generation to another, what might it be? Certainly, we should hail them in the loving manner of our Lord:

You were the lights of the world,” we should tell our precious martyrs. “In life, you would not be hidden; you brought light to everyone in our house.”

And perhaps from their rest in God’s kingdom, the souls of our heroic generation will reply to us:

“Now you must be that light. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works—our good works—and glorify our Father in heaven.”

Let that thought be alive in our hearts, as on our lips we pronounce those words that have held such meaning for our people: Krisdos haryav ee merelotz; Christ is raised from the dead.

By Christopher H. Zakian

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