This past Sunday we celebrated the feast of Great and Holy Pentecost, celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the Church ten days after our Lord’s Ascension back to Heaven and 50 days after His Resurrection. While it is a powerful service, full of beautiful theology and truth, it is undoubtedly long. An entire service is celebrated after the hour and a half Divine Liturgy, and the hour-long Matins for those who were in worship from 8:50 AM.
Beginning Sunday and continuing through today, I heard several reactions after the long service, all of which could fall into the following three categories of responses:
Response #1: “I don’t stay for that—it’s too long.”
Response #2: “Gee, that was long!”
Response #3: “That was beautiful.”
I believe that the length of the service being such a noticeable factor is an indication of something really important: we too often try to make Christianity easy. Even the assumption that there can be an “easy Christianity” shows us how often we’ve become lost on the Way that is True (Orthodox) Christianity.
I read an article this week that discussed Americans’ desire for an easy Christianity. “Dear Christians in America: never forget how easy you have it,” by Matt Walsh begins by talking about the attack last week on a bus carrying Coptic Orthodox Christians on a monastery pilgrimage, in which 29 were murdered. He ponders on why it received so little attention in the media, and then moves on to analyze our response further. It’s a bit lengthy and more than a bit challenging, but I strongly encourage you to take both the four minutes and the humility required to read it. He writes:
“…the details of this story (the bus attack) are especially harrowing. The victims were in buses headed to a monastery in the desert. The Islamist barbarians didn’t just walk onto the vehicles and shoot indiscriminately. Instead, they pulled each person out and interrogated them. The Christian pilgrims were asked first if they were Christian and then told if they abandoned Christ and converted to Islam they would be spared. When each person refused to renounce their faith, they were shot in the head or the throat. Apparently, all of the victims, even the children, died heroically in this way.
They accepted death rather than betray their beliefs. They chose to be martyrs. Real martyrs, I mean. Not the suicidal, nihilistic Muslim sort of “martyr” who dies with a bomb on his chest and blood on his hands. These were actual martyrs. Innocents who died brutally, bloodily, as victims. True believers who drank from the cup of Christ and perished as He did. If we as Christians in America are not stirred deep down in our souls by the stories of these heroes, then our souls must already be dead.
Imagine facing this yourself. Just imagine it. And there are two questions here, remember. You must choose martyrdom twice.
The first question: “Are you Christian?”
You could probably escape death here. All you need to say is “no.” One word. One syllable. One syllable will save your life. That’s all it will take. Imagine the courage required to kneel there on the ground with a gun to your neck and speak the simple truth. “Yes.”
The second question: “Will you renounce Christ and convert to Islam?”
Perhaps you didn’t know there would be a second question. You thought they’d kill you after you answered affirmatively to the first. But now you have another chance to save yourself. Another chance to avoid a violent death out here in the desert, in the middle of nowhere. Imagine the courage required to reject this final temptation and speak those words that you know will be the last you ever speak. “No.”
How many of us have a faith like this? These Christians were willing to give up everything for Christ. How many of us are willing to give up anything, let alone everything? Most so-called believers in this country will lash out angrily if you so much as suggest that they ought to be more discriminating in the shows they watch and the music they listen to. The idea that we should even make sacrifices in our entertainment choices is downright offensive to us. Forget about telling a Christian that they should dress or speak a little differently. You’ll be cast aside as a Puritan by these earnest Bible believing folk. And yet we think we possess the conviction and the faith to give up our very lives for Him? Laughable. Face it: most of us would grovel and weep at the feet of our Muslim captors and recite whatever Koranic prayer they demanded of us. I suspect most of us would probably do that if someone put a gun to our TV, never mind our heads.
Am I being too hard on us? Oh, I’m not being nearly hard enough. You and I both know it. Our persecuted brothers and sisters put us to shame, and we should be ashamed. We are nothing compared to them. We are unworthy to wipe the dust from their sandals. We play pretend Christianity in this culture. They show us the real thing, and it bears almost no resemblance to our pale, pathetic imitation.
Just think of what these martyrs were doing in the first place when they were killed. They were traveling out into the desert on a pilgrimage to pray at a monastery, despite the enormous risk that such a journey entails. What about us? We can’t even be bothered to get up on Sunday morning and drive 12 minutes to church. Our churches aren’t in the desert. There aren’t any Islamic militants patrolling the area, looking to put a bullet in our skulls and turn our children into slaves. So what’s our excuse? We don’t want to get up. It’s a hassle, you see. It’s boring. The air conditioner doesn’t work very well and we might get a little sweaty. We had an argument with someone at church and it might be awkward to see them. We don’t like the sermons. The pastor was rude to us once. Why should we go? We don’t want to. You can’t make us. Our tummies hurt. Waaaaah!
But our brothers and sisters to the east know nothing of these excuses. They can’t conceive of why you’d even want to find them. They look at us and ask: “You can be as Christian as you want and nobody will hurt you. Nobody will kill you. Why wouldn’t you proclaim Christ from the rooftops, then? What’s stopping you?”
Well, because we might lose Facebook friends. Someone might accuse us of being weird. And, besides, if we start being really Christian then we might feel guilty about all of the gossiping we do at work, and all the porn we watch on our computers, and the fact that we drink too much, and spend too much of our money on frivolous things, and that we make no sacrifices at all, ever. That’s what’s stopping us. We have it too easy, in other words. We’re fat and lazy and soft and selfish. What’s stopping us is that nothing is stopping us, you might say.
Perhaps, in all of this, I’ve stumbled upon the answer to my first question. Our media pays little attention to the martyrdom of Christians because the martyrs make such a compelling case for Christianity. They’d rather focus on Christians in this country as we complain about not hearing “merry Christmas” from the cashier at JC Penny, and then get back to our divorces and our Netflix addiction.
We are ridiculous and it is, therefore, quite easy to not take us seriously. After all, why should they take our faith seriously if we do not take it seriously? But the Christians in the Middle East do take their beliefs seriously — very seriously — and that makes them extremely convincing advocates for those beliefs, and that makes them dangerous. That’s why the media is afraid to pay attention to them. That’s why even we, as Christians, are afraid to pay attention to them. They show us something about ourselves, and we don’t like what we see. So we look away and find something else to care about.
Oh, hey, Donald Trump tweeted a typo. Good, yes, there’s something safe to focus on. Let’s talk about that instead. Let’s talk about anything instead.
Powerful, convicting words. But words we need to begin to take in if we are going to shake any notion of an “easy Christianity.” Jesus didn’t sugarcoat it–He told us straight up, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). He NEVER preached an easy Christianity. If we’ve followed one, it’s one we invented, and not the Way of the Cross that He Himself walked, and then invited us to follow.
This Sunday, being the Sunday after Pentecost, is the Sunday of All Saints. We will reflect on the Saints, not as lofty examples of extreme Christianity, but as the very definition of Christianity itself. The 29 New Martyrs of Cairo testify that this definition is not one relegated to a distant past. They challenge us to reexamine our own faith—or lack thereof—and like the 29, decide who we are. Easy Christianity is no Christianity. It’s blessed, wonderful, ultimately fulfilling and we believe saving. But it’s not easy. It takes nothing less than asking God to remake us from the inside out, no matter what that takes: repentance from the sins we use to hide from God and the hard work of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. And yes, that means sometimes we pray long services. We’ll know we’ve chosen real Christianity when we practice hard Christianity. It’s time we accept that and, like the 29, make our choice.