COMMEMORATION OF THE DECEASED PRIESTS—أحد تذكار الكهنة
Year 113 - Issue No. 05 || Jan 28 – Feb. 4, 2023
This morning Saturday, January 28, we celebrate the Feast of St. Ephrem the Syriac, “the sun of the Syriacs”, “the column of the church” and “the Harp of the Holy Spirit”, who lived in the in the 4th century, in Nisibis, and Edessa today’s Turkey. The vast majority of our Hymns in the Syriac Maronite Church were composed by him. Also in the [in the older Latin calendar] they celebrated on January 26, the feast of St. Polycard, bishop of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), martyred in 155 by fire. St. Polycarp is the second generation of Christians, a disciple of John the Evangelist, a disciple of Christ. When the Roman government attempted to force the good bishop to burn incense at the altar of the emperor (who had declared himself a god), the old man said these words: "Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched, but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.” That last comment didn’t endear him to the Roman officials, so without further adoWORD OF THE WEEK they lit the mound of brush and wood under his body. But then a curious thing happened: the fire raced up “like a great sail” around the old bishop, “as it were a dome encircling the martyr’s body.” After the flames had died down they had to dispatch the old man Polycarp with sword thrusts to his grizzled chest.
Ephrem, was a deacon of the Church, who did not dare to approach the mystery of the priesthood, non the less, the episcopacy. Polycarp was a presbyter, a Greek word meaning “old man,” from which we get the word “priest.” He is kind a patron saint of old men because, unlike almost all of the first-generation disciples who died young (as martyrs), Polycarp died old. Second-generation disciples lived during a time of relative calm for the Church. It wasn’t until his 86th year that persecutions ramped up, and that Polycarp’s faith and the Roman government came into an impassable conflict. The same is true in the life of St. Ephrem, who lived in the 4th century, in a relatively calm and prosperous Christian middle east. He taught in the famous school of theology in Nisibis, today’s Turkey, and later on, after the school closed because of unrest, he taught in the school of Edessa, also, in today’s Turkey. A country where Christianity is barely present; once the land of Antioch and Constantinople!
Coming, back to Polycarp, In the end, why did this kindly old man have to be executed? The epistle for his feast day from 1 John 3:10-16, words that Polycarp (as a student of John) probably heard John himself speak. “Do not be like Cain, who killed his brother,” John writes. And why did Cain slay his own brother? Simply, John says, because Cain’s works were wicked, and his brother’s works were just. Those who
worship false gods cannot tolerate those who worship the true God.
Christians in a pagan world must expect martyrdom. As they tie us to the pyre, however, God will give us the grace to speak kindly to those who kill us. Martyrdom means “witness” in Greek, and what martyrs witness to above all is the love of Christ, pouring with his blood from the Cross upon those who crucified Him. The same is true for Ephrem, who was not martyred, yet was in the conflict of major heresies, he witnessed in the field, where he was planted!
Today, we commemorate the deceased presbyters, I am a presbyter, but most of my priesthood has been in a time of relative calm for the Church, this far. I’ve long had the premonition that I will die, or at least face jail time, for the Catholic faith. But here I am, in my 46th year, and still alive. If I die for the faith, along with other priests and bishops of my generation, it will be as an old man. How much easier it is to let go of this world as an old man! With Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes), I say “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” How silly it is, on the other hand, for old people to cling to the things of this world as our physical powers wane, as our memory, our friends and our influence become negligible. As we grow old, and as the culture grows increasingly intolerant of Christians, the older generation must keep our eyes and hearts on Christ, on the life of the world to come. Thus we will leave this world with a peaceful character and kindly disposition, commending ourselves, and all our lives, and all our fellow travelers in this world, to God’s loving mercy.