When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.
Revelation 6: 9-11
Many Christians mark today to remember St Polycarp who was a bishop in the very earliest church in Smyrna in what is now Turkey. The Orthodox believe he was evangelized by the apostle John and appointed by him as leader of the church in Smyrna. It’s impossible to know. We have a little of his writings preserved in the work of other early church writers and he was martyred for his faith by being burned. His writings give a glimpse of what it was like to live in the sporadic persecutions of the Roman state of the embryonic Christian Church.
The writer of Revelation wrote to give encouragement to Christians who lived with these persecutions as they sprung up according to the whims of emperors and governors of the Empire. I’m sure they cried out to God asking how long these dreadful things would go on for – just as I’m sure that those who are persecuted for their faith, politics, gender, sexuality or race now implore God.
In Europe we are used to seeing faith as being relegated to the private sphere of life or, where it comes into the public square, it is seen as rather embarrassing. Polycarp, along with the martyrs of our own age, remind us that faith can unsettle the State, upset religion and turn the tables on those with power.
God of the martyrs,
Give strength to those who are persecuted today:
those who have to practice their faith in fear and secrecy;
those whose politics upset the powerful;
women raped, mutilated and oppressed by men;
those who have to hide or deny how they love;
and those who are despised because of their nationality.
God of justice,
Bring to judgment those who oppress;
the torturers and those whose orders they obey;
those who enact unjust laws and those who obey them;
and those who stand idly by,
denying these things are their concern.
God of the prophets,
help us to support those who are persecuted;
to open our hearts, our wallets and our homes,
to those who flee persecution.
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