In this icon fresco the casual observer witnesses a massacre. Mass violence perpetrated by one group of people on another. So many massacres have happened, not only in Church history, but throughout history. A quick turn through every church brings to your eye visions of slsughter, scenes of terrible violence. The slaughter of the 2000 innocents, the gruesome portrayal of the bloody Persian invasion in Palestine, the 400 martyrs of Sebaste. Icons depicting the gruesome trials and tortures of great martyrs– beheadings, spikes driving through skin, burned alive in vats of boiling oil. These are not pictures you would show to the young and the more sesntive among us. Yet these images fill every place of worship. Why? Most of the saints decorating an Orthodox Church interior hold a cross of martyrdom in their hand.
Especially poignant is the icon of St Sofia and her three daughters, Faith, Hope and Agape. The atrocities these little girls were put through even at their mother’s encouragement for more agony unsettles my very core. Why? Why must the grand majority of witnesses come to a violent and cruel end? Why do massacres occur again and again throughout each epoch and each culture? Why must we be reminded in a place of sanctuary that such horror is the inevitable step to attain sainthood? That question begs the bigger one, the one humankind has grapples since the dawn of consciousness, why do the innocent suffer? And not just one but masses and masses of innocents?
I am only a sinful layperson, not a theologian, but I think the answer has to do with the eternal battle between good and evil that takes place in the human heart. The forces of darkness that lay crouching in the jungles of the human heart are unspeakable in their horror. As horrible as the scenes of slaughter that permeate through news reports of terrorist bands, of black and white documentary photos of the Holocaust, the Kyber Rouge, WW1, Sabra and Shantila. (This last reference is to remind those of us good Christians who think that all terrorism comes from radical Islam.) The recurrence of war demonstrates that while humankind has advanced technologically, it has not risen above the primitive ruthless instincts of rival bands of chimpanzees. Evolution has happened on the physical level, not on the spiritual. Those dark primitive forces toward violence, rape, territory are proof that the beast wrestles with the angel on a grand scale. There is an eternal battle waged within each person between these forces, most of the time unconsciously. I think sin might be the dark vestige of a primitive past.
The battle is for each human heart to rid itself of the darkness of these passions. It is God in the person of Christ the God Man that reveals the light. The path of light that develops goodness, mercy, and love, especially love, in the battlefield. It is God who with His Pneuma breathed a new spirit into man. The soul with its potential for eternity.
That darkness is so dark, no horror movie can do it justice. It is hell incarnate. The light stands in such stark contrast to the dark it is a bit blinding, only those used to it can stand to look at it. It is this battle between the light and darkness that each saint, once a regular person like you and me, is celebrated as victor. Those icons of cruel martyrdom show how the saint as a soldier in the battle between good vs evil/light vs darkness succumbs physically to these primitive forces. The good suffer in the world because they refuse to take part in its rules. They follow a higher power. Yet while it might seem as if the forces of violence have won out, a greater law, a more primitive magic that stretches before the dawn of time renders the saint a victor. The saint even while drenched in her own blood proves that there is another plane of law that transfigures suffering and cruelty into a triumph of the spirit. Because the saint has been victorious over the passions, the dark drives of the beast, a legacy of our evolution from slime and sludge in a dog-eat-dog environment, he or she is crowned by not reverting to the same.
It is in a way the inevitable climax in the journey to holiness. Suffering and not just any kind of suffering, but suffering for the cause of all-goodness that is personified in the figure of Christ, is the ticket into the country of the blessed. There is something in this world that does not like the light, but seeks to stamp it out. Ironically the more light you bear, the more the darkness plagues you. So much for expecting the happy guitar twangs, silver linings and kumbaya get together of the stereotypical Christian utopia. The Orthodox Way does not sugarcoat the straight and narrow way. There will be blood, there will be excruciating pain, there will be massacre.
Ultimately, the pictures of crucifixion, strangulation, butchering that appear before us on the walls of Orthodox churches remind us that that battle between light and darkness, good and evil takes place within us on a daily basis. The serpent heads of jealousy, rage, gluttony, harred, lust–these assail us from the jungles of our souls. Either we give into the darkness or we choose the light. We choose the light even if we have to suffer for it. This is the destiny of a Christian hero.
Paradoxically, for a hero to be born a son or daughter of light, he/she must die to the darkness within. The flip side of the question why do the good and innocent suffer is–why do “normal” human beings revert to carnage, extreme cruelty, and massacre of others like themselves? It is because they have chosen the darkness. It is easier to revert to some primitive urge to kill and rape, take without asking just to survive so that your genes pass on rather than choose to follow a different path. This is why our daily struggle with our own passions takes on a universal significance. If you don’t struggle with the passions in your soul, you too might without your conscious knowing become the slayer, the Nazi, the torturer in those icons.
Let us pray to the Lord our Savior that He grant us the light to do battle with the forces of darkness with and without us, even if we suffer for it.