Although on the surface, comparing the 4th century Greco-Roman world with our 21st century Winnipeg (and the Western world, for that matter) might seem like comparing apples to rocks, especially considering the many centuries that have past, and the changes that have taken place. Yet the world that St. Demetrios lived in some 1700 years ago, bears some striking similarities to our age today.
The 4th century world of St. Demetrios was a cosmopolitan culture (especially in large trade centers like Thessaloniki) with many different nations and ethnic groups from one end of the known world to the other, all living under the political, social and economic law and order of the Roman Empire.It was a society that had access (the ancient world equivalent of global trade) to tin from the British Islands, silk and spices from the orient, grain from Africa, and furs from the north. There also existed a plurality of diverse religions and beliefs that ensured the security and stability of the Emperor and Empire, regardless if Baal, Zeus, Perun or fire was worshipped. Like most empires (both old and new), the exploitation of people was a cornerstone of its power. It was slaves, and those who had no rights or status that served households, worked the fields, built those magnificent structures and buildings, and provided entertainment in the colosemes. Life was cheap, even meaningless unless you were powerful, wealthy, and prosperous.
In the successive centuries that have gone by, many things have changed; but if one looks with a critical eye at our 21st century culture, those values that established one of the greatest empires the world has ever known, are ever present- especially the exploitation of people by those with wealth, prosperity, and power.
Granted, we don’t live in a global empire, nor do we see Justin Trudeau as a “god” (as great as he might seem to some). The dominance of Western culture and commerce has brought law and order through the rule of liberal democracies, and free market societies. We, can get pineapples from South America in January, and Canadian souvenirs made in China. We like those ancients can still believe whatever we want, as long as we confess wealth, prosperity and power; those values that have replaced the pagan gods of old, and ensured that we can live in luxury and ease.
Sadly, we also rely on the exploitation of men, women and children, those who are weak and vulnerable, to serve, work, build, and entertain us in our demand and desire for those values.
It is not that the blessings of wealth, prosperity, and even power are as bad now as they might have been 1700 years ago. Rather, their priority and our belief in them, as some kind of gods (or to use a more contemporary term “truths”), stand at odds with the Christian Gospel.
Jesus Christ “did not come to to be served, but to serve, and give His life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). He “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men… And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a Cross” (Phil. 2:7-8)
Through this, “Jesus Christ the Son of God… True God, of True God” (as we say in our Creed) took what was “foolish in the world to shame the wise…what is weak in the world to shame the strong….what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” (1 Cor 1:27-28). The Lord’s strength is revealed in weakness, and not in the might of the Roman Empire or any other empire. (2 Cor. 12:19).
It is in this context that we see the courage of St. Demetrios. Having being a loyal and dedicated soldier and governor, he with boldness proclaimed Christ to those in Thessaloniki, against the orders of the Emperor. When called to give an account of his faith to the Emperor, St. Demetrios confessed his loyalty to the one true King, and his belief in one true God, and not the many lies that had built an Empire.
Rejecting the Emperor’s platitudes, and promises of riches and power if he forsook Christ, and dismissing the threats of torture and death, St. Demetrios stood as one who rejected the glory of this world in order to be “crowned with the glory that does not fade away” (1 Pet. 5:4). He would not be complicit to the Emperor’s vanity and desires, nor would he participate in that madness, choosing to be a victim as Christ was a victim on the Cross for our salvation, rather than victimize and abuse.
The question asked of us today is whether we stand with St. Demetrios in defiance to the worship of wealth, prosperity and power, and its exploitation of humanity? Or do we remain complicit and willing partners in its presence?
There are many examples illustrating the justification of exploitation from around the world, from African blood diamonds, east Asian sweatshops, to human trafficking in prostitution. But those issues seem a world away and unrelated to many of us, whereas the revelations three weeks ago of extensive sexual abuse and assaults by the Hollywood movie magnate Harvey Weinstein have raised the awareness of sexual abuse and harassment in our Western culture.
These reports revealed the dark side of the entertainment industry, and although this darkness is nothing we haven’t seen or heard of before, it became a touchstone for those (namely women) who have faced sexual abuse and harassment of one form or another, from strangers, friends, employers and mentors.
With the use of social media, over 1.7 million women (from Hollywood starlets to suburban housewives) have used the “#MeToo” tag, to reveal how tragically pervasive this issue of sexual abuse, harassment and assault is.
These numbers and these stories (which I believe are the tip of the iceberg) shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone with half a heart to see that we live in a culture that is increasingly exploitive and abusive, and that we live in an empire, of sorts, that worships at the altar of wealth, prosperity and power. This is at the expense of the young, weak and vulnerable: men and, in this case, women. Being Christians, we are compelled to act.
The behaviour of Harvey Weinstein, and many others who have used their wealth, prosperity and power to victimize millions of women is reprehensible. Yet if we remain complicit with them and those who participate in this darkness, and do not stand with the blessed martyr Demetrios in our confession of Jesus Christ, and His Cross that manifests God’s love of the world, how is it that we are not as reprehensible?
The choice is obvious, especially if we call ourselves Christians. Let us stand firm in our proclamation of Christ and His righteousness that knows no boundaries, no race, no gender, against this madness; and like Demetrios let us bear witness to a God who preaches the Gospel to the poor, brings healing to the brokenhearted, declares liberty to the captives, brings sight to the blind, and proclaims liberty to those who are oppressed” (Lk. 4:18).
Let us take a stand against to those who would abuse their wealth, prosperity and power, as Demetrios did those many centuries ago, and does even now as our heavenly patron and saint. Let us be being intercessors for the young and old, the weak and vulnerable; our mothers, sisters, wives; our fathers, brothers and husbands.
Holy martyr Demetrios, pray to God for us that we might have the strength to do this.