There is something providential that on the Sunday after the feast of the Elevation of the Cross, when we heard the words of the Lord: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk. 8:35), we also remembered one of the most beloved families in the Orthodox Church, the martyrs Sophia, and her children Faith, Hope, and Love.
As a faithful and pious family they were summoned to the Emperor Hadrian (yes the same Emperor who built an ineffective garden wall to defend Roman England ) after being denounced as Christians. Despite the fear of what awaited them, they presented themselves as if they were at a feast, full of joy and courage. Starting with the children, the Emperor tried to compel and bribe them to offer sacrifices to an idol of the goddess Artemis. But each in turn rebuked him with the proclamation that they worshipped the one God, and His beloved Son Jesus Christ. The Emperor, dismayed at the courage of a twelve year old (Faith), a ten year old (Hope) and a nine year old (Love), at first promised them riches and security, but each time they proclaimed their faith in the one God in heaven. He then threatened and tortured them, and yet they did not yield.
Encouraged by their mother who was forced to witness the unspeakable tortures inflicted on them, each child remained steadfast to the love of the Lord, each in turn proclaiming and exalting the Lord in thanksgiving, until they were finally beheaded, leaving a grieving mother to take her broken children and bury them, herself falling asleep in the Lord some three days later at their graves.
The courage of Sophia in this trial is something that seems impossible for any parent to understand, but what also seems impossible to understand is the courage and faith of these three children, which leaves us as awestruck as the Emperor and those with him.
The courage of Faith, Hope and Love was not some characteristic that they were miraculously born with, neither was it a special kind of grace that made them separate from us (to suffer). Rather their faith was something they witnessed in their mother and had learnt from her.. Sophia (in translation, Wisdom) indeed imparted to her children a wisdom that this world could not comprehend (1 Cor. 1:18-25). This was the work of a loving mother who took up her Cross daily in, manifesting the saving work of Christ in her household in those little things that showed what true faith, hope and love were. All that these children offered was all that they had received.
We thankfully don’t live in a time or place where confessing our faith is a matter of life and death for ourselves or our children (although this is a fact of life in many parts of the world). Yet the pressures and temptations of our culture that seek to break apart our families and hearts are overwhelming. The promises of cheap love, and counterfeit relationships, and a life that has more to do with what possessions or lifestyles one has (or never will have) beat on us like the blows of a torturer.
The question which will be asked of us as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, is what example are we giving our children? How are we preparing our children to deal with this broken world?
Do we offer a moral and pious example that has more to do with being good people? Or do we offer a way of life that preserves one’s cultural or family traditions (“we go to Church on Sundays because that is what we have always done”), or our personal opinions or customs (“I am a Christian because it feels right”) ? Or do we do the “one thing needful” (Lk. 10:42), and heed the words of the Lord which challenge us to “take up our cross and follow Christ”.
Do we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, take up our Cross and make prayer a constant element in our lives, not as a response to simple emotions, or only in times of need when we “want something”? Or do we set prayer as a foundation where we dedicate and consecrate some time to stand before the Lord in thanksgiving and supplication.
Do we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, take up our Cross and fast from certain food, and habits, not as a way to deny ourselves of the good things in life, or to go on a religious diet, but to humble our passions and desires by putting Christ and our neighbour ahead of our egos and appetites, applying the necessary element of spiritual and physical discipline to deepen our communion with the God of Heaven and earth?
Do we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, take up our Cross and partake of regular confession not simply because the priest nags us, but because taking responsibility for one’s sins, wounds, and shortcomings is a fundamental element of what being as human is about, and demonstrating the joys of being forgiven completely by the Lord?
Do we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, take up our Cross and mark the cycles and times of the year by attending services outside of Sunday mornings? Not Do we choose not to regard those programs and tasks such as swimming lessons, bridge clubs, and laundry days as being more important than the festal life of the Church? Instead, do we make the life of the Church an anchor? Is Christ’s love is the center of whatever programs and tasks we might do?
If we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers are not willing to take up our Cross, and make Christ the cornerstone of our lives, how can we ever expect our children and those entrusted to us to do it.
But if we do take up our Cross in those little things, at home, at work, at school, and in Church, we make the wisdom of Christ manifest to those around us, and especially our children. It is then that our children, and their children’s children will be able to bear witness to the Faith “once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3); to Hope “because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rm. 5:5): and to Love, “for God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
If we as pastors, parents, family, mentors and teachers are unwilling to take up the Cross of Christ for ourselves, we should at least do it for our children and their blessed salvation.
By the prayers of the holy martyrs Sophia, Faith, Hope and Love and all the holy men and women who have served the Lord, may we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, take up our Cross, that our children might also be able to.