23 April 2021

Holy New Martyr Lazar the Shepherd of Bulgaria

Saint Lazar of Bulgaria

The twenty-third of April, which is the feast-day of Holy Greatmartyr George in the Orthodox Church, is also the feast of another greatmartyr for Christ from the nation of Bulgaria. Saint Lazar the New Martyr of Bulgaria was not a hierarch, not a monk, not an ascetic, not a priest, not a great prince and not even a soldier. He was a simple layman and a shepherd, one of the common folk of the Bulgarian people. But he is more than the equal of any prince and any soldier, and among the greatest of martyrs, when one considers the bravery he showed under questioning and his refusal to forsake Christ even in the face of the worst tortures.

Lazar [Bg. Лазар] was born in the year 1774 in the municipality of Gabrovo in north-central Bulgaria. His parents were simple but God-fearing folk. However, at a young age he was compelled to leave Bulgaria and went to the town of Soma, in the Ægean region of modern-day Turkey. Here he worked as a manual labourer – a shepherd – in the fields.

While tending the flocks of his master one day, he sat down to rest and fell asleep. While he was sleeping, a Muslim woman passed by on the road, and Lazar’s dog attacked her. Lazar woke up to the dog’s barking, and ran up to save her from the dog – he managed to calm the dog down and save the woman, but her skirts were slightly torn and her person somewhat exposed. This infuriated the woman, who went home and told her husband that a low-class Christian had attacked her and tried to rape her. The woman’s husband, equally piqued, went out himself to confront Lazar – but since he did not know Lazar to look at him, he lay hold of another man and beat him nearly to death. In order to cover up his crime, the husband had his wife’s relatives go before the vâli and have Lazar charged with attempted rape.

Lazar heard of this charge in advance, but he did not flee or go into hiding, knowing that he was innocent of the charge. He appeared in court on the seventh of April, 1802. At once he was charged and thrown into prison. The woman’s relatives, in the meantime, pled to the judge that Lazar must either convert to Islâm or suffer the death penalty for the dishonour he had inflicted upon a pious Muslim woman. They even bribed the judge with 1,000 kuruşlar (silver coins each roughly equal in weight to a Spanish silver dollar) if he could manage to convert Lazar to Islâm.

As such, the judge had Lazar regularly beaten over two weeks in prison, until the twenty-second, to make him more amenable to conversion. While he was in prison Orthodox Christians attempted to visit him, to give him gifts and words of encouragement, but Lazar himself told them to leave because they were putting themselves in danger. The vâli grew more and more angry, because the bribe of 1,000 silver pieces was slipping through his fingers and Lazar was no closer to converting to Islâm despite all of the judge’s threats, tortures and flattery.

The judge then appropriated the flock of forty sheep he looked after, and on the twenty-second of April he ordered that more tortures be applied to the unfortunate Lazar. After his tormenters got drunk, they started burning Lazar’s body with red-hot irons. Then they subjected Lazar to peine forte et dure, placing heavier and heavier stones upon his chest. All the while Lazar refused to forsake Christ, but called upon Saint George the Greatmartyr to help him and grant him strength. The torturers then burned out his tongue; and since he was no longer able to speak they told him to use sign language when he was ready to convert. They also prepared a red-hot band of iron which they placed around his head, causing him excruciating pain.

There was a Greek merchant from Zagora in Thessaly, whose name was John, who also served as a medical doctor and a physician to the judge’s family. He went to the window of the prison and saw Lazar sitting on the floor. Despite having been subjected to the iron band, he was clear-headed and lucid; and despite having his tongue burned out, he was able again by the grace of God to speak clearly. John, who was Orthodox, spoke to Lazar in Turkish – because Lazar being Bulgarian and John Greek, neither knew the other’s mother tongue. John encouraged Lazar to endure to the end. Lazar in turn assured John that he would never convert, but that he feared the torturers would just get tired and stop instead of putting him to death.

Upon learning that Lazar could speak, the judge flew into a rage and summoned the torturers, whom he thought had given him a false report. But seeing for himself the marks of the torture on Lazar’s head and tongue, he was convinced that the torturers had indeed done their jobs. Trying to make Lazar convert one final time, Lazar again rejected all worldly riches and honours that he was promised, and told him: ‘I have one God in three Persons; Whom I worship and adore. I was baptised as an Orthodox Christian, and as an Orthodox Christian I shall die.’ The judge then ordered that he be put to death by hanging.

En route to his place of execution, Lazar endured the mockery of the Muslims who jeered at him for the foolishness of dying for Jesus Christ. And when they arrived at the killing-ground, Lazar willingly placed the halter around his own neck and stood on a basket, before the executioner kicked it out from under him. Thus the holy martyr of God earned the laurels equal to those who died under the early persecutions of the faithful. He entered into the company of the saints where he glorifies eternally the one God in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which he confessed to the judge on his final day –the Feast of Saint George, the twenty-third of April, 1802.

The relics of Saint Lazar of Bulgaria came to rest at the Monastery of Saint Ignatios on the island of Lesvos in Greece, and also at the Chapel of St Kseniya of Russia in the town of Mandra-Eidyllias in Attica. A Church Service in honour of Saint Lazar was composed by Saint Nikēphoros of Chios. Holy martyr Lazar of Bulgaria, despiser of earthly treasures and willing sufferer for the living God, pray unto Christ for us sinners!

Apolytikion for Saint Lazar of Bulgaria, Tone 3:

Your holy martyr Lazar, O Lord,
Through his sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from You, our God.
For having Your strength, he laid low his adversaries,
And shattered the powerless boldness of demons.
Through his intercessions, save our souls!

Leimonos Monastery of Saint Ignatios, Lesvos, Greece

17 April 2021

Stop Line 3 and demand just policing

I took my kids with me to join the Climate Justice Initiative’s protest at the State Capitol building this weekend. I joined my well-known Twin Cities activist friends at the Anti-War Committee, Women Against Military Madness and Veterans for Peace. And we were also joined by AFSCME Council 5, Interfaith Power and Light and the Civilian Police Accountability Commission. It was unfortunately not a very large turnout, but we made our presence known and felt. Why did we attend, though?

Because we need accountability. The climate crisis and the more immediate threat that Line 3 poses to drinking water, animal habitats and tribal lands not only in Minnesota but through the entire Mississippi Basin are bad enough. But they cannot be disentangled easily from a host of other issues. The fact that Twin Cities area police feel they are obligated to defend the corporate profits of a Canadian energy company over the literal lives and livelihoods of Twin Cities residents – particularly those with brown or red or yellow skin – tells us something none too complimentary about their priorities and lack of accountability. The fact that said Canadian energy company feels empowered to cynically mobilise liberal distrust of Russia against environmentalists here at home tells us something about our culture’s messed-up priorities and imperialistic hubris. And the fact that again the indigenous Dakota and Ojibwe peoples are not being heard and that the treaties that give them rights to the land are still being violated by state and federal governments tells us that we are still dealing with entrenched disparities of power that completely override substantive considerations of justice.

I would also say, as a religious conservative – though I understand full well that this may not be a popular position among the people I attended the protest with – that these issues are also tied to life issues. The collapse of time horizons that accompanies the sorts of short-sighted actions like building a tar sands pipeline under the Mississippi headwaters, is related to and indeed is a function of our cultural disrespect of and inconsideration of the future generations: the human children who are as yet unborn. Yes: I consider the unborn to be human, with the right to life. And water is life. I went to that protest because I don’t only want my daughter and my son to have clean fresh water to drink and clean air to breathe, but because I want the children that they will have someday to enjoy the same things. Even if, as Enbridge’s mendacious public relations and advertising campaign threatens, that means less energy for me now, or higher prices at the pump for me now, so be it. I can bear such a deprivation. I dare not presume that they can bear theirs, inflicted by my (and my parents’) generation’s short-sightedness.

So yes. As an Orthodox Christian in the city of St Alexis, I say it aloud: Stop Line 3. Protect our water. Honour our treaties. End Russophobia and the New Cold War. End the wars – full stop. No more stolen sisters. Justice for Jamar, for Philando, for George, for Daunte. End the killings in the womb. All of these things are connected, and we cannot fix a culture of death selectively.