The English word martyr comes from a Greek word which means witness. In the secular world the word martyr was used to mean witness but soon the word martyr came to mean someone who loses his or her life for the Christian faith. (Of course, there are martyrs in the non-Christian world also, but we are not concerned with that here.) The first Christian martyr is St. Stephen, one of the original deacons. The account of his martyrdom is found in Acts 6:8-7:60. St. Stephen was a zealous preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We find him put on trial for this and most of Acts 7 consists of his defense in which he showed that Jesus Christ was the Messiah prophesied by the Old Testament and awaited by the Jewish people. For this testimony St. Stephen was stoned to death. It is noteworthy that St. Stephen, as he was dying, asked God to forgive the people who were stoning him, much as Jesus had done on the cross.
Of course, there were many martyrs in the first Christian centuries as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire. After the empire was Christianized, martyrs were often found among the missionaries who preached the Gospel in foreign lands, as well as their converts. The 20th century saw many martyrs being killed by totalitarian governments. Christian martyrdom continues today as thousands or tens of thousands die for Christ each year.
On January 31st this year the church remembers the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia who died under the communists. On February 7th we commemorate Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev, who was the first bishop killed by the communists.
Hieromartyr Vladimir (in the world Basil Nikephorovich Bogoyavlensky) was born into a clerical family in Tambov province in 1848. He completed his education at the Kiev Theological Academy and taught in the Tambov seminary before getting married and being ordained a priest. After his wife died, he became a monk and shortly thereafter he was consecrated a bishop. He served as a bishop in various dioceses until becoming Metropolitan of Moscow in 1892, and Metropolitan of Petrograd in 1915.
Because he disapproved of Rasputin he was transferred to Kiev. In January 1918 the Civil War came to Kiev. On January 23rd the Bolsheviks seized the Kiev Caves Lavra and assaulted many monks. On January 25th the Bolsheviks seized St. Vladimir and beat him and killed him in a most brutal manner. His body had several bullet wounds, as well as cuts and gashes. Before he was killed St. Vladimir spent a few moments in prayer. Then he blessed his executioners and said “May God forgive you.”
As mentioned above, St. Vladimir was the first bishop to be murdered by the Bolsheviks. He was followed by countless others under the communist yoke. But St. Vladimir shows us that it is possible, even in the most terrible circumstances, to draw near to God in prayer and to follow Christ’s command to forgive those who hurt and kill us.