When I was practicing law in New York, I would regularly attend the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. I suppose Italian opera is the finest of any – my relatives loved Aida and Pagliacci. But there’s one opera that has inspired me most over the years, an opera that prodded me to leave law and become a priest. Even today I cannot quite understand the influence it has had on my life. That opera is; Francoise Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.
The opera tells a somewhat fictional but historical story of the Martyrs of Compiegne, Carmelite nuns who in 1794, during the closing days of the French Revolution, were guillotined in Paris for refusing to renounce their vocation. The plot traces the path of the nuns from the Revolution’s beginning in 1789 to the time when they were executed.
A young aristocratic woman by the name of Blanche de la Force enters the Carmelite convent to escape the violence and upheaval in French society at the beginning of the Revolution in 1789. Even in the first act there is a sense of impending doom for the nuns. Their world of quiet, solitude and prayer will not long last.
A police officer arrives at the convent and announces that the property has been confiscated by order of the Legislative Assembly, and that the nuns must forego their religious habits. The situation deteriorates rapidly. The nuns take a vow of martyrdom, holding firmly to their faith, even as the French government insists they abandon it. The pressure becomes all too much for Blanche who flees the convent for home where she discovers that her father has been guillotined.
Meanwhile, the nuns in the convent are all arrested and condemned to death. The nuns (one by one) slowly mount the scaffold and go to their death. At the last minute Blanche appears and joins the condemned community. Having seen all her fellow nuns executed, Blanche mounts the scaffold singing the final stanza of “Veni Creator Spiritus” – the hymn sung at Pentecost and used in a religious community when taking vows to God.
That final scene, with the nuns going to their deaths, is one of the most powerful in all opera. The nuns walk in procession to the guillotine chanting “Salve Regina” – Hail, Holy Queen! All the nuns are singing, and then one by one, the voices die off, until there is only silence. As each nun goes to her death, the distinct sound of the guillotine’s descending blade is heard repeatedly over the orchestra and the singing of the nuns, who are taken one by one, Blanche de la Force the last to die.
Now on this Pentecost Sunday, I want to ask the question: “Why did they do it?” Why did these nuns choose to become martyrs rather than save their lives? Why did they hold fast to their faith when the only thing that awaited them was death?
It happens again and again throughout Christian history, doesn’t it? Christians are willing to die rather than recant their faith. So many of the early Christians could have saved their lives – all they had to do was put a little incense in the charcoal fire before a statue of the Emperor and say, “Caesar is Lord!” That’s all they had to do, and they were free to live their lives as they wanted, but instead they chose death.
One of my friends at Georgetown University is now a Roman Catholic priest in England. Last Christmas he sent me a picture of an icon of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian martyrs who were beheaded by ISIS in Libya. These Egyptian Christians were laborers, not priests or monks. They were in Libya to find work, make some money and then return to Egypt to support their families. None of them were well-educated. All were given a chance to save their lives if they would renounce their faith and convert to Islam. None of them chose to do so. Reports have it, that as they were kneeling before their executioners ready to be beheaded, they called out the name of Jesus again and again. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” – that was the last word on their lips before dying.
If you want to know the proof for the resurrection, if you want to know the power of Pentecost, if you want to know why the Christian Church has survived two thousand years in the face of one persecution after another with millions of martyrs over the centuries, well, here it is. The Christian Church is the community of the resurrection, and because Jesus lives in a way like no other, Christians have been willing to live, sacrifice and die for their Lord. This is not wish-fulfillment or brainwashing or hallucinations; rather it is the personal, powerful presence of the living Christ in their lives.
Christians from that first Easter Sunday have been so convinced that Jesus lives – lives like no other person in history – that they have been willing to live for him, sacrifice for him, and even die for him. The twelve apostles died martyrs for Jesus. Thousands upon thousands of Christians died for Jesus during the Roman persecution of the first three centuries. Missionaries and pastors and monks and nuns died for Jesus in sharing the Gospel with the peoples of the world. John de Brebeuf and the Jesuit martyrs of Huron died for Jesus right here in this region in the 17th century. And even today people continue to live and die for Jesus because in some mystical way he is in us, and we in him.
Jesus lives! That is the witness of Christians in every age since the day of Pentecost. We have a God who cannot stay dead and buried, a God who has broken out of the tomb, a God who now lives in the heart of every believer. We have a God who has empowered us through the Holy Spirit to do more, love more, forgive more, and care more than we could ever accomplish by our own efforts.
This is why the Church survives and even thrives. Beat the Church down but it rises up. Try to kill it but it won’t stay dead. Dismiss it as irrelevant but it breaks upon the scene with fresh vigor. This is the power of Pentecost, where today one-third of the whole world is Christian.
Never be disheartened by what is happening in the world today. Whatever the forces of evil spreading hate, mayhem and destruction, whatever the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Iraq and Iran, whatever the challenges of the Church here at home in Canada, the resurrection of Jesus assures us that God has won the victory. When we think the situation is bad and can only get worse, it begins to get so much better. God has not given up on this world and God has not given up on us. No country, no human being is so far gone from God that God cannot bring us back, restore us, renew us, and recommit us to his purpose.
Some of us may remember Edward Shevardnadze who served as foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev. Before being brought to Moscow in 1985, Shevardnadze headed the Communist Party in his native Georgia. After the end of the Soviet Union, Shevardnadze became the President of the Republic of Georgia.
On November 23, 1992, in an interview on Georgia’s state-run radio network, Edward Shevardnadze disclosed that he had become a Christian. At his private baptism into the Georgian Orthodox Church, Shevardnadze, a once dedicated atheist like all good communists, took the name Giorgi (George) in honor of his nation’s patron saint. “There was a time,” he said, “when I had Stalin’s portrait on my wall; I now have an icon of the Virgin Mary and Child in my office.”
Imagine – from Lenin and Stalin to Jesus and Mary.
Yes, the power of Pentecost is still active in the world today. It’s understandable if any of us get depressed at the terrorism and horrific violence that so bombard us on the news. Evil and death may win short term battles but they have lost the war.
So never lose heart, never give up, and never give in. Never let despair have the last word in your life. Keep the faith, hold fast to the truth and persevere with courage. Remember that in all the circumstances of your life and in all the events in the news, the Spirit is still working in the world, working in the Church and working in you.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
May 15, 2016
Text – Romans 8: 14-17; John 14:8-17; Acts 2: 1-21
Pentecost Sunday, C