“Follow the Gospel and suffer injustice to yourself and your possessions as befits true Christians.”
— Martin Luther
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The first two saints to be canonized in the Russian and Byzantine Orthodox tradition were Boris and Gleb, younger sons of Vladimir the Baptizer, Christian ruler of the kingdom of Kievan Rus. For more than a millennium Boris and Gleb, who died somewhere around the year 1015, have been revered in the east as “Passion-bearers” – innocent sufferers and exemplars par excellence of the Orthodox ideal of kenosis, the emptying of self in Christian humility and love.
Vladimir, who had many children, decided to divvy up the realm among his heirs before his death, granting a portion to each of his several sons. After their father’s demise, Sviatopolk, eldest of the brothers, became Grand Prince of Kiev, the capital city. But Kiev was not enough for the power-hungry Sviatopolk.
Thomas Jefferson’s astute observation concerning the kind of people who desire advancement in the political realm – his contention that “a rottenness begins in their conduct” as soon as they set their sights on the prestige of public office — was certainly accurate in the case of Sviatopolk, whose cruel deeds subsequently earned him the epithet “The Accursed.” Desiring to expand his hegemony and rid himself of all rivals, he made plans to kill his brothers Boris and Gleb in order to gain control of their territories.
Boris learned of Sviatopolk’s accession to the throne upon his return from a field campaign with the Russian army. Being well aware of his older brother’s hostility, he was not surprised to learn that the Grand Prince was plotting his murder. But Boris was a Pilgrim, not a politician; and when his father’s retainers urged him to collect his forces and oust the unpopular Sviatopolk, he refused. Mindful of the words of the apostle John — “If any man say, ‘I love God,’ and hate his brother, he is a liar” — Boris sent his soldiers away, saying, “Be it not for me to raise my hand against my brother. Now that my father has passed away, let him take my father’s place in my heart.”
As night closed down, Boris retired to his tent with one servant to recite the vigil service and await the approach of the assassins. As they burst into the tent, Sviatopolk’s henchmen heard him singing psalms and asking God to strengthen him for the suffering he was about to endure. After that, he lay down on his couch and his murderers pierced him through with their lances.
Meanwhile, Sviatopolk sent word to Gleb saying that his father was very ill and desired to see him. A guileless youth, Gleb set out with a small band of retainers by boat. As he neared the city of Smolensk, he was met by emissaries bearing a letter from his sister Predislava. “Do not come,” she wrote. “Your father is dead and Sviatopolk has killed your brother.” But it was too late; and when the assassins caught up with him on the river, Gleb urged his company not to offer armed resistance. He was stabbed by his own cook and his body was thrown on to the shore between two trees.
Boris and Gleb received the Crown of Martyrdom in 1015. Not long afterwards, a service was composed in their honor by St. John I, Metropolitan of Kiev. But it’s important to note that Boris and Gleb were not really martyrs in the technical sense of the term. They did not actually die for their faith, but rather because, in emulation of their Master, they chose not to resist evil with violence. Like the One who, in spite of His divine claim to power, honor, and glory, humbled Himself and became obedient even to the point of death, they emptied themselves and laid down their lives as an offering to Love.
That is why, in the tradition of the Russian Church, they became known not as “martyrs” but as “Passion-bearers” (Russian strastoterptsy) – imitators of the sufferings of Christ. And that is what we mean when we speak of the Pilgrim value of kenosis.