|Devotion to Our Lady||
ARTICLE 1 : OPENING THOUGHTS ON MARTYRDOM
In a culture that emphasizes the preservation of youth and bodily life, the concept of martyrdom does seem foreign—in fact, for some, it seems to be insane and radical. Martyrdom according to the Catechism is “the supreme witness given to the truth of the Faith: it means bearing witness even unto death.” Rather than renounce his Faith, the martyr bears witness with extraordinary fortitude to the belief that Christ suffered, died, and rose from the dead for our salvation, and to the truths of our Catholic Faith. The word martyr itself means “witness.”
Sacred Scripture attests to the courage of men and women who were willing to die as martyrs rather than renounce their Faith or be unfaithful to God’s law by sinning.
In the Old Testament, Susanna preferred to die rather than yield to the sinful passions of the two unjust judges (Daniel 13).
Again, in the Old Testament, the Machabees laid down their lives rather than lay down their religion.
St. John the Baptist refused to compromise with evil and never ceased professing the law of God; in the end he “gave his life in witness to truth and justice” (Opening Prayer for the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist). St. Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Church, was also the first martyr (Act 6:8 ff), followed by the Apostle St. James the Greater (Acts 12:2).
The witness of these martyrs dovetails in the apocalyptic vision of the Book of the Apocalypse. Here, St. John saw the angels and saints from every nation and race, people and tongue, standing before the throne and the Lamb. They cried out, “Salvation is from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb!” When asked who they were, the answer came, “These are the ones who have survived the great period of trial; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Apocalypse 7:9-17.)
The spiritual rationale which underpins the act of martyrdom is one that each Christian must accept. In teaching the conditions for true discipleship, our Lord asserted, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it. For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26). Yes, the Christian must be prepared to bear the cross of Our Lord, even if it means forsaking life in this world.
In doing so, however, such a Christian will be blessed in the eyes of God. In the Beatitudes, those right attitudes of living that bring blessed union with God, the eighth beatitude is repeated: “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice sake: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:10). Moreover, Jesus personalized this beatitude: “Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for My sake” (Matthew 5:11). Nevertheless, the point is not just the suffering here and now for the faith, but the courageous perseverance which gives way to everlasting life: “Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you” (Matthew 5:12.)
This spiritual rationale is reflected beautifully in the testimony of the martyrs of our early Church during the time of Roman persecution. For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 110), who was the third bishop of Antioch following St. Evodius (who had succeeded St. Peter the Apostle), and who had been a student of St. John the Apostle, was condemned by the Emperor Trajan and sentenced to being devoured by beasts in the arena.
On the way to Rome where he would die, he wrote seven letters, including one to the Romans, in which he reflected on his pending death: “Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ,” and later “Neither the pleasures of the world nor the kingdoms of this age will be of any use to me. It is better for me to die in order to unite myself to Christ Jesus than to reign over the ends of the earth. I seek Him who died for us; I desire Him who rose for us. My birth is approaching…” (Letter to the Romans).
Another great witness to the faith during this time was St. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, who was a friend of St. Ignatius and who had also been a student of St. John the Apostle and had been consecrated a bishop by him. For refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods and to acknowledge the divinity of the Emperor, St. Polycarp was condemned to death by burning at the stake at the age of eighty-six during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
As the pyre was about to be lit, St. Polycarp prayed, “I bless you for having judged me worthy from this day and this hour to be counted among your martyrs…. You have kept your promise, God of faithfulness and truth. For this reason and for everything, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. Through Him, who is with you and the Holy Spirit, may glory be given to you, now and in the ages to come. Amen.” (The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp).
In defense of the martyrs, Tertullian (d. 250) later wrote in his Apology, “Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us! Your wickedness is the proof of our innocence, for which reason does God suffer us to suffer this. When recently you condemned a Christian maiden to a panderer rather than to a panther, you realized and confessed openly that with us a stain on our purity is regarded as more dreadful than any punishment and worse than death. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, accomplish anything: rather, it is an enticement to our religion. The more we are hewn down by you, the more numerous do we become. The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians!” Without question, despite the worst persecutions, the Church has continued to survive and to grow, due greatly to the courageous witness and prayers of the holy martyrs.