Laden with highly-charged connotations, “martyr” is one of the most rhetorically and politically loaded words in the English language. Often, for us, “martyr” conjures up images of stubborn ideologues who refuse to be badgered into backing down, or sufferers of avoidable ills in the name of self-righteousness.
Often, Catholics imagine specifically early Christian martyrs as put-upon Catacomb Christians sticking to their guns in the face of a government that was determined to beat their convictions out of them. This anachronistic imaging of the early Christian martyrs is influenced by the state-driven religious persecutions of the Reformation.
I would like to suggest an alternate imaging of the early martyrs.
But first, a quick etymological detour: the word “martyr” did not appear in Latin until it was first used in the first century AD. The Latin word evolved specifically to describe the phenomenon of groups of early Christians, who were, for whatever strange and shocking reason, giving themselves up to death at the hands of the Romans. The word “martyr” is a response to a specific event, an event which was something entirely new.
Whatever else they may be, the martyrs certainly were not prophetic witnesses to the social sins of the Roman Empire. Never once did martyrs berate their Roman rulers for their practice of slavery, military action, or the vicious and inhumane gladiatorial games. No, in fact, martyrs seem to have a different agenda entirely.
The primary impetus of the martyrs was a sincere desire to follow in the footsteps of Christ. St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in the late first and early second centuries, writes in his letter to the Romans: “Come, fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—only let me get to Jesus Christ!” Later in the same letter, Ignatius writes of his “passion for death.”
To the horrified Roman world, these crazed Christians, who actually desired these painful, bloody deaths, were fascinating curiosities and disturbing witnesses. To our sanitized twenty-first century minds, these baffling saints, with death wishes so powerful they veer squeamishly close to suicide, provoke violent discomfort. But suicide is an act of despair; it is a rejection of all hope. The martyrs, however, were not despairing. They were bounding towards death with hope and with joy. We cannot understand how death could be a summation of someone’s hope (I don’t mean this rhetorically—I truly cannot understand).
But that is precisely the witness the martyrs are giving us. They are supposed to make us squeamish, because their mission is something far more mystical than we imagine. Their lives and deaths smack of eternity. Their deaths testify to the radical transformation of the world through Christ’s Death and Resurrection. “If Christ has not risen from the dead,” writes St. Paul, “our faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). But Christ has indeed risen from the dead. Thus, what can separate us from the love of Christ (cf. Rom 8:35)? That is the dare that the early Christians accept as they undergo fire, torture, and the sword, and find in these sufferings the perfect joy of Christ. In fact, it is in these violent deaths that the martyrs find union with Christ, sharing in his Passion that they might share in his life.
If we really believe that Christ has conquered death, that our Prince has trampled hell’s serpent, then what have we to fear? If beyond death lies eternal life with the Lord, what cause have we to be afraid of it? Christ has transformed death indeed, and thus the Christian’s worldview is turned upside down. Death, humanity’s oldest enemy, has lost its sting (cf. 1 Cor 15:55). In a cosmos touched by resurrection, to be away from the body is simply to be at home in the Lord (cf. 2 Cor 5:8).
In the grip of post-resurrection fervor, the martyrs desire nothing more than to be united to Christ, to witness to the love that has conquered even death and opened up this miraculous new life with God. Through their witness to this radical love, the martyrs recreate the Paschal Mystery in their own lives, so that Christ can again conquer death through them. They do not shun or berate the sinful behavior of the Romans. Rather, they enter into the darkness of the amphitheatre, where unspeakable violence is committed against them, and they joyfully transform the bloody arenas into temples where Christ’s Passion is recreated through them.
The task of the martyrs was not to call the world of late antiquity to task, resisting stubbornly until they were chopped down. Rather, the early martyrs entered into their societies’ social sins, and transformed the darkest of places into arenas where Christ the Lord is present.
Perhaps our task as Christians is the same as these early saints: to enter into dialogue with what is darkest in our society, and to show that Christ is even present there.
Featured Image: The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.