Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Keyholes into Church History, Part 3: The Church of the Martyrs

“The blood of Christians is the seed of the Church.” It’s a shocking and perhaps even offensive statement by one of the early Church fathers. In our day and age, it may conjure up images of fanatics flying planes into buildings or blowing themselves up on crowded subways. The whole idea of martyrdom, shedding one’s blood for the sake of religion, stinks of fundamentalist extremism, and most people (especially polite Canadians) would react almost violently to the suggestion that we could or should be martyrs for any cause.

And yet, for almost three hundred years after the Apostles began proclaiming that Christ was “risen indeed,” the Christian Church was nothing if not a Church of martyrs. What provoked the persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire is too vast a study for this format. A whole host of socio-religious and economic factors are to be blamed. Whatever the causes, the fact remains that until its legalization under the Emperor Constantine, Christianity was an easy scapegoat for wide range of ills in a declining Roman Empire.

For Christians during this period, faith was inseparable from the real possibility of physical martyrdom. More than that, physical torture and death for one’s faith was a defining characteristic of Christian identity. How could it be otherwise when the law stated literally that “Christians may not exist” and when simple attendance at a Christian liturgy constituted a capital offense?

While many of today’s churches have left behind the legacy of those early days of persecution, Eastern Orthodox tradition still regards the Church as a Church of the martyrs, and martyrdom as a quintessential vocation of all Christians. Not, of course, the grotesque and deformed excuses for “martyrdom” that was 9/11 and other acts of terrorism through the centuries, but rather martyrdom as the Apostles understood and taught it as a result of their encounter with the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word “martyrios,” meaning “witness.” As such, the Apostles saw their first task as that of martyrs—witnesses to the identity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who was crucified and risen from the dead. “You are witnesses [in the Greek, literally “martyrs”] of these things” (Luke 24:48) and “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:8)

This witness certainly did not mean inflicting violence on others. Jesus explicitly forbade his disciples to take up arms, fight and die for his cause. (Matt. 26:52 and John 18:36) An early apologist, writing an open letter to one of the Emperors in the early second century, declares that “[Christians] obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all are persecuted.” (Letter to Diognetus 5:10-11) Far from being some kind of social, political or military action, Christian martyrdom was to witness to the unfailing love of God, who in Christ was obedient even to death on the cross.

In baptism, Christians participated mystically in the death and resurrection of Christ. They became or “put on” Christ spiritually. In doing so, the Christian took on the challenge of dying to selfishness and participating in the self-emptying love of God for the world. And this was martyrdom because it involved dying, not in military conflict, but on the battlefield of personal whims and desires; not for a political or social cause, but for the cause of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ.

For early Christians, however, physical martyrdom set the seal on the spiritual martyrdom to which they were called by virtue of baptism. They refused the political idolatry of burning a pinch of incense to a “divine” Emperor in the same spirit as they would refuse to worship the other idols in their lives: money, sex, and material possessions. And when they were thrown to the lions, crucified, flayed, boiled or chopped into pieces, they submitted to their gruesome deaths in the same spirit as their crucified Lord who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” and “into Your hands I commit my spirit.” For early Christians, steadfastness to the point of physical death was the ultimate sign of faithfulness to the spiritual life in Christ to which all Christians are called.

It is only appropriate to illustrate with a story of a Christian martyr from the early fourth century, a slave woman named Charitina. Though not yet baptised, she believed in Christ and proclaimed him boldly. When persecutions arose, her master turned her in to the Roman governor, who ordered her hair cut off and burning coals poured over her head. Then she was thrown into a lake to drown. She managed to clamber out, and as she did, cried: “This is my baptism!” In response, the governor ordered her teeth knocked out and her hands and feet cut off. She died shortly afterwards from loss of blood.

It’s a shocking story, but no more shocking that recent events we have witnessed, even in our own time. And much like the early centuries of the Christian era, our time too mingles horrendous violence with excesses of laxity, hedonism and amorality. Now more than ever the early experiences of the Church call us to respond as St. Charitina did, neither offering violence in exchange for violence, nor falling prey to moral timidity and passive betrayal of our fundamental beliefs. It’s time to find a way between violent conservatism and permissive liberalism. It’s time to find the way of the martyrs—the way that will surrender and die to everything for His sake, especially me and my ego, so that you and everyone else can know the love of the One who gave everything for us.

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