“The blood of Christians is the seed of the Church.”
It’s a shocking and perhaps even offensive statement by Tertullian (c. 155-220 A.D.), one of the early Church fathers.
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 reject the suggestion that we could or should be martyrs for any cause.
Yet, for almost 300 years after the Apostles began proclaiming that Christ was “risen indeed,” the Christian Church was nothing if not an organization of martyrs.
The reasons for this are complex, but it is enough to say that Christianity was an easy scapegoat for wide range of ills in the declining Roman Empire.
For Christians, 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 Roman Imperial law literally stated, “non licet esse christianos,” meaning, “Christians may not exist”?
Both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions still regard the Church as a church of the martyrs and martyrdom as a quintessential vocation of all Christians.
This is not, of course, the grotesque and deformed excuses for “martyrdom” associated with such acts as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., but rather martyrdom as the Apostles understood and taught as a result of their encounter with the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.
The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word meaning “witness.”
As such, the Apostles saw their first task to witness to the identity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who was crucified and risen from the dead: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses [literally, martyrs] in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
This witness 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).
Thus, Christian martyrdom was to witness to the unfailing love of God, who in Christ was obedient even to death on the cross (Phil. 2:8).
According to the traditional Christian understanding, baptism is the way in which Christians participate spiritually in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
They “put on” Christ spiritually (Gal. 3:27). In doing so, the Christian takes on the challenge of dying to selfishness and participating in the self-emptying love of God for the world.
This is martyrdom because it involves dying, not in military conflict, but on the battlefield of one’s ego; not for this or that political or social cause, but for the life of the whole world.
For early Christians, physical martyrdom fulfilled the spiritual martyrdom to which they were called in baptism. They refused the political idolatry of burning a pinch of incense to a “divine” Emperor out of the same spirit as they refuse to worship all the other idols in their lives: money, sex and material possessions.
All these ideas find a stark illustration in the story of an early Christian martyr, a slave woman named Charitina.
Though not yet baptised, she believed in Jesus and proclaimed him boldly. When persecutions arose, her master turned her over to the Roman governor, who ordered her hair cut off, burning coals poured over her head and her body pierced with lances.
Thrown into a lake with a stone tied around her neck, she managed to clamber out, crying out as she did: “This is my baptism!”
After other tortures, she gave up her soul to God.
This is a shocking story, but no more shocking than what can be seen in an episode of Game of Thrones.
Much like the early centuries of the Christian era, our era mingles the glorification of horrendous violence with excesses of laxity, hedonism and amorality.
Now, more than ever, the experiences of the early Church call us to respond as St. Charitina did, neither offering violence in exchange for violence, nor falling prey to moral timidity and passive compromise of our core beliefs.
Between violent conservatism and permissive liberalism, the Christian martyrs call us to boldly die to our selfish, self-centered ways, and so bear witness to the love of the God who gave everything, even His own life, out of love for the world.
St Nicholas Orthodox Mission is at 635 Tranquille Rd. in North Kamloops, in the OLPH Parish Centre.
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