Venerating the Martyrs

The slaughter of Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria continues apace. One day, God willing, I will join them in the new heavens and the new earth. For the Western churches today, actual martyrdom is not often on our minds, except when, hoping to share in some of the glory of martyrs, we like to exaggerate our own suffering as Christians. What we need is a robust cult of the martyrs that is rooted in the person, the sacrifice, and the glorification of Christ himself: a cult that teaches us to imitate the holy examples of the great cloud of witnesses the Lord has given us, and by these examples to live as those who are called blessed in the Sermon on the Mount. Such respectful commemoration of the martyrs and praise of God would be a constant reminder of the claims the gospel makes upon our lives.

The quality of holy martyrs’ faith, I think, is something that all Christians need to learn. To be mature, the Church needs to look at her baptism by water and be prepared for martyrdom. For this is the calling that baptism represents, to be united to Christ in his death and resurrection. This is what St Peter says to the martyr Church, knowing that he must shortly put off the tabernacle of his body:

Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ:

Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord, according as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

When faith is tested, there a Christian must see that he has no higher calling than the works of Christ and his Holy Spirit, that he may not prefer to them the sweetness of life itself. Faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, charity, this is the fruit of the Spirit that is found in him who remembers that he has been purged from his old sins, cleansed in the waters of baptism. He is a dead man, and having died with Christ he will soon enter his everlasting kingdom. As he gives diligence to make his calling and election sure, he will receive with joy the destiny for which God has elected him. Such a man is ready to suffer death and be buried, and to rise again according to the Scriptures for the life of the world to come.

This is the truth our worship should reflect. As one hymn says for the praise and commemoration of one martyr outwith Eastertide,

O God, of those that fought thy fight,
Portion, and prize, and crown of light,
Break every bond of sin and shame
As now we praise thy Martyr’s name.

He recked not of the world’s allure,
But sin and pomp of sin forswore:
Knew all their gall, and passed them by,
And reached the throne prepared on high.

Bravely the course of pain he ran,
And bare his torments as a man:
For love of thee his blood outpoured,
And thus obtained the great reward.

With humble voice and suppliant word
We pray thee therefore, holy Lord,
While we thy Martyr’s feast-day keep,
Forgive thy loved and erring sheep.

Glory and praise for aye be done
To God the Father, and the Son,
And Holy Ghost, who reign on high,
One God to all eternity.

And another for the praise and commemoration of many martyrs within Eastertide,

O glorious King of Martyr hosts,
Thou crown that each Confessor boasts,
Who leadest to celestial day
Those who have cast earth’s joys away:

Thine ear in mercy, Saviour, lend,
While unto thee our prayers ascend;
And as we count their triumphs won,
Forgive the sins that we have done.

Martyrs in thee their triumphs gain,
From thee Confessors grace obtain;
O’ercome in us the lust of sin,
That we thy pardoning love may win.

To thee who, dead, again dost live,
All glory, Lord, thy people give;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To Father and to Paraclete.

Fitting for the praise of holy martyrdom, a rigorous ritual, the hymns are not sentimental but resolute. They have no time for sentimentality. They praise the noble acts that the martyrs have done by the power of God. Their austerity is perfectly Roman and perfectly cruciform.

This is sterner stuff than what many Christians see today, but it is the stuff of the Bible. This is the spirituality that rejoices in the work of Jesus Christ and glories in the death to which he has called us in hope of the life to which he has called us. For he has gone before us, the firstborn from among the dead, the Son of Man, that as sons of God in him the saints might all be raised at the Last Day. It is not familiar, but God is not merely familiar. It is strange, as God is strange. But in the strange life of dying saints we look to the strange and glorious life of resurrected saints. And most of all we look upon the one who has given his body and blood that we might give ours up and be raised with his. ’Tis strange, foreign even, but it is love.

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4 responses to “Venerating the Martyrs

  1. It seems to me that the decline in concern for martyrdom is in part connected to a sense of disconnection from the dead. We have come to regard death as a much more radical separation than scripture seems to imply, which has the martyred saints participating along with us, in some mysterious way, in salvation. In addition to that, we seem to have lost any sense for purification or perfection coming through suffering (even though scripture says that anyone who has suffered has ceased from sin). If we retained that sense, it is more likely that we would not only appreciate the martyrs, but in some sense be jealous of them.

    • Aye, it’s not enough for the Church to confess the communion of saints during the service. The people need to be taught that this communion is with both the living and the departed in the death of Christ, and that all this is implicit in our baptisms: we are baptized into a death to sin and a lifelong resistance to the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The saints’ days are an opportunity to remember what God calls every Christian to do and to mark how some exemplary Christians have served him in life and in death.

  2. At two points here, I had to do some extra work to get your meaning. (First, my dictionary gave me a definition of ‘cult’ less objectionable than my initial one, and then your use of ‘Roman’ confused me until I followed the links concerning the hymns and saw their origin in the RC breviary & missal.) I trust that you will forgive this ‘lowchurchman’ for stumbling over language that is perfectly clear to you :).

    You’re right that almost no thought is given to thinking about martyrs, and this is not only true of the Western church. As a Nigerian (though living in the West), I know this isn’t true of most Nigerian churches either. Beyond intercessory prayer, works of mercy, and defensive caution in areas within the grasp of Islamofascist juntas, no more thought is given to martyrs and martyrdom. Less still, to the ‘quality of holy martyrs’ faith’. If you’re right, then this strikes me as a Roman emphasis worth re-adopting in the various wings of Protestantism. I can imagine churches in the large Nigerian Baptist Convention (daughter to ‘your’ [Amer.] SBC) singing these hymns and introducing this teaching into the ambit of congregational and liturgical life. May God continue to chasten his church by all the means he chooses.

    • By Roman, I actually meant primarily the old Roman values of austerity, thrift, and valour, as one sees in the character of the young man Mucius Scævola. These values, cultivated as part of a Christian life, become virtues by which a Protestant may face death and, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, give his body to the flames. So I hope Nigerian Baptist churches do take up these hymns together with the psalms. Let Satan tremble at the iron in our souls.

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