“We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors…It is for His laws that we are dying”
Martin Burnham and his wife Gracia were American missionaries vacationing in the Palawan Island of the Philippines in May 2001 when they were captured by members of the dreaded Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. During their perilous year in captivity with other captives, they witnessed near starvation, heartless murders, plundering, gun battles etc. At one point during their bondage, the terrorists started forcing their captives to convert to Islam for freedom or for better treatment. Many of the captives succumbed and some pretended to convert and recite the Muslim prayers. When asked to convert to Islam, Martin gave a very astute answer, “Hmm, well, you know, my father is a Christian. His father before him was a Christian and his own father too was a Christian. My family has always been Christians…” The terrorists then gave up trying to convert him saying, “We understand that you have a long heritage.” In such a situation hostile to the Christian faith, Martin refused to compromise or to pretend to convert but held on to his Christian faith by reminding his captors of his long heritage of faith. Sadly, Martin was killed in a rescue attempt in June 2002.
Martin’s answer to his captives shows us how we can have a faith that is worth dying for. The emphasis cannot be on our personal acceptance of the truths of our faith though this is very important. The emphasis must be on God’s gift of faith to us through others because this gift of faith from God is what makes the individual’s faith response possible and enduring. Martin’s faith is not one made up by human opinions but one received from God through others, through his ancestors before him who labored to pass that faith to him intact. By seeing his faith as a gift from God to him through his ancestors, he experiences the power of a faith-relationship with God enabling him to hold on to this faith at whatever cost even if it means enduring a wicked bondage rather than convert to Islam.
Faith is God’s gracious gift to us that brings us into a relationship with Him and this gift is offered to us through the words, examples, sufferings, or prayers of other people of faith. “Faith comes from hearing.” (Rom 10:17) Faith is first and foremost a gift offered to us by God in and through a community of believers before it becomes something that we personally respond to with all our being. We are ready to endure anything for our faith when we realize that this faith, though we cannot understand it all, though it is not something in vogue at the present moment, is a gift from God to us and mediated to us by others in the faith.
In defiance of the commands of the ruling Hellenistic Seleucid kings, the seven Jewish brothers and their mother in the book of Maccabees refuse to violate God’s dietary law by eating pork. The Seleucids undermined and attacked all aspects of Jewish belief and practice, intensely persecuting them and prohibiting them from practicing their faith. It was surely not a fashionable time to observe any of God’s commandments. But the brothers chose to be faithful to this divine commandment at the time even if it meant suffering torture and death because they saw their laws as coming from their ancestors and from the “King of this world.” Their faith in God’s laws and the coming resurrection is God’s gift to them through their ancestors in the faith: “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors… The king of this world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for His (God’s) laws what we are dying.” By seeing their faith as a gift from God first of all through their ancestors, the faith of these brothers is filled with so much courage that they are willing to die for what they believe in an age when such faith is not popular or fashionable.
The Gospel shows what happens when the emphasis of faith begins with the individual’s personal response and not on the gift of God. The Sadducees, known to stick only to the doctrines found in the written law and ignore the oral traditions, deny and mock the resurrection because it does not agree with their philosophy. Jesus replies to their hypothetical question about whose’ wife will the seven-time barren widow be at the resurrection by reminding them that faith in the resurrection was long ago revealed to the Israelites by God through their ancestor Moses in the passage about the bush: “Moses made this known when he called out, “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Jesus reminds them that faith in the resurrection cannot be attained by human reason alone or worldly standards. Such a faith comes from God and it is mediated to the Jews through Moses in the episode of the burning bush. The Sadducees failed to realize the giftedness of faith as coming from God and mediated to them by their ancestors.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, how come we so easily lose our faith in today’s world? We tend to abandon our faith in the slightest crises or for the most flimsy reasons. How many of us have chosen the path of easy but deadly compromise with the world? We pick and choose what we should believe in our Catholic faith, accepting only what we find conducive and fashionable to our culture and time and then wonder why our faith is virtually dead? Whatever the reasons may be for this easy compromise or random abandonment of the faith, the bottom line is that we appear to have lost a sense of the giftedness of the faith and the sacrifices of those who have suffered and labored to pass that faith down to us in the community of the Church. How many of us can say of our Catholic faith the words that we hear from the Maccabees brothers, “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors?” Or have we forgotten the labors of our ancestors in the faith who labored to pass on this faith to us? Don’t we want to pass it on to others as intact as we have received it from our ancestors in the faith?
The only way that we are going to faithfully profess and live out our Catholic faith and be ready to endure anything rather than compromise or deny our faith is to see this faith as a great gift from God coming down to us through a legion of living known and unknown saints and martyrs for over 2000 years and authoritatively interpreted for us in the Catholic Church today. We may not understand all the teachings of the Church about her life, mission, structure, beliefs, and morals. Many of her teachings may not be fashionable or popular today. Many of her teachings may be widely mocked and ignored. But the central issue and emphasis on faith cannot be in our personal response in faith. It is the gift of faith from God that makes the response in faith possible and enduring. We will have the energy and desire to endure all for our Catholic faith even to the point of death only when we give due primacy to the gift of faith from God and the sacrifices of those who have transmitted it to us through the ages and are communicating same to us today in the Body of Christ. No one is ready to die for a myth or for a convenient truth. But for something coming from the “Father of lights” and mediated to us by the Apostles, Mother Mary, numerous doctors, pastors, saints and martyrs of old, “who are all alive to God” and others in the Church today, we are emboldened to go the extra mile no matter the cost.
St. Paul reminds the Christians in Thessalonica that “not all have faith.” We are so privileged to receive this gift of faith at baptism when we were enlightened with the truths of Christ and filled with His grace. We entered at that moment into a relationship with the Triune God in the community of the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. We received this gift of faith in and through the community of the Church. In and through this same community of the Church, through her proclamation of the word, celebration of the sacraments and Christian witness, this faith is continually nourished in us in the midst of all the pains and sufferings of this life. If we never forget this giftedness of our faith and those who mediate it to us, nothing on this earth can quench our faith.
As the priest prays in each Mass, “Lord, look not on our sins but on the faith of the Church,” we acknowledge our faith as a gift from God reaching us through the Church. It is not a faith that we make up or completely understand. It is a faith that is mocked and ignored by the world. But it is a faith that has power to bind us so intimately and inseparably to God such that not even death can separate us from God. It is such a faith that produces the certainty that our present relationship with God will be fulfilled in the moment of the resurrection. In short, this is the only faith that is worth dying for.