Originally, the martyrs were simply witnesses to Christ.
That’s in keeping with the meaning of the Greek word for martyr, martys (pronounced: mar’-toos), which was the technical term for a witness at a legal trial. In the New Testament, one of the earliest occurrences of the word is in Acts 1:8, where a soon-to-ascend Christ applies the word to the apostles: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
But to be a witness for Christ, particularly in the early Church, was to risk death, hence the narrowing of meaning of martyr to refer to someone who had died for the faith. And indeed, many of the apostolic witnesses Jesus was addressing at His Ascension were headed for just such a fate.
Today we tend to still think of martyrs in this way—as saints who died for Christ. The early Church was rich in martyrs. And, over the last century, we seem to be in a new era of martyrdom, with many saints slain in the Cristero War in Mexico in the 1920s to Christian dissenters from the Nazis and Communists to those being killed by ISIS today.
But there’s a sense in which all of us are called to be martyrs.
St. Paul shows the way 2 Corinthians 4:7-11:
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
For our purposes the key verse is 10—Paul says that he and other ministers are ‘always carrying about’ in our bodies ‘the dying of Jesus.’ This certainly could refer to the mortification of the flesh, so to speak, but it would also entail the endurance of suffering.
Mary is the paramount example of martyrdom as a form of suffering united to Christ’s death. How else can we read Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:34-35:
Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Traditionally, the Church has understood this prophecy about Mary to come to fulfillment in the crucifixion. Although Mary did not of course share physically in the Passion, it was the suffering she experienced in her heart that united her to Christ’s sacrifice. As Father Frederick William Faber, a nineteenth century writer, put it in his spiritual classic, At the Foot of the Cross,
It can plainly be no wonder, if she shall suffer more than any one but Himself. … The loftiness of her divine Maternity will raise her dolours close up to his gracious Passion. Her sinlessness will almost seem to enclose within the same life-giving law of expiation. Her union with Him will render her Compassion inseparable from His Passion, even while for a thousand reasons it is so manifestly distinguishable from it.
For this reason, the Church has traditionally described Mary as a ‘martyr’ even though she did not die a martyr’s death. This truth is reflected not only in word but images. Consider, for example, the very close association the Church has always made between the thorn-crowned Sacred Heart—still bearing the wound Christ received from His side on the cross—and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which, significantly, is also often depicted as being wounded.
There is one other way in which Mary’s martyrdom is suggested visually and this instance is preserved in the New Testament itself.
First some background: in the early Church, martyrs were depicted as spiritual athletes who competed to win a crown of glory. This notion of martyrs as athletes is all over the place—in the accounts of the martyrdom of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity and the writing of Church historian Eusebius, to name but two examples. Once again, such language is firmly rooted in the New Testament—in the epistles of Paul, to be exact:
Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; see also 2 Timothy 2:5).
Fittingly, the first martyr of the Church was named Stephen, which is taken from the Greek word stephanos, meaning a crown, garland, and glory.
But in the New Testament, there are only two figures who are individually depicted as actually wearing the crown of glory. One is Christ, who appears with a ‘crown of gold’ in Revelation 14:14. The other is Mary:
A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars (Revelation 12:1).
All of us are called to be martyrs—to witness to Christ in a sacrificial way. For some, the sacrifice is more literal and more physical than others and for these saints we reserve the title ‘martyr.’ But many more of us can witness after the example of Mary, by carrying the death of Jesus with us in our hearts that the light of His life may shine all the more brilliantly through us.