How to Honor the Memory of The First Martyrs of The Church

About ten years after Nero became emperor of Rome in 54, he began to persecute the Christians. He became bent on destroying them and accused the adherents of this new religion of setting a fire that consumed much of the city.

He would have them covered in pitch and set on fire to light his way for his night drive through the park. Christians were also sewn into animal skins and placed in the woods so Nero and his guests could go hunting for them later.

Thousands of Christians were martyred in the two centuries that followed Nero’s reign of terror. We honor them on June 30 with an optional memorial on the day after the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5). The armies of darkness may try to cover every square inch of our city streets with concrete and asphalt, but the small flowers will find a way to sprout and bloom in the cracks in the sidewalk. Tertullian was right: “…the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

However, even as practicing Catholics, it’s easy to dismiss and distance ourselves from the martyrs of the ancient Church, because, at least in 2018 America, our chances of being literally martyred for our faith are nil. Those people who are more conversant with current events have noticed that our religious liberties have eroded in recent decades, but may not think about martyrdom much within the comforts of their middle-class, suburban lifestyles.

However, many believers may not be acutely aware that we are all called to be living martyrs. St. Pius XII is on-target here: “Not all of us are called to die a martyr’s death, but we are all called to the pursuit of Christian virtue. This demands strength of character…a constant, persistent and relentless effort is asked of us right up to the moment of our death. This may be conceived as a slow, steady martyrdom” [emphasis mine].

Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery. We honor the memory of the early martyrs by imitating the spirit of their sacrifice in our daily lives.

Baptism is our doorway into this experience: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3). Baptism into his death is a profound sacrament in being simultaneously a one-time event and something that we embrace every day: we have died with him on the day the priest performs this rite of initiation, but are also commanded to pick up our cross and die daily with him in our workaday and domestic worlds (Matthew 16:24-26).

St. Paul confirms and underscores the teaching of Jesus in talking about the living martyrs who are “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in [their] mortal flesh” (II Cor. 4:10). Those of us who partake of the Eucharist eat his flesh and drink his blood and “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (I Cor. 11:26).

We carry our cross when our will comes in opposition to his will and we choose to do his will. C.S. Lewis said, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’”

I have known more than one Christian who has entered into the kingdom of God with an unhealthy romantic idealism that precipitated their moral and spiritual debacle later when they became offended because of the demands of true discipleship within this Vale of Tears. The Christian life was supposed to be a vehicle to make their dreams come true with a Celestial Santa Claus providing the balmy breezes, white picket fences, and storybook endings.

The living martyr knows better than this and agrees with Simon Tugwell, OP, who wrote: “Christianity has to be disappointing, precisely because it is not a mechanism for accomplishing all our human ambitions and aspirations; it is a mechanism for subjecting all things to the will of God.” When people do not understand the true nature of the Christian life, as Tugwell so cogently defines it, it creates fertile soil for offense, and the offended parties end up going back to their former way of life (John 6:66).

Every day we have the choice of picking up our cross or embracing a counterfeit, cross-less faith. We may have an annoying, high-maintenance co-worker or perhaps someone in our family tree. We can let them provoke us or we can listen to Mother Teresa’s Rule #11 concerning humility: “Be courteous and delicate even when provoked by someone.”

I think of the young, newlywed Catholic couple who are considering their future life with children. They really wonder if they can afford children and Natural Family Planning feels like a risky option. They’re torn between God’s will as manifested in the teaching of the Magisterium and their own feelings.

In fact, the life of a living martyr can often be highlighted and defined by the tension between our duties and obligations as spouses, parents, employees, friends, etc. and what we really feel like doing in relation to those duties and obligations. Many of us have several days where we felt like having coffee and breakfast in the morning, and felt like watching our favorite TV show at night, but the vast majority of everything between those events we didn’t feel like doing.

Welcome to the life of a living martyr. Such a life is daunting and much bigger than any of us.: a supernatural life requires supernatural means to fulfill it.

That’s why Christ said that apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). The inheritance of the kingdom of God is for the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3) who proactively avail themselves to the sacramental life and live in a radical, moment-by-moment dependence on the grace of God.

If Baptism is the “doorway sacrament” into the life of a living martyr, humility is its accompanying, “doorway virtue.” It is the virtue that precedes, undergirds and infuses all the other virtues.

This is why Augustine said in his advice to Dioscursus, “…although many virtues are commanded by the Christian religion, study to give humility the highest place, because all virtues are acquired and maintained by humility, and without humility they vanish away.” St. Thomas says, “Acquired humility is in a certain sense the greatest good.”

Trying to live the life of a living martyr through self-effort always has an unhappy ending. For many it ends in defeat and despair; for others, who attain a high-level of religious performance, like the Pharisees, it ends in pride and self-righteousness.

As C.S. Lewis concluded, Satan is more than happy to grant us spiritual victories if they are leavened with hubris. It’s no coincidence that the Dove (the power of the Spirit) rested on the meek and lowly Lamb (John 1:32).

The good news for the practicing Catholic is that in our sacramental life, devotional practices, spiritual disciplines, and relationship to the Mother of God, we have access to a tsunami of grace. Many of us could be drinking from a firehouse, but are content with a small trickle from a rusty, worn-out faucet.

Every day as living martyrs we walk a path that opens up to a vista that presents a future with a greater or lesser weight of glory. Put another way: we become our decisions.

The person who repeatedly gives in to annoyance, impatience and pique becomes a petulant person. The person who does the opposite becomes a kind person (Remember the three rules of relationships: “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”)

The shoe-leather of daily life becomes the chrysalis where the worm, through a life of obedience, with all its ups and downs, detours, and failures, becomes a butterfly. Within the chrysalis the drama is played out that Athanasius of Alexandria described: “He was incarnate that we might be made god.”

The lump of coal, through great pressure, becomes a diamond; the ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan; and the gold is refined several times in the Refiner’s Fire before it is fit for many purposes. Though there is always an infinite chasm between the creature and the Creator, we become conformed to Christ’s image (Romans 8:29) and partakers of his divine nature (II Peter 1:4).

The earnest and consistent embrace of the lifestyle of a living martyr ultimately prepares us for heaven. How important it is to live our lives in the light of eternity!

Whatever sin is crucified in this present life will escape God’s retributive justice in Purgatory. The lifestyle of a living martyr is, in a very real sense, Purgatory Now, and if we have been purified in this life, we have been made ready for the Beatific Vision in the next one: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

In this life we have been betrothed to Christ as a pure virgin (II Corinthians 11:1,2); in the next, we will be married to him in the wedding of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7) and will rule and reign with him throughout eternity. The lifestyle of the living martyr facilitates the process of us becoming a Bride who can be presented to Christ “…in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).


Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is a frequent contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. A self-confessed “mediocre fishermen,” he is known to wet a line now and then in the creeks, rivers, and lakes of northeast Washington.

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