Martyrdom: Death and Resurrection
Martyrdom means witness. But to bear witness to Christ to the point of death is to become one who has risen again. Christian martyrdom is a mystical experience, the first attested in the history of the Church. It is recorded right at the beginning by the example of Stephen the ‘protomartyr’ in the Acts of the Apostles thus: [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened. And the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” … Then they cast him out of the city and they stoned him; And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he said this, he fell asleep, (Acts 7. 55-60). Vision of glory … prayer for the executioners… when history comes full circle and another witness is put to death, this very death ‘opens the heavens’ and allows the energies of love to make their entry into the world.
Martyrdom was the first form of sanctity to be venerated in the Church. And when there were no longer any martyrs in blood, martyrs in ascesis, monks, came instead. It was the monks who coined the saying that expresses the meaning of martyrdom: ‘Give your blood and receive the Spirit.’ The martyrdom returned.
A martyr can be, at first sight any man or woman at all. But when they are crushed by the suffering they are identified with the Crucified Christ, and the power of the resurrection takes hold of them. In very direct accounts composed at the time without embellishments, at the beginning of the third century, we see a young Christian woman in prison lamenting the birth of her child (if a pregnant woman was arrested she was not sent to execution till after the birth). The jailer jeers at her. But Felicity gently explains to him that in the moment of her martyrdom another will suffer in her. Her friend Perpetua in fact feels nothing when she is exposed to the wild bulls. She is momentarily spared before coming out of the ‘ecstasy of the Spirit’, as if awakening from a deep sleep. And the martyrs, before meeting death together, give one another the kiss of peace, as during the eucharistic liturgy.
For the authentic Christian, death does not exist. He casts himself into the risen Christ. In him death is a celebration of life.
Felicity was eight months pregnant when she was arrested … Her labor pains came upon her … She was suffering a great deal and groaning. One of the gaolers said to her, ‘If you are already crying out like this, what will you do when you are thrown to the wild beasts? …’ Felicity answered him, ‘Then there will be another within me who will suffer for me because it is on his account that I an suffering …’
Perpetua was tossed in the air first [by a furious bull]. She fell on her back. As soon as she could sit up … she pinned back her hair which had come loose. A martyr cannot die with dishevelled hair, lest she seem to be in mourning on the day of her glory. Then she got up and noticed Felicity who seemed to have collapsed. She went to her, gave her hand and helped her to her feet. When they saw both of them standing up, the cruelty of the crowd was subdued. The martyrs were taken out through the gate of the living.
There Perpetua was welcomed by a catechumen, Rusticus, who was very much attached to her. She seemed to awake out of a deep sleep, so long had the ecstasy lasted. She looked around her and asked, ‘When shall we be delivered to the bull? When she was told it had already taken place she could not believe it, and refused to accept the evidence until she saw on her dress and on her body the traces of the ordeal. Then she called her brother and the catechumen. She said to them, ‘Remain steadfast in the faith. Love one another. Do not let our sufferings be a subject of scandal for you…’
The people demanded that the wounded be brought back into the arena so that they could enjoy the spectacle of the sword piercing the living bodies … The martyrs… came to the p0lace that the crowd wanted. They gave one another the kiss of peace to consummate their martyrdom, in accordance with the rite of faith. All of them remained motionless to receive the fatal blow.
Martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua, in the year 203, at Cartage (Knopf-Krüger, p.35-44)
The blood of the martyrs is identified with that of Golgotha, and so with that of the Eucharist, which imparts the inebriation of eternity. The martyr becomes Eucharist, becomes Christ. And that is why the relics of the martyrs, regarded as fragments of the glorified cosmos, of the ‘world to come’, are enshrined in the altars on which thw Eucharist is celebrated.
O blessed martyrs, human grapes of God’s vineyard, your wine inebriates the Church … When saints made themselves ready for the banquet of suffering they drank the draught pressed out on Golgotha and thus they penetrated into the mysteries of God’s house. And so we sing, ‘Praise be to Christ who inebriates the martyrs with the blood from his side.’
Rabulas of Edessa Hymn to the Martyrs (Bickell II, p. 262)
In the following passage from the letter written by Ignatius of Antioch to the Christians of Rome – the bishop of Antioch was being led to the capital of the Empire for solemn execution, at the beginning of the second century – almost all the aspects of this ‘death-and-resurrecti8on’ are brought together. The martyr crushed by the teeth of wild animals, like grains of wheat in the mill, becomes eucharistic matter; he shares fully in Christ’s divinizing flesh; he reproduces, in a quasi-liturgical sense, the Passion of the Crucified, in order to put on the Glorified, and to feel his victorious power. Victor, the conqueror, was the name given to every martyr. In Christ the Spirit is, for Ignatius, a stream of living water that leads to the Father.
Here the body of death is no longer dissolved by ascesis and spiritual experience, but all at once by human violence, The martyr hastens the coming to birth of the glorious body.
I am writing to all the Christians to tell all of them that I am gladly going to die for God … Let me be the food of beasts thanks to which I shall be able to find God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts in order to become Christ’s pure bread … By suffering I shall be a freedman of Jesus Christ and I shall be born again in him, free … let no being, visible or invisible, prevent me out of jealousy from finding Christ. Let fire and cross, wild animals, torture, dislocation of my bones, mutilation of my limbs, the grinding to pieces of my whole body, the worst assaults of the devil fall on me, provided only that I find Jesus Christ… My new birth is close at hand. Forgive me, brethren, do not hinder me from living. Let me come into the pure light. When I reach that point I shall be a man. Allow me to reproduce the passion of my God. May anyone who has God in him understand what I desire and take pity on me, knowing what it is that straitens me … My earthy desires have been crucified. There is no longer in me any fire to love material objects, only living water that murmurs within me, ‘Come to the Father’ … It is the bread of God that I desire, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ … and for drink I desire his blood, which is imperishable love.
Ignatius of Antioch To the Romans, 4-7 (SC 10, p. 130-7)
In the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, in the same period, one is struck by the affectionate simplicity of the man and the power of his intercession. He welcomes the police officers as neighbors sent to him by God. He does not pray for himself but for all those whom he has met, good or bad, and for the Universal Church.
Since his conscience is involved, the martyr deliberately disobeys the authorities. He calmly proclaims before magistrates and crowd that the only ‘Lord’ is Christ, namely God-made-man, and not the holder of power, not the sacralized might of Rome. Thereby he asserts the transcendence of conscience, of the person made in the image of God. He makes his own the protest of Antigone and Socrates, but in the joy of the resurrection. He radically relativizes political importance.
For all that, the martyr is not a rebel. Like Socrates, he accepts the sentence of the magistrates and prays for the Emperor. By that very fact he is a blessing to the city of men, and without disrupting it he enriches it with an uncompromising freedom.
The end of the passage takes up again the identification of martyrdom with the Eucharist, the witness of victory over death.
Learning then that the police officers were there, he [Polycarp] went down and talked to them. They were amazed at his age and his calmness and at the trouble that was taken to arrest a man as old as he. He had served them with as much food and drink as they wished, asking them only for an hour to pray as he desired. They allowed him that, and standing upright he began to pray, so full of God’s grace that for two hours he could not stop, and those who heard him were astonished, and many repented of having come to arrest so holy an old man.
In his prayer he remembered all the people he had ever met, illustrious or obscure, and the whole catholic Church spread throughout the world. When he had finished, the hour having come to depart, they mounted him on an ass and took him to the city … Quickly they piled round him the materials prepared for the pyre. As they were about to nail him to it he said, Leave me like this. He who gives me strength to endure the fire will also enable me to remain firm at the stake.’ Accordingly they did not nail him to it, but they bound him. With his hands behind his back le looked like a ram chosen for sacrifice from a large flock … Raising his eyes to heaven he said:
“Lord, almighty God, Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ through whom we have received the knowledge of thy name, God … of all creation … I bless thee for having judged me worthy of this day and of this hour, to share among the number of thy martyrs in the chalice of thy Christ, looking for the resurrection of body and soul in the fullness of the Holy Spirit … And so for everything I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, through the eternal heavenly high priest Jesus hrist thy well-beloved Son, through whom be glory to thee with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.” … In the midst of the fire he stood, not like burning flesh, but like bread baking.
Martyrdom of St Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, 7,2-8, 1; 14, 1-3; 15,2 (SC 10, pp. 250,252, 260, 262, 264)
The following dreams, which are visions, show the souls of the martyrs taking part in the heavenly liturgy as it is described in the Apocalypse. The gardens of paradise with the leaves of the trees singing to the breeze of the Spirit; a temple or a palace with walls of light; at the center of it all, the Ancient of Days with white hair but a face radiating youth; the face of Christ in the youthfulness of the Spirit; kiss of peace; the mouthful of food offered by the Shepherd; the ineffable perfume that is as food; so many symbols of the mystical state of martyrdom similar to the actual experience of the Eucharist.
Then I went up. I saw an enormous garden. In the middle there was a tall man dressed as a shepherd. He was engaged in milking sheep. Around him, in thousands, were men clothed in white. He raised his head, looked at me and said, Welcome, my child.’ He called me and gave me a mouthful of the cheese he was preparing I received it with hands joined. I ate it and they all said ‘Amen’. At the sound of the voices I woke up with the taste of a strange sweetness in my mouth. I related this vision at once to my brother [Saturus] and we understood that it was martyrdom that awaited us.
Our martyrdom was over. We had left our bodies behind. Four angels carried us towards the East but their hands did not touch us … When we had gone through the first sphere that encircles the earth we saw a great light. Then I said to Perpetua who was at my side, ‘This is what the Lord has promised us’. We had reached a vast open plain that seemed to be a garden with oleanders and every type of flower. The trees were as tall as cypresses and their leaves sang without ceasing … We arrive at a palace whose walls seem to be made of light. We go in and hear a choir repeating, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’ In the hall is seated a man clothed in white. He has a youthful face and his hair shines white as snow. On either side of him stand four elders … We go forward in amazement and we kiss the Lord who caresses us with his hand. The elders say to us, ‘Stand up!’ We obey and exchange the kiss of peace … We recognized many of the brethren martyrs like us. For food we all had an ineffable perfume that satisfied us wholly. Martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua (Knopf-Krüger)