The Uniqueness of Christianity
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. (1 Jn 3:16)St. Paul endangered his life many times in preaching Jesus, before the Romans beheaded him near the Tiber.
Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? (2 Cor 11:24-29)
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Rom 5:3-5)
All of the Apostles except St. John, who had resisted fear to remain with Jesus in his crucifixion, were martyred. St. Peter was crucified upside-down on the Vatican Hill, where his body was buried and remains. St. James was beheaded by Herod in Jerusalem. St. Nathaniel was killed by having the skin flayed off his body (in Michelangelo's Last Judgement the glorified Nathaniel holds his skin by his finger). The life and death of each Apostle testifies that he preached and wrote of Jesus' Gospel not for anything worldly such as glory, riches or pleasure, but simply because of the Gospel's truth.
St. Justin, a philosopher scourged and beheaded in the second century for his faith in Christ, makes it plain that martyrdom manifests, not the fading glory of human wisdom, but the splendor of the eternal Father:
There was no one who believed so much in Socrates as to die for his teaching, but not only philosophers and scholars believed in Christ, of whom even Socrates had a vague knowledge (for He was and is the Logos who is in every person, and who predicted things to come first through the prophets and then in person when He assumed our human nature and feelings, and taught us these doctrines), but also workmen and men wholly uneducated, who all scorned glory, and fear, and death. Indeed, this is brought about by the power of the ineffable Father, and not through the instrumentality of human reason. (Second Apology, ch. 10)
Another early martyr was Vivia Perpetua. She was a twenty-two-year-old catechumen (person preparing to enter the Church) when she was arrested in 203 A.D. during the persecution of Emperor Severus. Her father was a pagan. She was still nursing an infant son at the time of her arrest. She was liberally educated and married to a man of high rank. In short, she possessed every advantage of Roman society, yet she looked upon her worldly goods as nothing next to eternal life with her Lord, the crown of the martyrs. Her written account of her stay in prison, partially reprinted here, stands as a powerful witness to the trials she underwent.
A few days afterwards, a rumor was spread that we were to be examined. On hearing this, my father hastened again to the prison I saw at once the deep sorrow depicted on his countenance; he looked pale and emaciated with anxiety He came to me and said:
`My daughter, have pity on my gray hairs; have pity on thy father, if I still deserve to be called by that name. If thou still rememberest, that with these hands I have brought thee up to this the flower of thy age; if I have cherished thee more fondly than any of my other children, do not make me a laughing-stock to men. Look upon thy brothers, look upon thy mother and thy aunt; have compassion on thy darling babe, that cannot survive thee. Lay aside that haughtiness and foolish courage, before thou bring us all to ruin. Shouldst thou perish by the hand of the executioner, which of us shall therefore be able to lift up his head?'
Thus spoke my father, and taking my hands, he kissed them; he threw himself at my feet, and shedding a flood of tears, he called me no longer his daughter, but his lady. A great sadness overpowered my soul at this moving scene, which was much increased when I reflected, that my father was the only person in the family who would not rejoice at my Martyrdom! I endeavored to console him, and said: `My father, grieve not; nothing will befall me upon the scaffold, save what is pleasing to God. Remember that we are all in God's power, not in our own.' Then my father, without uttering a word, went away, weeping as if his heart would break.
The following day, whilst we were taking our meal, some officers suddenly presented themselves, and summoned us to appear before the judge We repaired to the forum The report of our trial had already been spread throughout the city; a vast concourse of people of every rank filled the tribunal one after another we were ordered to mount an elevated platform, whereon was seated Hilarian, the Procurator of the Province. Every one of my companions, when interrogated, generously confessed the Faith. It was now my turn; I was ready to make, without fear or trepidation, the same firm confession of my Faith, when behold, I see my father standing before me with my infant in his arms. He draws me a little aside, and, in a tone of gentlest supplication, he addresses me:
`O my daughter, have pity on thy innocent babe!' Hilarian, the judge, seeing the entreating looks of my father, immediately joins in: `Spare the gray hairs of thy father,' says he, `have' pity on this little infant. Sacrifice for the prosperity of the Emperors!'
`I will not do it,' I reply.
`Art thou then a Christian ?' asks Hilarian.
`Yes, I am a Christian,' I answer.
The boldness with which I made this confession, seemed to embarrass the magistrate Meanwhile, my father did not cease by words and looks to urge me to comply with the command of the judge. But Hilarian, recovering himself, and seeing that all endeavors of persuading me would end in disappointment, ordered one of the officers to send away my father. This officer, in order to enforce compliance with his command, was so bold as to strike my father with his stick. This blow afflicted me more than all I had hitherto endured. I knew how sensibly the disgracefulness of such an act would affect my aged parent, who had never failed to resent the least insult offered to any member of his family. Wherefore, I grieved much more for my father's sake than I would have done, had I myself been publicly beaten with rods.
After this, Hilarian pronounced our sentence, whereby we were all condemned to be exposed to the wild beasts. Our condemnation filled us with the greatest joy, and we returned cheerfully to our prison.
(from Acts of the Early Martyrs, vol. 1, by J.A.M. Fastre, 1873)
Martydom crowns the spires of the Church as the most dramatic act of witness for the faith. Yet, it is the constant press of everyday concerns being united to Christ that brick by brick build the spiritual edifice of Christ's kingdom.
No matter how a Christians dies, he knows that he who endures to the end will be saved (Mt 10:22, 24:13; Mk 13:13), so that with the grace of God he can say with St. Paul I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Tim 4:7)
The life of the promise defies all attempts of human imagination, and is beyond the power of words to express, but we know that we will behold eternally the glory of the radiant majesty of the face of God. Thus will be consummated our union with our Divine Lover.
Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. (Jas 1:12)
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