~ The Cross We Are To Bear Is Not Christ's ~
Our present time of turmoil and fear preoccupies us to the exclusion of historical lessons. In the 1300s, France and England were warring as well as the many Italian city-states. The leadership of the then dominant religious power, the Roman Catholic Church, was crippled by the "Western Schism." Forty percent of its clergy were dead, along with one-third of Europe's people, under the assault of the unseen enemy of the bubonic plague.
On a tomb in Villoch, Hungary, an inscription reads: "This tomb holds John, by birth of Capistrano [1386-1456], a man worthy of all praise, defender and promoter of the faith, guardian of the Church, zealous protector of his Order, an ornament to all the world, lover of truth and religious justice, mirror of life, surest guide in doctrine; praised by countless tongues, he reigns blessed in heaven." That one man of great faith brought stability to that 14th century world in exchange for his life.
In the city where Christ's followers were first given the name "Christians," Antioch, Ignatius succeeded Peter as bishop. The first century persecutions carried over into the second century under the Roman Emperor Trajan. Ignatius was arrested and condemned to die by the hungry mouths of wild animals. Because such executions doubled as a source of live entertainment for the Roman people and their rulers, Ignatius was transported to the Roman capitol in 107.
Following the custom of Paul, Ignatius wrote seven letters to the scattered churches during the journey, in part to ask Christians to not consider hampering his fate of brutal martyrdom. Here's an excerpt of one of his letters:
"I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God's wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ's pure bread…I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire…Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish…The prince of this world [Satan] is determined to lay hold of me and to undermine my will which is intent on God. Let none of you help him; instead show yourselves on my side, which is also God's side. Do not talk about Jesus Christ as long as you love this world.
"…My love of this life has been crucified, and there is no yearning in me for any earthly thing. Rather within me is the living water which says deep inside me: 'Come to the Father.'…I want only God's bread, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, formed of the seed of David, and for drink I crave his blood, which is love that cannot perish…I have not written to you as a mere man would, but as one who knows the mind of God…" (Cap.4,1-2; 6,1-8; 3:Funk 1, 217-223).
The first martyrs in North America were eight men of the Society of Jesus who witnessed over 7,000 Huron Indians in the Canadian Quebec region embrace the redemption of Christ. One of them who was tortured and killed in 1648, John de Brebeuf, wrote this in his journal:
"For two days now I have experienced a great desire to be a martyr and to endure all the torments the martyrs suffered…Jesus, my Lord and Savior, what can I give you in return?…I vow to you, Jesus my Savior, that as far as I have the strength I will never fail to accept the grace of martyrdom, if some day you in your infinite mercy should offer it to me, your most unworthy servant.
"…I bind myself in this way so that for the rest of my life I will have neither permission or freedom to refuse opportunities of dying and shedding my blood for you, unless at a particular juncture I should consider it more suitable for your glory to act otherwise at that time. Further, I bind myself to this so that, on receiving the blow of death, I shall accept it from your hands with the fullest delight and joy of spirit." (The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Cleveland 1898, 164, 166.)
Another saint, known as Paul of the Cross, divested himself of everything to care for the sick and poor and spread the Good News of redemption, dying in Rome in 1775. He wrote:
"Indeed when the cross of our dear Jesus has planted its roots more deeply in your hearts, then you will rejoice: `To suffer and not to die,' or 'Either to suffer or to die,' or better: 'Neither to suffer, nor to die, but only to turn perfectly to the will of God.' Love is a unifying virtue which takes upon itself the torments of its beloved Lord. It is a fire reaching through to the inmost soul. It transforms the lover into the one loved." (Epist.1, 43; 2, 440. 825.)
These words seem crazy to many, and indeed there is a holy ethic known as "fools for Christ." It is the foolishness of love, not ignorance. Unconditionally loving parents are fools for their children, ready and willing to trade places, in joy, with their afflicted, suffering or dying child. When a child cries in yearning to trade places with his or her suffering parent, the child is regarded with admiration and reverence. Why is a child of God so often looked upon with perplexity and questioning when he or she exclaims the joyful desire to share the sufferings and death of Christ and His body of lovers? Perhaps part of the answer is that few strive to obey the two greatest Godly mandates: Love your God with all your strength, heart and mind and love others as yourself.
Like many great words, "martyr" gradually is assuming a negative connotion. "Don't be a martyr" more often carries a negative tone. We can rest assured that Jesus did not utter those words. Martyr means witness. We are called to be living witnesses of Christ's love and redemption. Some of us die in rest from a life of witness. Others gladly offer their deaths as the ultimate witness, and centuries later these lives and deaths continue to awaken many to the offer of Christ's redemptive sacrifice.
Some may view these Weekly Reflections quizzically, thinking "Why so many about suffering and death?" Part of the answer is a response to the modernity thrust of "feel good and be self-fulfilled" preaching that is part of the "religious correctness" that many churches believe necessary to entice and maintain attendance. Part of the religious correctness is to pray for "world peace," overlooking the futility of praying against the fulfillment of prophesy that is within God's will. This also overlooks the teaching of Christ, who said He provides us with His peace, "not the kind the world gives." Let us pray for the peace of Christ, which is not of this world.
Too many sermons on radio, TV and in many churches sound more like secular psychology pep talks decorated with Scriptures. Then many are shocked to read Ignatius instruct, "Do not talk about Jesus Christ as long as you love the world." Jesus said the same thing, that we cannot love the things of this world and be His disciples. Ignatius writes that he "knows the mind of God." We should be nodding our heads in understanding for Paul teaches we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). Do we use His mind and listen to It in prayer?
At the end of the 11th chapter of Hebrews, the writer says of the many people who lived by faith that "the world was not worthy of them." Paul calls all followers of Christ "saints" (1 Corinthians 6:1-2) and Peter writes we have priestly duties to perform (1 Peter 2:5). If the writings of our brother Ignatius and other saints seem strange, too radical or otherworldly, perhaps it is because we have not done what Christ said we must do or not call ourselves Christians: Carry our crosses.
Luke records Jesus declaring that we must be willing to abandon all and to carry our crosses or we just cannot be His disciples or followers (Luke 14:27). Lukewarm and take-it-easy Christianity has softened the metaphor of "our crosses" to mean "our burdens." The large crowd listening to Jesus, however, felt the power and sting of His words. Being very familiar with crosses, they knew these execution devices were not burdens. Those who carried them were condemned to die. "Our cross" is not a metaphor for the burden of sin or unregenerated life either. That was crucified with Christ on His cross.
Today, Jesus might say, "If you want to be mine, you must carry your own hang noose (or electric chair or lethal injection kit)." It's as if to say when your executioner comes for you, be so ready that you can hand him what he needs as a witness to your love and devotion to your beloved Lord. That state of readiness leads us to live a martyr's life and shapes our conformity to the image of Christ. Such a life always leads to a martyr's death, whether it be a brutal execution or a quiet dying during peaceful sleep.
Paul writes, "therefore, I urge you, brothers [and sisters], in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship" (Romans 12:1, NIV). What does Paul mean? What does this ongoing living bodily sacrifice, which is worship, look like to others watching or interacting with you?
Jesus declares, "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!…Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division" (Luke 12:49,51, NIV). What is Jesus really saying here? Divisions in His name go on, but what about this fire? There are many unknowable mysteries in Christendom. And they will remain a mystery unless one embraces and obeys Christ as Lord, paying heed to His voice only. Christ makes it clear that can only be done by carrying our own crosses in loving readiness to be joyfully nailed to them.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © January 5, 2002
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