~ Martyrdom Is Not Necessarily Physical ~
“Martyr” is a word meaning “witness.” Over time the word has become to mean “witness by death.” Everyone dies. All deaths are witnesses to something: Some to the consequences of disease; some to despair as in suicides; some to the natural mortality of the body that grows weary in age. Since martyrdom is a witness to one’s total love and devotion to God above all else, these other deaths aren’t considered martyr deaths, though the ones who finished their physical existences in unremarkable deaths may well have lived lives of martyrdom witness.
Some people, more than we think or see, have never lived martyr lives but, due to a sudden transformation at their hour of death, died a martyr. A famous example is the repentant thief on the cross next to Christ. That man’s life was a witness to human depravity which is what, to his own admission, put him on that cross. At his final hour, however, he looked to Jesus in love and personal penitence, publicly recognizing Jesus as the Christ, and asked only to be remembered for this, his heart’s conversion. Jesus simply said he would be with Him in paradise. That man lived no martyr’s life, but died a martyr’s death, a death that bore witness to the loving redemption of Christ.
Many who lived a martyr’s life did so with such love and fervor, with such depth and totality, they prayed for the gift of having their final exit from this earthly life also be a witness to God’s love. Many had their prayers answered, so joyful to be gifted with a martyr’s death. These are the ones commemorated in writing and ritual as “martyrs,” but they are only a few among the “cloud of witnesses.”
Those of you who are familiar with these Weekly Reflections know of their mindfulness of linguistics. When one thinks primarily in words, or seeks wisdom through rational thinking, words define reality for them. That’s why it’s so important to be mindful of words, of their many meanings, and origins, and even be prepared to expose words that “call good evil, and evil good” for what they are.
In the language of mystics (another word rapidly given evil connotations, unfortunately), words paint images and communicate spirit. That’s why Scripture is called the “living words” since they breathe God’s Spirit. That’s also why many biblical analysts claim there are many contradictions in the Bible. These people are illiterates in the language of the kingdom of God. Imparted by the Holy Spirit, this language cannot be learned in any school except one, that of martyrdom.
St. Paul explains this a little in his second letter to the Corinthian Christians: “So from now on we don’t think of anyone from a human point of view. If we did think of Christ from a human point of view, we don’t anymore. Whoever is a believer in Christ is a new creation. The old way of living has disappeared. A new way of living has come into existence” (16-17, GW). The death of the old way and birth of the new is martyrdom, necessary for spiritual living in the body.
Given that, deeply ponder these mystical, rationally contradictory words: “We always carry around the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus is also shown in our bodies. While we are alive, we are constantly handed over to death for Jesus’ sake so that the life of Jesus is also shown in our mortal nature” (2 Corinthians 4:10-11, GW). These are remarkable words that require entering the still-point of our souls to listen to the Holy Spirit. They are not understood then experienced, but experienced then understood.
Paul told the Corinthian Christians he needed to write to them “as children.” Thus Paul himself does not pursue an explanation. Instead, you will see if you read the context of these words how Paul focuses on his experiences in living a martyr’s life. His martyr’s death was trivial in comparison, mainly being his final statement that certified all he witnessed to during his life, in one word, Christ.
The apostle John was a powerful martyr, having written a Gospel account, several letters and recorded the Revelation of Christ in exquisite detail. The fact John did not end his life on earth with a martyr’s death in no way diminished his life of martyrdom, a powerful living witness of Christ’s redemptive presence in the world.
Martyrs bear the wounds of Christ. These wounds bring real pain to both body and soul. Perhaps that’s why Paul wrote, “People think we are sad although we’re always glad” (2 Corinthians 6:10a, GW). When the Jewish nation returned to their land from their exile in Babylon, tears of both great joy and profound sorrow flowed together. At last God had brought them home but His temple was destroyed.
Martyrdom isn’t just a Christian thing. Martyrdom as witness to one’s own greatness is very popular and sought after, as is woundedness. Being a member of an oppressed group either in reality, by association or by proxy (as in a relationship to an ancestral line who have long since died), a victim of some kind, is an honorable status that bolsters the ego.
Such victimhood, however, serves a more crucial function: It provides an identity and its wounds are the decorations of honor and recognition. In secular psychotherapy, victimization is often enhanced or even created. People often resist healing or persist in “perpetual recovery” as the “healing process.” Sadly, among the spiritually dead, this is heard in various ways, “If I was not a victim of x, or a martyr for y, I would have no meaning.”
Christians are not immune to this. Thus Christ instructs to fast in secret, pray without inviting attention from others, to even do good with your right hand without your own left hand knowing it. This is extremely difficult when one is living an ego-centric life instead of a Christ-centered one. Of course we can fake it and practice charity and selflessness in secret, hoping, or by a clever strategy, (i.e. “for the glory of God,” not me), that people will find out. When they do, a false humility is offered in response. Jesus called this “your only reward,” another way of telling us it does not contribute to the economy of God’s kingdom.
Paul wrote of his “thorn in the flesh” he prayed God to remove. In keeping with Christian martyrdom, he never wrote what it was, avoiding anyone’s sympathy or admiration. In the personal journals of renown, Godly people, we read of struggles with personal demons and sinful temptations. Christ Himself experienced this, “being tempted in every way like us.” Paul “boasted in my weaknesses” and of his wounds of Christ. Christ endured temptations and wounds for our sake, not His. Christian martyrdom offers our wounds to Christ – our entire selves as “living sacrifices” (not dead ones).
“Broken and contrite hearts” can be paraded “for the glory of God” (not really) or they can be secretly offered to God as gifts. Like Paul’s thorn, broken hearts and open wounds can serve to make us continually mindful of God, like a toothache makes us continually mindful of the dentist.
Since the Scriptures say we have the “mind of Christ,” continual mindfulness is continual fullness of Christ, prayer “without ceasing.” The wounds and victimization of Christians can serve to inflate the ego-self, squeezing out the mind of Christ. Or they can be healed by letting go of them like toxic waste, by forgiveness, by prayer and communion with the Subject of our love and life.
Paradoxically, Christian martyrdom becomes sweet and comforting. The tremendous energy required to safeguard our egos and selves, to protect and defend our personal honor and ambitions, to guard our store of “corruptible treasures on earth,” is released of its pressure like an open water dam. That energy is now available to love and serve Christ.
Christ said His yoke is easy and His burden light. If it doesn’t feel like it, there is something we aren’t getting and the answer lies in His summoning to living martyrdom. There are many times when I feel His yoke is hard and His burden heavy. Of course, that’s on me, not Christ. He tells the truth. He is the Truth. So as the psalmists frequently wrote, I count on His word for my very life and throw myself at His feet praying for mercy and faith. Jesus says we must endure to the end and Paul repeats how we must keep striving relentlessly, finishing the race like a fully devoted and focused athlete.
As we frequently pray for God’s will to be done, and knowing this is God’s will for us, we will live a martyr’s life. But, to do that, it must “not be I, but Christ in me!” “What a miserable person I am! Who will rescue me from my dying body? I thank God that our Lord Jesus Christ rescues me!” (Romans 7:24-25a, GW).
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © October 19, 2002
"God's Word" is a copyrighted work of God's Word to the Nations Bible Society. Quotations are used by permission.
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