On Faith and Martyrdom

O martyrs of God, your race is run,
All thanks to his redeeming Son.
You’ve vanquished every foe,
Eternal joys are yours to know.

“What is uniquely Christian,” declared Hans Urs von Balthasar near the end of the Second Vatican Council—widespread forgetfulness of that fact having seeped into the soul of Christendom—“begins and ends with the revelation that the infinite God loves the individual man infinitely. This is most exactly expressed by the fact that for this beloved ‘you,’ God in human form died the death of a redeemer (that is, of a sinner).”

We come to know, therefore, who we are and what God enjoins upon us to do only in consequence of knowing who Christ is and what He has done for us on the Cross. As a result of such saving knowledge, we find ourselves all at once empowered to see both the weight of our worth in God’s eyes and the infinite distance we were from God before Christ hung upon the Cross in order to make it not matter anymore.

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The poet Hopkins, in the final lines from “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and on the Comfort of the Resurrection,” provides the most stunning expression of this truth: 

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, / since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, / patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

This truth of faith, which is so necessary to know, penetrates deep down, reaching all the way into the heart of man, into that Christic center anchoring everything to God. Again, Balthasar clearly had the sense of it when, during those heady days when the silly season first fell upon us, he reminded each of us that “I first awaken to what it means to be a person by the fact that Jesus Christ takes me so seriously as a spiritual person that he gives his life for my eternal salvation, and by dying buries what was evil in me with himself in hell. ‘In this way we have come to know his love, that he laid down his life for us, and we likewise ought to lay down our life for the brethren’ (John 3:16).”

But does anyone really believe this anymore? And if not, why then should we be expected to live, and quite possibly even to die, on the strength of what is now more and more regarded as antique superstition? Returning to that precise question some twenty or so years after the Council, Balthasar asked himself what the modern Christian actually does believe about the fact of Christ’s Redemption, concluding, sadly, that one can no longer be sure that he or she believes anything at all. “The idea of Christ’s dying for my guilt vicariously before God seems so distant, so unverifiable.” The whole mystery of the Lord’s kenosis has thereby been blown apart.

“Let us cite a typical illustration,” he continues. “God, it is said, cannot undergo a change of mood, for instance, from an angry God into a reconciled God, on account of a mundane event.

Consequently, even before Christ’s Cross, God was reconciled
to the world and merely made this real disposition evident to
mankind by means of the event of the Cross. The Cross is nothing
more than a symbol of how much God loves the world… 

In other words, the whole kenotic ordeal of death, deposition, and descent, down to the last dregs of Christ’s freefall into Hell for the world’s salvation, is no more than a redemptive fifth wheel. “This means that in the god-forsakenness of the Cross, in the hellish thirst of him who hung between heaven and hell and died with a loud cry, nothing happened that is essential for us.” Are we to give up our lives for a symbolism this thin? A mere epiphenomenon of faith, as it were?                         

And that perhaps in an extremely painful way, even by having
to vegetate on its account for decades in a gulag under the most
inhuman, humiliating circumstances? Who can require of me something
that seems to lack any meaningful proportion?

A man driven to the last extremity of pain and loss, stripped of every outward sign of self- dignity, is not likely to leave his bloody witness in anything less than absolute and transcendent truth. “Let me be fodder for wild beasts,” pronounced St. Ignatius of Antioch, full of holy impatience, to the Church at Rome that awaited his arrival and sought to deflect his intention to suffer martyrdom: “That is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ…Then I shall be a real disciple of Jesus Christ when the world sees my body no more.”

Where amid the bourgeois comforts of today’s Church are we likely to find examples of such heroism? And let us be very clear about this. Until we find such examples among those for whom the disposition to conform perfectly to the model of the Suffering Savior has become the driving force of their lives, Christianity will not survive. Nor will it deserve to do so. If the whole point of being Christian is giving everything back to God, including the manner of our death, how could it leave out the very real possibility of becoming a martyr? What else can it mean to be baptized if not a willingness, renewed and ratified every day by the choices we make, to configure our whole life to Christ, including even the form and manner of His death?

Here the example of the martyr Felicity comes to mind, she whom the Church invokes in the oldest Canon of the Mass. We see her in her prison cell awaiting the cruel torments of Roman execution. Only she must first deliver her unborn child, which causes her to cry out in pain. “If you wail like that, one of the jailers said to her, what will you do when you are exposed to the beasts?” And reading the account of the exchange found in the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis, we are wonderfully struck by the answer she gives: “Now it is I who suffer; then, there will be Another in me who will suffer for me, because it is for Him that I will be suffering then.”  

Here everything comes perfectly together, all the distinctively Christian elements, the sublime result of which amount to, in the words of T.S. Eliot, 

A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything).

Here is the real and abiding backdrop of the Christian life, the goal and horizon toward which we are all expected to move. Let us at least try to aspire to nothing less than this.

[Image: Perpetua, Felicitas, Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus (Menologion of Basil II)]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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