Tag Archives: martyr

The Passion of John the Baptist

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The death of John the Baptist, ordered by Herod and sought by his wife Herodias, is a dramatic tale of revenge and loyalty vividly told in Mark’s gospel. Because it’s like the Passion of Jesus the church calls John’s death “The Passion of John the Baptist”  and remembers it  August 29th.

Venerable Bede has a thoughtful homily on John’s death, a martyr’s death.  It’s like the death of Jesus Christ because they both embraced the same values, they were both unjustly killed for embracing those values.  If John stayed silent about Herod’s conduct, perhaps he would gain a few peaceful years of life, Bede says, but he was more concerned with what God thought than powerful people on earth.

“His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say: I am the truth?

He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by ungodly men; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life.

“But heaven notices– not the span of our lives– but how we live them, speaking the truth.”

Good thought. It doesn’t matter how many years we live, but how we live them, “speaking the truth.”

For John that meant dying for the truth. What does it mean for us? The opening prayer for this feast asks that ” we might fight hard for the confession of what you teach.” Maybe not getting our heads chopped off, but getting some scars from the daily battle for God’s truth.

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Remembering Lawrence

We remember Lawrence the deacon on August 19. He’s a favorite of mine whom I followed through the many churches and works of art in Rome that witness his influence on the Roman church. Some years ago I worked with others to produce a video on Lawrence. (See above.)

Lawrence reminds us that the Poor are the Treasures of the Church. I’m wondering if a good bit of Pope Francis’ present popularity comes from his strong commitment to the poor. He’s reminding the church-and the world too–how important the poor are   to Jesus and those who follow him.

Augustine in a sermon on Lawrence says that you don’t have to be in charge of a major relief effort to be like Lawrence, however. Each of us, treasuring the poor in our own way, follow Jesus.

“The garden of the Lord, brethren, includes – yes, it truly includes –  not only the roses of martyrs but also the lilies of virgins, and the ivy of married people, and the violets of widows. There is absolutely no kind of human beings, my dearly beloved, who need to look down on their calling.”

We’ all grow in the garden of the Lord. That’s a nice way of saying we’re all have something to give. Who are the poor we  treasure?

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Feast of St. Polycarp

Today’s the feast of St. Polycarp. Some years ago, I visited Izmir in Turkey where Polycarp, a revered Christian bishop, was martyred about the year 155. The city was then called  Smyrna.  Now predominantly Muslim, there’s a small church of St. Polycarp in the city and up the mountain is the ancient agora and the ruins of the stadium where Polycarp was burned to death by the Romans.

The account of his martyrdom, sent to other Christian churches by the Christians of Smyrna, is one of the most interesting documents of the early church. Polycarp was an old man. As a child he knew John the Apostle and was a friend of Ignatius of Antioch, another early bishop martyred for the faith. He was also a teacher of Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyon in Gaul.

The old bishop went to his death peacefully and heroically, the account indicates:

“When the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off all his clothes and loosened his under-garment. He made an effort also to remove his shoes, though he had been unaccustomed to this, for the faithful always vied with each other in their haste to touch his body. Even before his martyrdom he had received every mark of honour in tribute to his holiness of life.

There and then he was surrounded by the material for the pyre. When they tried to fasten him also with nails, he said: “Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails.” So they did not fix him to the pyre with nails but only fastened him instead. Bound as he was, with hands behind his back, he stood like a mighty ram, chosen out for sacrifice from a great flock, a worthy victim made ready to be offered to God.

Looking up to heaven, he said: “Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself, God of angels, of powers, of all creation, of all the race of saints who live in your sight, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ, your anointed one, and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body, immortal through the power of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among the martyrs in your presence today as a rich and pleasing sacrifice. God of truth, stranger to falsehood, you have prepared this and revealed it to me and now you have fulfilled your promise.

“I praise you for all things, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal priest of heaven, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. Through him be glory to you, together with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.”

When he had said “Amen” and finished the prayer, the officials at the pyre lit it. But, when a great flame burst out, those of us privileged to see it witnessed a strange and wonderful thing. Indeed, we have been spared in order to tell the story to others. Like a ship’s sail swelling in the wind, the flame became as it were a dome encircling the martyr’s body. Surrounded by the fire, his body was like bread that is baked, or gold and silver white-hot in a furnace, not like flesh that has been burnt. So sweet a fragrance came to us that it was like that of burning incense or some other costly and sweet-smelling gum.”

One small incident occurred on our visit to Izmir I still remember. It happened during our visit to the Church of St. Polycarp, which is today the only Christian presence in a Muslim city. The custodian asked us to sign our names in the visitors’ book and as I did I noticed many signatures in Korean. When I asked about them, the custodian said the church is a favorite pilgrimage destination for Korean Catholics.

Somebody must have told Polycarp’s story in Korea and it must have impressed them there. A missionary priest or sister, perhaps? Heroes inspire us. Who know? But we need more Polycarps.

 

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Saint Sebastian

February 20th is the feast of Saint Sebastian, a young Christian from Milan who joined the Roman army in the 4th century when foreign armies were attacking Rome’s frontiers. Like others, he entered military service to save his country from invaders.

A good soldier, Sebastian rose quickly in the ranks. Diocletian, Rome’s finest general and then its unchallenged emperor, appreciated able, brave men. Above all, he wanted loyalty; Sebastian seemed to have everything he wanted.

Yet, he was a Christian. No one knows why, but the emperor, on good terms with Christians early on in his career, suddenly turned against them. In 301 he began purging his army, ordering Christian officers demoted and Christian soldiers dishonorably discharged. The emperor lost trust in them.

Then, Diocletian began persecuting the entire Christian population of the empire. It’s not known how many Christians were killed or imprisoned or forced into hard labor in the mines; the persecution was so ferocious it was called the “Great Persecution.”

As the persecution was going on, sources place Sebastian, not yet dismissed from the army,  in Rome then under the jurisdiction of Diocletian’s co-emperor Maximian. Here he faced the dangerous situation that caused his death.

Christians were being arrested and imprisoned, and Sebastian was among the soldiers arresting and guarding them. Rather than doing a soldier’s job,  Sebastian did what a Christian should do: he saw those imprisoned as Christ in chains. The whispered words, the small kindnesses, the human face he showed to those in the harsh grip of Roman justice was his answer to the call of Jesus: “I was a prisoner, and you visited me.”

How long he aided  prisoners we don’t know, but someone informed on him. The rest of his story– a favorite of artists through the centuries– says that Sebastian was ordered shot through with arrows by expert archers who pierced all the non-fatal parts of his body so that he would die slowly and painfully from loss of blood.

He was left for dead, but he didn’t die. Instead, he was nursed back to health by a Christian woman named Irene and, once recovered, went before the authorities to denounce their treatment of Christians.

They immediately had him beaten to death.

He was buried by a Christian woman, Lucina, in her family’ crypt along the Appian Way, where an ancient basilica and catacombs now bear the soldier saint’s name.

The early church revered soldier saints like Sebastian because they helped people in danger, even giving up their lives to do it. They used their strength for others. When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do, he answered simply “Don’t bully people;” for the temptation of the strong is to bully the weak.

The soldier saints did more than not dominate or bully others, however; they reached out to those in the grip of the powerful. Sebastian’s great virtue was not that he endured a hail of arrows, but that he cared for frightened, chained men and women in a Roman jail–a hellish place.

Soldier saints like Sebastian recall a kind of holiness we may forget these days. They remind us that it’s a holy task to stand in harm’s way on dangerous city streets, in unpopular wars and trouble-spots throughout the world so that others can be safe. It’s holy, but dangerous, to confront injustice and corruption in powerful political or social systems and take the side of the weak.

Christianity is not a religion that shies away from evil and injustice. Like Jesus, a Christians must not be afraid to take a stand against them. We pray to the Lord, then, to send us more soldier saints.

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