Why do we honor martyrs?

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Michelangelo's Final Judgement

The word martyr means witness. To die in testifying to your faith unites the martyr to Christ in death as in life. Martyrdom was a common fate among the first Christians, who early on were victims of mob violence (as in the death accounts of the deacon Stephen and apostle James in Acts), and later executed en masse by order of the Empire in the third century. Documents such as The Martyrdom of Polycarp (157) and The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas (203) give us a good picture of what fidelity to the faith might cost in those generations. Constantine's Edict in 312 made Christianity lawful, after which the number of martyrs in the West precipitously declined.

Early Christians believed that the dead awaited the time of Final Judgment before attaining heaven. Martyrs, however, achieved heaven at once because of their deep communion with the death of Christ. Even if a martyr had not yet been baptized, their blood shed for the faith qualified as a form of baptism. Martyrs' graves became sites of pilgrimage and annual celebrations of Mass on their death anniversaries, including funerary banquets. Churches were built over their tombs. The relics of martyrs were honored and often relocated to other churches and basilicas. Such relics are still placed in altars today.

The idea of martyrdom as the ultimate form of Christian death made it prudent to discourage the provocation of martyrdom in some circumstances. Gradually the ascetic ideal of the monastery came to be viewed as "spiritual martyrdom" that was equally esteemed.

Christian martyrdom did not disappear from history after the fourth century, of course. In times and places where religion becomes politicized— Japan in the 16th century, Uganda in the 19th century, Mexico in the early 20th century, or the Middle East today—martyrdom resurfaces. The period of the Reformation saw both Protestant and Catholic martyrs who died for their doctrinal positions. Missionaries of every era face the possibility of death whenever they enter unfamiliar cultures where their motives are mistrusted.

In the modern era which is highly politicized, identifying martyrs among the faithful dead has become increasingly complicated. While the deaths of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany or Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador were clearly heroic, it's less clear to some whether they died as a result of their politics or their faith. Being declared an official church martyr may be beside the point. If we die with Christ, we are guaranteed to live with him.

Scripture: 2 Macc 6:18—7:42; Acts 6:8—8:1; 12:1-3; 2 Tim 2:11-12; Rev 7:13-17; 17:6

Books: The Big Book of Martyrs - John Wagner (New York: Paradox Press, 1997)

Christian Martyrs for a Muslim People - Martin McGee (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2008)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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