Nothing To Lose But Paradise | On Modern Martyrs and Those Persecuted for The Christ

Ecce Homo: "Behold the Man'</strong> | Antono Ciseri, 1871 | Palazzo Pitti, Firenze

Ecce Homo, ‘Behold the Man’ | Antono Ciseri, 1871 | Palazzo Pitti, Firenze


What is happening in Mosul, and elsewhere, should be as horrifying to us as the inhumanity of the work camps of Dachau and Auschwitz, the outrages of the Khmer Rouge, or the genocide in Rwanda.

The martyr follows the Lord to the very end, freely accepting death for the salvation of the world in a supreme test of love and faith (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 42).

It is not easy to write about the persecutions of Christians when the bloodshed we all know about is being silently tolerated or ignored. Modernity is desensitized to martyrdom because it is desensitized to religion. We count religion as divisive; if we believe, we believe privately and live religion individually. When people die on account of Truth they believe in, we arrange our lives to skirt the truth and hide the horror for fear of taking a side. This is the same fear of the Apostles in the Upper Room after the Resurrection; it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon in a society that has written off the power living one’s Faith publicly, as useless.

Each day the headlines tell of the unimaginable: crucifixions, exile, genocide, unspeakable torture of women, marking of homes for plundering, senseless killing and displacing of persons who leave with barely the clothes on the back and the terrified children they have brought into the world — all other possessions, dreams, even their fragile lives, hanging on a threat and on the brink of violent end.

It is our task, the task of any decent person in modern society to be bold enough to speak about what is taking place as derelict, inhumane. No other word but senselessness aptly describes the horrors being perpetrated in Iraq as the world watches news feeds. We have an obligation both of solidarity and of faith to be united with those suffering through prayer and fasting, and to appeal to the conscience of the world to act on what is becoming an ignored bloodbath in a land that has been home to Christianity since the first century. Religious freedom is the greatest of human freedoms, and it should hold a place of precious value even is a society where values are constantly devalued.

What St. Paul writes to the Corinthians is still relevant

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless,and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.
-1 Corinthians 4. 9-13

We live in an age of martyrs.

Never as in modern times have more lives been offered for the cause of Christ. It helps to realize that martyrdom is not something one seeks, but rather is inflicted on the innocent for reasons of religious conviction, against all standards of decency, and in flagrant violation of the dignity of the human person.

Religious people are never safe. Christianity, by its very reality, is a sign of contradiction. The comfort of a religion that does not disturb or offend is a sign of religion not fully lived. Truth is partisan, because it stands radically apart from untruth. Contrary to modern beliefs that there are individual forms of truth, untruth actually exists, and is masked, often through indifference that seeks to confuse, or to pacify, or ease the demands of religion and virtue. Forms of truth are no more than a parceling of the true — leading to its disintegration.

To be certain of this is to choose a part; a role on a stage that must be convincing and compelling, lest it fail entirely. It is to contradict the mediocrity of the status quo. It is to believe in something fully. It is to believe in Someone, in Christ, and to profess this belief with one’s entire life, both private and public. It is to be bold enough to die for that which is real, that which is wholly true: for the the One who, like none other before or after Him, revealed and declared Himself The Way, The Truth, The Life.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we too believe, and so we speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
-2 Corintians 4. 7-15

In contrast to the silent toleration of tragedy, we are given an example of emboldened witness. The hearts and minds of the baptized are different; they are sustained by grace. Every action and choice is first inspired by the work of God in them — the decisive action of grace. This makes the decision to suffer for Christ, to endure, to persevere, a gift itself for which we are found worthy — a way, albeit final and total, to participate in the salvation of the world.

The sons of Zebedee press Christ: Promise that one may sit at your right side and the other at your left. What does he do? …[H]e continues: Can you drink the cup which I must drink and be baptized with the baptism which I must undergo? He is saying: “You talk of sharing honours and rewards with me, but I must talk of struggle and toil. Now is not the time for rewards or the time for my glory to be revealed. Earthly life is the time for bloodshed, war and danger.”
Consider how by his manner of questioning he exhorts and draws them. He does not say: “Can you face being slaughtered? Can you shed your blood?” How does he put his question? Can you drink the cup? Then he makes it attractive by adding: which I must drink, so that the prospect of sharing it with him may make them more eager. He also calls his suffering a baptism, to show that it will effect a great cleansing of the entire world. The disciples answer him: We can! Fervour makes them answer promptly, though they really do not know what they are saying but still think they will receive what they ask for.
How does Christ reply? You will indeed drink my cup and be baptized with my baptism. He is really prophesying a great blessing for them, since he is telling them: “You will be found worthy of martyrdom; you will suffer what I suffer and end your life with a violent death, thus sharing all with me. But seats at my right and left are not mine to give; they belong to those for whom the Father has prepared them.” Thus, after lifting their minds to higher goals and preparing them to meet and overcome all that will make them desolate, he sets them straight on their request.
Saint John Chrysostom, bishop, A Homily on the Gospel of Matthew

Can you drink the cup? This question is posed still today, and there are people who answer it with the same fervor and certainty as the sons of Zebedee. Where does this courage come from? It can not take simply human resilience to face death by martyrdom, to engage the reality of genocide, to be marked for annihilation, to endure torture and exile. It is Christ who still sets men and women free to love so fully as to accept even death. No one else would or could be so compelling.

Iraq traces the origin of its Christianity directly to the Apostle Thomas, the one who placed his hand in the lacerated side of the Risen Christ and then believed. The Blood Christ shed on the Cross, and the wounds he bore as signs of glory in is risen body compelled Thomas to faith, and he was sent, at the time, literally to the ends of the earth. This is neither coincidence nor minor detail. The historical reality of the Church in Iraq being born out of the side of Christ is one we should focus on specifically to understand the salvific significance of current bloodshed, and the courage given those who continue to die.

The freedom of the Faith, the glorious freedom of the children of God (cf. Romans 8.21) is at the heart of this bloodshed. It would be impossible to withstand suffering of this kind and persevere in the Faith of the Apostles, if one did not first possess a freedom that is grounded in a given grace.

…[W]here does the strength to face martyrdom come from? From deep and intimate union with Christ, because martyrdom and the vocation to martyrdom are not the result of human effort but the response to a project and call of God, they are a gift of his grace that enables a person, out of love, to give his life for Christ and for the Church, hence for the world. If we read the lives of the Martyrs we are amazed at their calmness and courage in confronting suffering and death: God’s power is fully expressed in weakness, in the poverty of those who entrust themselves to him and place their hope in him alone (cf. 2 Cor 12: 9). Yet it is important to stress that God’s grace does not suppress or suffocate the freedom of those who face martyrdom; on the contrary it enriches and exalts them: the Martyr is an exceedingly free person, free as regards power, as regards the world; a free person who in a single, definitive act gives God his whole life, and in a supreme act of faith, hope and charity, abandons himself into the hands of his Creator and Redeemer; he gives up his life in order to be associated totally with the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. In a word, martyrdom is a great act of love in response to God’s immense love.
Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, Castel Gandolfo, 11 August 2010

The blood that has been shed around the world for the cause of the Christian Faith should alert us to the value of our own faith, and awaken in our conscience a bolder living of what we confess with our lips. Freedom, fully exercised, consists in the courage of public witness. Any retrieval from this witness is self-inflicted bondage. Martyrdom is the final and boldest statement of those who have nothing to lose but paradise itself. And we are given much to learn from it.

The Church, then, considers martyrdom as an exceptional gift and as the fullest proof of love. By martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world—as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood. Though few are presented such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men. They must be prepared to make this profession of faith even in the midst of persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church, in following the way of the cross.
Lumen Gentium, n. 42

Mosul, then, is a modern Rome, and the blood of martyrs is still the seed of The Church. However much of it is shed, we do not believe in a wasteful God. No drop of innocent blood will go wasted.

As once the Red sea was parted to free the Children of Israel, so now also the pilgrim ways of the persecuted church, drenched in the blood of the innocents, will open doors to freedoms everlasting.

Let us pray that like the thief who on Calvary stole heaven, this day, having lost all things and life itself, they also will gain life eternal, and likewise be with Him in Paradise.
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