Martyrdom is shocking, and instructive.
“Some of the nurses became Christians,” the dentist was explaining, “and they were faithful in coming to Bible study. We had to be quiet, of course, but they were very good girls. Most have been able to continue where they went away to other jobs. Unfortunately, some have been killed by their families or neighbors when they found out they were Christians.”
The conversation occurred a number of years ago in a country where Christians live as a small, oppressed and persecuted minority. Two things surprised me about my conversation partner. One was how matter-of-factly she described the atrocious consequence of Christian faith for some of the new converts. Martyrdom was not ancient, far-off or exotic, nor was it even shocking anymore. It was a fact of life for her community, one she realized could befall her.
My other surprise was her joy. Far from morose with grief or foreboding, she was joyful in her faith, excited about her work, bubbly with her family and staff. She wasn’t crisis-ridden about her situation or that of other Christians in her country. There was no time for that when the poor had terrible teeth that needed care and her department needed more trained staff. She was open about her faith and made it clear that she intended everything she did as a witness for Christ. She was on mission.
Martyrdom has been a major Christian sign since the early days of the church. The Greek behind the English word word “martyr” means witness, signifying that those who died for the faith made an especially compelling witness because they mirrored the death of Christ. Christians killed before being baptized were said to have been baptized in their own blood.
The 20th century, our own time, saw more Christians martyred for their faith than any other century. That is partly a function of the enormous growth of the Christian movement. Even on a proportional basis, however, martyrdom was a substantial factor in Christian life, and it is not hard to see why when we recall purges under Stalin, killings by Japanese forces during World War II, persecution in China and under other Communist regimes, and persecution in religious states opposed to Christianity or any religion other than their own. It is this 20th-century phenomenon that prompted Westminster Abbey to dedicate its West Entrance renovation to martyrs of the century.
The birth of Jesus took place in an environment that also implied death. “Myrrh is mine,” we sing with the Three Kings, “its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.” “And a sword will pierce through your own soul also,” Simeon told Mary (Luke 2:35). A massacre of Bethlehem’s infants followed Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:16-18).
Christian meditation on martyrdom is informed today by the fact that martyrdom is an important concept in other religions of the world as well, perhaps most prominently in Islam. Doubtless the Shia Muslims killed on Ashura in Iraq on Tuesday of this week while commemorating the martyr’s death of Hussain ibn Ali in the 8th century are being seen as martyrs by their fellow believers. A person dying for his or her religious faith is an event that brings other people of faith into stark reflection on the stakes of faith.
Disparate themes are brought together in what we anticipate in this season: Joy in birth, and premonition of death. A gift received, but at great cost to the giver. A promise of peace on earth, but death-dealing conflict in the meantime.
God’s invites us to join in the mission. We count the cost.
This meditation is adapted from Titus Presler’s “Alert for Signs: Seeing and Praying through Advent” (Forward Movement Publications).