Thursday, April 14, 2016

What Martyrdom Is and What It Is Not

Today I’m thinking about martyrdom.  In the Scripture readings at Mass this week, we hear about Christianity’s first martyr, St. Stephen.  Stephen was one of seven reputable men selected to see to the needs of widows who “were being neglected in the daily distribution.”  See ACTS 6:1-7.  Scripture says that Stephen was “a man filled with grace and power [and] was working great wonders and signs among the people.”  See ACTS 6:8. 

The enemies of the young church subsequently “seized” Stephen and “brought him before the Sanhedrin.”  Then, before the Sanhedrin, he proceeded to give a defense that included a long discourse on the history of salvation (ACTS, Chapter 7) that “infuriated” them.  He called his hearers a “stiff-necked people” and made negative accusations against them. He was then stoned to death.

So Stephen was martyred for his defense of Christianity in the post-crucifixion/resurrection community that remained hostile to Christ and his Church.  Over the years since, there are many examples of Christians who died for their work for Christ’s Church, including two whose feast days the Catholic Church celebrated this week, St. Stanislaus in the year 1079 (April 11) and Pope St. Martin I in the year 655 (April 13).

All of this leads me to think about martyrdom as it is preached and practiced today by radical Islam.  Now, I know very little about Islam in general, but “radical Islam” is in the news for their brutal treatment of non-believers.  We read about suicide bombers who sacrifice their own lives and the lives of as many people as they can find by tying bombs around their wastes and setting them off when in a crowd of people, such as in subway stations, airports, churches, and crowded markets.  So they combine murder with suicide and are praised as martyrs for their faith.

This is very different from the martyrdom of St. Stephen, or St. Stanislaus, or Pope St. Martin I. or any other Christian martyr.  St. Stephen was killed by his enemies for his eloquent defense of his Church.  St. Stanilaus was killed for accusing the king of Poland of dissolute living.  St. Pope Martin I was killed by the heretics of his time.  Never does one hear of a Christian becoming a martyr by committing murder and suicide.

I pray for the Christians and others who live in areas of the world who are under the constant threat of suicide bombers and of people who have become brainwashed into thinking that that is the way of martyrs … the way for a person to gain their heavenly reward.  Harming yourself and other innocent people, torturing them, murdering them (often while also committed suicide) is unthinkable to all Christians and cannot be imagined as a quick route to heaven or as a praiseworthy act possibly leading to a just political end.  It just cannot be.

The photo is of one of many sculptures seen at the Shrine of Christ's Passion in St. John, Indiana.  It is of Mary of Magdala encountering the Risen Lord outside the empty tomb.  

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