Sunday, February 20, 2011


The very early Church had its share of martyrs, and for a number of reasons. The first Christians tended to come from strata of society that were looked down upon, including slaves, women and the poor (recall Paul’s words to the Corinthians—I Cor 1:26ff.). Beyond that, Christians showed themselves unpatriotic by refusing to sacrifice to the genius of the Emperor, suggesting they were not interested in contributing to the security and order of the social fabric. Finally, once their separation from Judaism was complete, they were a “non-protected cult” and as such opposed for introducing “new gods” that were alien to, or in opposition to, the Roman pantheon.

There were sporadic outbreaks against the early Christians, including famously that of Nero after the fire of 64 CE. In his Annals, the Roman historian Tacitus describes this scene, giving a glimpse into both the horrors of Nero’s actions and the general dislike for Christians felt by “decent” Romans (Annals XV, 44). The Church celebrates these witnesses for Christ on 30 June (the day after the great Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul, the two Roman martyrs par excellence).

Where the Church would have gone devotionally if this were all there is to tell, I am not sure. But in the 2nd century CE two other martyrs came to the fore, and they set the standard for witnessing that inspired thousands of others in the next centuries before Constantine. They were St Ignatius of Antioch (whose memorial is 17 October) and St Polycarp (whose memorial is this Wednesday, 23 Feb). What made them so important?

In the case of Ignatius, it was in part the circumstances of his martyrdom: arrested for his faith, he was taken to Rome around 107 CE to be thrown to the lions in the Coliseum (known then as the Flavian Amphitheatre). The legend of such a fate for the Christians is strong (and most of the time false); this time it was spot-on. More to the point, though, are the letters Ignatius wrote to various churches while on his way to his death. They are filled with beauty and dignity, humility and courage. They enjoin the recipients to remain united and faithful. And in the letter written to the Roman church in advance of his arrival, he touches poetic heights in his longing for Christ: Earthly longings have been crucified; in me there is left no spark of desire for mundane things, but only a murmur of living water that whispers within me, ‘Come to the Father.’ And this leads to this Wednesday’s memorial.

For one of the letters Ignatius wrote, besides to the church at Smyrna in general, was to its bishop, Polycarp. And Polycarp himself would follow the path of witness to death for Christ in the year 155 CE. But: while we have Ignatius’ own words to describe his longing to be with Christ, we have what seems to be an eye-witness account of the martyrdom of Polycarp—the first such written account in Christian history. It is filled with wonderful dramatic literary touches: Polycarp’s confession of faith even as an old man; his insisting he would stand firm in the pyre; the fire’s inability to burn him; his being stabbed to death at the end. The author writes: …he was like a noble ram taken out of some great flock for sacrifice: a goodly burnt-offering all ready for God. …The fire…formed a wall round about the martyr’s figure; and there was he in the centre of it, not like a human being in flames but like a loaf baking in the oven, or like a gold or silver ingot being refined in the furnace. And we became aware of a delicious fragrance, like the odour of incense…

Quickly this description circulated throughout the Church and became an inspiration. From this moment, martyrdom was seen not only as something that happened but something to be embraced.

Another pivotal event that really sealed the celebratory view of witness to death was the description of the martyrdoms of two young women in north Africa—Perpetua and Felicity (commemorated on 7 March). But that is another story for another time.

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