In the calendar of the church we remember today the Martyrs of Uganda, who were laid out on pyres and roasted alive because of their courageous profession of faith as Christians. This was in the year 1866. Since then so many more martyrs have died in Uganda, and other places in Africa, and all around our suffering world.
In our community’s Rule of Life we call to mind the freedom and trust that has enabled martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God. Our Rule states, “The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.”i What actually is the witness of the martyrs that all of us should keep before us day-by-day if it’s not about the prospect (today) of literally being burned at the stake or crucified on a cross? Two things come to mind. What should we remember about martyrs?
For one, to claim the companionship of the martyrs. At times we are most fearful, we may also feel terribly alone and isolated. The church remembers “the communion of saints,” which is a very thin divide between this life and the life to come. For some of us, it may be an enormous comfort to pray for the companionship and intercession of a martyr, a person who stood the test of life valiantly. This “martyr” may be someone remembered in the calendar of the church; or this may be a “martyr,” some soul remembered in the tenderness of our own heart: a loved one, a teacher, a friend, a pastor – someone who understood and withstood suffering and to whom we feel ourselves connected. Is there a “martyr” to whom you feel particularly drawn? And, if so, who would that be? How could you nurture that relationship, that communion with this “saint” who has already found a place in your heart?
Secondly, the word that always accompanies martyrs is the word “courage.” The English word “courage” comes from Old French, corage, which is about the heart. The gift of courage gives your heart strength to withstand suffering. The gift of courage also enlightens your heart with wisdom to distinguish what is ultimate from what is penultimate in life.ii Ultimate in this life is that we belong to the God of love. We are a gift from God, and a gift for God, and that we belong to God in this life and the life to come, following our death and forever. That is ultimate. Everything else in life is penultimate at best. Don’t stake all your life’s energies on what will not last. The gift of courage gives your heart strength to withstand suffering and the wisdom to discern what really matters. We will pray for this very thing as we conclude our liturgy today, for “strength and courage to love [Christ] with gladness and singleness of heart.”iii
i Quoted from the SSJE Rule of Life, Chapter 39: “…The grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism whereby we die with Christ and are raised with him. It is the same grace that gives strength to martyrs to submit gladly to death as witnesses of the resurrection. From the beginning monks and nuns have been encouraged to understand their own commitment in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God. The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.”
ii In The Letter to the Ephesians (1:17-19) we read, “…I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
iii Quoted from The Book of Common Prayer, a prayer used at the conclusion of Holy Communion, p. 365.
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