Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your Love in the heart of your holy martyr Bernard Mizeki: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the calendar of the church we remember today an Anglican teacher, mentor, and martyr named Bernard Mizeki who was born in Mozambique in the last half of the nineteenth century. Bernard left home when he was twelve years old to work in Cape Town, South Africa. During his ten years there he enrolled in an Anglican night school where he excelled as a linguist. He mastered English, French, Dutch, and some eight local African languages. In time he would assist the Church in translating the Bible into various African languages.
For many decades in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century, the brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist were pastors and teachers in South Africa. In the late 1800s, we came to know Bernard while he worked and studied in Cape Town, and we prepared him for baptism and for ministry as a catechist. Bernard married, and his bishop assigned him to work with the Mashona people in Southern Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe. Bernard and his wife moved and resettled, began a garden, studied the local language, Shona, and made many friendships with the villagers. At regular times each day Bernard would stop his work to pray, as he had learned in his formation with our SSJE brothers in Cape Town. Bernard won the hearts of many families through his love for their children, and earned the trust and permission of the local chief to open a school.
Through Bernard’s witness, many families became followers of Jesus Christ. Not all. There remained some significant opposition from those who practiced the local Shona Spirit religion. One night, in the darkness, Bernard was speared outside his hut. While his wife and helper ran to get help, they saw a blinding light on the hillside where he had been lying, and they heard a rushing sound like the wings of many birds. When they returned to the spot, Bernard’s body had disappeared. The appalling tragedy had become a miracle, like a rapture, so believed the local Christians.
The site of Bernard’s death has become a holy place for Anglicans and other Christians throughout all of Africa. One of the greatest festivals on the continent of Africa takes place every year around this date, June 18, the anniversary of Bernard’s martyrdom, and at the site of his death. In June of 1996 – the 100th anniversary of Bernard Mizeki’s death – ten of us SSJE brothers from here traveled to be with nearly 15,000 people, mostly Africans, for this great festival. Throughout the weekend we shared conversations, sang Christian songs throughout the day and night, danced, ate traditional Zimbabwean food, and listened to preaching and testimonies. It was an amazingly wonderful and powerful experience for us.
Celebrating a martyrdom is a paradox. On the one hand, many martyrs have died an appalling death, fraught with suffering, and those who have loved them and looked to them for inspiration will grieve their absence. The promise we hear in Book of Revelation, that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” is a very real need, for martyrs and loved ones alike.[i] On the other hand, a martyr’s witness will oftentimes sow the life of faith into the coming generations. A great African theologian of the 3rd century, Tertullian, said “the blood [of martyrs] is the seed of Christians.”[ii] Life grows out of death. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will not bear fruit,” so says Jesus.[iii] In our own Rule of Life, we call ourselves to be ready and willing to surrender our lives… “in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God.” And we remind ourselves that “the witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds … day by day.”[iv]
The English word “martyr” comes from the Latin, quite literally “a witness.” We can take both the “long view” and the “short view” on the witness of martyrdom. What I’m calling the “long view” is our maintaining a perspective on life that includes death. Death is a part of life, as God created it. A daily reminding ourselves that we have been given the gift of life, one day-at-a-time, and that surely one day – maybe today – we will die. Remembering this can be enormously liberating and clarifying. Embracing our impending death as a part of life, we’re freed from anxiety that we might die. We will die. Not to worry. And we can take Jesus at his word, that he is with us always, even to the end.[v] Waking up each day to the miracle of still being alive makes life a holy adventure. God still has something for us. God’s presence and provision is promised for why-ever-it-is we are still alive today. So we face each day as a recurring set of invitations: what God is inviting us to be or bear or birth in that day, in that moment. And if the invitation is to die, to give over our life in some conscious and sacrificial way, then we are prepared. It becomes obvious to us in the moment: so this is the way, so this is God’s invitation for me to offer up my life! There’s a real freedom in that.
Freedom is the grace that appears again and again in the witness of the martyrs: they freely sacrificed their lives, for the love of God and for the love of God’s people. William Temple, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, once said that “the principle of sacrifice is that we choose to do or to suffer what apart from our love we should not choose to do or to suffer.”[vi] If any of us here chooses to give up our lives in some sacrificial or courageous way, it will not be sacrificial or courageous to us. We will simply be doing what our life is meant to be about, very freely, and for the love of God and God’s people. Onlookers may use the words “sacrificial” or “courageous” to describe our life and death; but the martyr is simply living out his or her life with great freedom and great love. That’s “the long view” about martyrdom.
The “short view” about martyrdom is more likely rather tedious and undramatic, what Jesus calls “laying down our lives for one another.”[vii] This is to live our lives with great generosity; it’s quite literally to give up our lives as a living offering. It’s to be generous with kindness and care, generous with the sharing of our life and labor. I remember Mother Theresa’s being asked at some point about the great work that she and her sisters provided for the poor. She responded that there was no great work; just little acts of care and kindness offered with great love. And so the “short view” on martyrdom is to free ourselves from the delusion that we own our lives, that we own our abilities, our time, our resources. It’s rather to presume that it all belongs to God, and that we are simply temporary stewards, invited to invest the life God has shared with us for the life and love of the world. This can be quite mundane, like helping someone… make a bed, or do the dishes, or take out the trash, or to listen to them, or to forgive them. The point is to live our lives, not clutching but offering up our lives as a living sacrifice, a daily dying and rising with Christ.[viii] And rise we will. Life can be a real killer. We may die many times before we die, but with each death – each little death – there is a promise of new life. It’s Jesus’ way.
We look to the witness of the martyrs of the church, not for license to live recklessly, but for inspiration to live faithfully, and freely, and with fecundity. It’s not about squandering our lives but about the handing over our lives, surrendering our lives for the love of it, and to God’s glory. Dying is a recurring invitation in life, and out of death – life’s relentless little deaths and our ultimate death – comes the gateway to life. And on this day we give special thanks for someone who pointed to the way: Blessed Bernard Mizeki.
[i] Revelation 7:17.
[ii] Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225)was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa.
[iii] John 12:24.
[iv] Quoted from The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, chapter 39: “Life Profession.”
[v] Matthew 28:20.
[vi] Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944), quoted from his Readings in John’s Gospel (London: Macmillan, 1939).
[vii] See John 10.17; John 13.37; John 13.38; John 15.13; also 1 John 3.16.
[viii] The “daily dying and rising with Christ” is a phrase attributed to Martin Luther.
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