The Martyrs of Uganda, 1886
‘in a very little while,
the one who is coming will come and will not delay;
but my righteous one will live by faith.
My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back.’”
[Hebrews 10:37-38 (cf. Habakkuk 2:3-4)]
In the community’s ‘Renewal of Our Foundations’ work this year, the most revealing discovery for me, was to learn of our founder’s deep conviction that the Society’s witness and mission was taking place in the ‘end times’. I do not think that Fr. Benson believed this in the fanatical manner of millenarian, end of the world predicters. Rather I would say that Fr. Benson’s end times theology arose from his unwavering faith in the victory over sin and death accomplished in Christ Jesus. For Richard Meux Benson, I believe, the abiding presence of the incarnate, crucified and risen Jesus in the outpoured Holy Spirit of God was ‘the’ reality, continually active in every age of history. He saw each historic era as an end time, a humanly constructed ‘world’ which would abruptly change as it was confronted by the kingdom of God in the followers of Jesus’s self-offering way of love. For Benson the urgency of the Society’s witness to a ‘world which is passing away’ was paramount.
On this day in 1886, thirty-two young Anglican and Roman Catholic men were burned to death for their refusal to renounce their Christian faith at the order of the king of Buganda. Their deaths signaled the beginnings of the end for the world as it was then perceived.
These young adults were pages in training for service to the royal court. Buganda had grown in power rapidly in preceding centuries, establishing “a kind of imperial supremacy” over what is present day Uganda, mainly through the subjugation of weaker peoples for cheap labor. However, the arrival of British explorers with a handful of Christian missionaries was to change the kingdom forever. During the rule of King Mwanga, the kingdom eventually became a ‘protectorate’ under the authority of the British East Africa Company. And in spite of the king’s cruel persecutions and attempts to eliminate Christianity, the example of the martyrs whose deaths we commemorate resulted over time in Uganda becoming the most Christian nation in Africa.
In today’s gospel proclamation, Jesus’s instruction for his disciples concerning ‘the end’ is offered in the setting of the magnificent Jerusalem temple restored by King Herod the Great—and in the context of Roman imperial occupation of the nation.
“‘…they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death…Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another…And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But anyone who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.’” [from Matthew 24:9-14]
Most likely these words for Matthew’s community addressed both the present moment and as well as time and events yet to come. But both contexts look to worlds which are passing away and to the hope of God’s future in Christ. The world as we have known it (or supposed it to be in human terms) is coming to an end. Our time of worldwide pandemic, of climate catastrophe, of endemic violence and injustice, of failed leadership and demagoguery is unique to us and yet it is nothing new. But, our call of witness and fidelity to Christ remains constant, manifested in ways ever new.
It may be that we will come to share in the blood witness of the Ugandan martyrs. But it is certain that we remain called to expend our lifeblood through faithful witness as community in prayer and service with Christ Jesus to our lives’ end. As this old world passes away, may we, with all God’s children, receive grace to persevere in Jesus’ self-offering of love, extending mercy and justice to all as we actively hope in God’s future.
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