Feast of St. Justin Martyr
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
When I was inquiring about a vocation here at SSJE, my favorite musician released a new song, entitled “John My Beloved.” Given the charism of this community, I paid attention. One of my favorite lines occurs toward the very beginning: “Beloved of John, I get it all wrong, I read you for some kind of poem.” I like this line, because it is a direct challenge to the impulse I often have, many of us have, of reducing Christ, this beloved of John, to the realm of abstraction and metaphor. To be clear, the poetic and the abstract have their place, including in the interpretation of scripture. But when we behold the one to whom the evangelists point, we’re beholding not a metaphor, but a man, clothed in the very flesh and blood you have brought with you today.
Today is the feast of Justin, an early martyr. Justin would have been at-home in Harvard Square. He was born to a pagan family in Palestine around the year 100, and he was well-educated in philosophy. More than literate, he was an eager student and writer. But also (not unlike a great many of our local students and writers today) he was frustrated by the philosophies he encountered. He wanted something more. And he found it upon discovering Christianity, and hearing about, not philosophers, but prophets, who “did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief.” Justin began to see Christianity as a means to this truth, the beholding of God. He still appreciated philosophy, though, and argued that earlier philosophers were expounders of truths more fully revealed by the prophets and the coming of Christ.
Justin went to Rome and started teaching there. After getting into a dispute with local philosophers, was brought before the authorities. He and six companions, some of whom were his students, refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods, and so were beheaded.
Justin’s writings are still extant, still robustly philosophical, still beautiful works. His thought is clear, his intellect sharp. But this philosopher greatly preferred the prophets and martyrs over the philosophers, and the Church recognizes him first and foremost as a martyr. The word “martyr” itself is instructive here, as it simply meant “witness,” originally. For the Church to elevate it to mean specifically someone killed for the faith was in keeping with those words that first converted Justin: while demonstration, argument, and abstraction are useful tools, the witness of flesh and blood is greater, for such witness is a direct beholding of the truth. Justin spoke well, but in the witness of blood shed and flesh sundered, he pointed more directly at the God who took on that blood and flesh, who really, truly dwelled within it, who really, truly suffered and died and came to life again, and who really, truly took it beyond, into the realms of heaven, where that flesh and blood remains even now, beholding God.
As we prepare to offer ourselves and receive the Eucharist, let us recall the words of the blessed martyr Justin: “…not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
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