Martyrs of the 20th and 21st Centuries
1 Peter 4:12-19
As recently as 2015, the extremist group ISIS produced a video to terrify the world. Dressed and hooded in black, the militants marched a group of 21 Coptic Christians dressed in orange, prison-style jumpsuits along a beach in Libya. The horrifying scene concluded with the cruel beheading of all 21 Christians. It shocked and horrified the world to see such a brazen act of violence not only perpetrated but promulgated to a global audience. One of the men was from either Ghana or Chad, the other 20 who had been kidnapped were poor immigrants from rural Egypt who were willing to risk the instability of Libya to escape the poverty and religious persecution of their homeland.
Such are the martyrs we remember today. It was a gruesome event and without the anesthetizing gloss of centuries it stands out like a raw wound on the Body of Christ in our own time. We remember these martyrs and others of the recent century. 3 million Armenian Christians martyred in genocide during the first world war. A million Orthodox killed by the Soviet regime in the 1920’s and 30’s. Countless other hidden martyrs vanish in parts of the world to which the western media is indifferent or blocked. Among groups who track the numbers of Christian martyrs in the world there seems to be agreement that there have been more Christians killed for their faith in the second millennium of Christianity than the first. These horrors are not history, they are news.
Why remember such horrors? The memory is fresh, it almost seems unnecessary. Remembering in order to prevent horrors of martyrdom hardly seems to be working either. Remembering so as to seek out a violent death like theirs would be pathological.
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
It seems like we’re so far from where this whole thing started. So far from those days beside the lake tending the nets. So far from that invitation to come and see. But the decisive moments we mark this night go back much further even than that.
In a wonderous and mysterious way this night has been present to God from the very beginning when the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This night and the days of this Holy Triduum usher us into the fullness of God’s time in which these pivotal actions are always wholly present. We return to make this remembrance; to do more than flip the pages of a scrapbook and recall fond memories, but to truly re-member, to re-present Jesus here, to encounter the real and living presence of Christ.
We timebound creatures are forgetful and eternal God holds all time in hand. As our lives continue their meandering way we are given these precious gifts by which to return and to dwell in the love of God.
or Psalm 119:9-16
We are in the deep end of Lent now, the far side of the wilderness. The forty-day path of prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy, is drawing ever closer to the cross. It’s like the last few miles of a marathon; the last set of finals before the end of term; the last month of a pregnancy; all yearning and aching to end well but not quite there yet. Too far to go back, and so we continue to strain forward. There are so many ways that life in the world in general these days has been like a long journey. You would be forgiven for feeling a little or even very weary. But, take heart, because there is hope on the horizon although, it may not be readily apparent.
The Jesus whom we encounter in this 12th Chapter of John has also set his face toward Jerusalem and the completion of the race marked out for him. In fact, Jesus is more aware of this unravelling than most. When Philip and Andrew go to tell Jesus about a whole new group of people that want to see him you can feel a sense of eagerness and enthusiasm at beginning to know Jesus. His fame is spreading. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!”
Oh, but glory looks different than fame and notoriety, which is why Jesus immediately begins to explain what it means for him to be glorified. It’s like a grain of wheat that falls to the earth and dies so that it may bear much fruit. Without descent and death, there can be no new life. Without transformation and conversion, it’s just a lone grain of wheat, small and ineffectual. Without being broken open, it remains closed and unto itself.
Cognitively we know that seeds produce plants. But, it’s a hidden process that takes place in the darkness of soil and isn’t immediately apparent to the eye. Planting a seed in the hope of new growth takes trust and patience. Experienced gardeners and farmers grow in that trust but planting is never without risk. What if the seed doesn’t grow? What if something goes wrong and it’s all for naught? That waiting in the dark can be terrifying when a crop is badly needed.
These days of sowing the seeds of renunciation and penitence can feel exhausting when spiritual fruit is hard to see and only the darkness, fear, and pain of death are near. Our rule of life describes the nature of this kind dying, “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations, and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death. Through them we practice the final letting go of dying, so that it will be less strange and terrifying to us.” (Ch. 48, Holy Death)
At this point in our Lenten journey, Christ points to a glimpse of the glory we await because seeing is part and parcel of God’s glory. The root words in Greek and Hebrew that are ascribed to God both take on the meaning of visible splendor, power on display. Glory is outward. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God and displays God’s power in his life. The death he was willing to die, like a grain of wheat falling to the earth, has produced great fruit for us to see.
I can still recall the wonder of the childhood experiments where we would place little beans against the side of a clear plastic cup lined with just some wet paper towel. It seemed like overnight we would come back to find that the outer casing had cracked open and little shoots were coming out, top and bottom. Before long, that original little bean was hardly recognizable as the plant grew right before our eyes. It was quick and gratifying to young attention spans and it gave me the visual confirmation of the process that typically goes on in secret in the soil. I could see with my own eyes how the death of that seed produced new life.
But the stakes are higher with a human life. The fear and uncertainty of death are magnified. And they get personal when Jesus tells us to follow him into a death like his. Thanks be to God, Jesus was willing to feel this, and to make it evident. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
Faced with death, and the ignominious death of the cross, Jesus goes to great lengths to encourage us along. “Father, glorify your name.” Show them what I have seen! And like, thunder the voice replies, I have glorified it and I will glorify it again. The signs and wonders of Jesus were all God’s visible splendor. The work of the cross is God’s power on display. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”
Christ was lifted up in his obedience to the Father as the letter to the Hebrews says. His obedience and submission to the Father has become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. As Jesus calls us to follow him, to serve him, to lose our life like him, we are inexorably drawn to him like a strong magnet. Pulled inwardly to remain with him.
And we have seen this glory.
Who in your life has drawn you to Jesus?
Can you see them? Name them?
Do they know what fruit has been born of their dying to self?
They may not know it just as we may not know who is being drawn to Christ because of us.
The good news is that is has happened, it is happening, and it shall happen.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Take heart, dearly beloved of God. The path we walk with Christ will lead us all the way to through death until our baptism is complete. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain” Unless we lose our life in this world we cannot keep it to everlasting life. Unless the bread is broken it cannot be given. Bind yourself to Christ in his passion. Pray for the consolations of Christ in this home stretch of our pilgrimage. Be nourished by the prayer, Anima Christi, in poetic translation by John Henry Newman:
Soul of Christ, be my sanctification;
Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins;
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be;
O good Jesus, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide;
Ne’er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me;
Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above,
With Thy saints to sing Thy love,
World without end.
Thomas Aquinas spent a lot of his early life in castles. The kinds of castles that wealthy, powerful Italian families constructed as a defense in the interminable skirmishes between city-states. Big, stone buildings, often at the tops of hills.
As a younger son, his family intended for him to follow his uncle’s footsteps to a monastery and as an abbott, no less. Monte Cassino, the old, imposing Benedictine monastery heavy with hundreds of years of tradition, wealth, and influence was the intention.
But Thomas had different ideas. He wanted to join a little upstart order founded only a handful of years before. The Dominicans were no place for their precious son, so his family arranged for his brothers to kidnap him on the way to join up and bring him home where he was imprisoned in family castles for another year. More castles, more fortresses.
Of course, Thomas would go on to be noted as a singularly gifted doctor of the Church, perhaps next to St. Augustine the main architect of ecclesiastical doctrine in the West. Doctrine. It’s a heavy sounding word. Like the stones of those castles he spent so much time in. Doctrine. And his writing can often seem like one stone stacked firmly on another. The structure of his Summa Theologica, with Questions like “Whether the Eucharist is the greatest of the Sacraments” followed by objections, his own response, then orderly responses to each objection. They stack and build with precision.
2 Esdras 2:42-48
A person’s spiritual life is formed by all manner of processes working in intricate, entangled ways. Some aspects of formation are a process of addition, being given new material, things like absorbing scripture and prayer, words that give meaning to our experience, rituals that structure the intangible, ineffable things of God.
And, there are also elements of formation that are a process of subtraction, letting go of those things which are not life-giving, relinquishing attempts to control what we cannot, saying yes to the things of God often means saying no to the things of this world, pride, greed, exploitation and the like. Some erosion is important to wear away what cannot, what should not endure.
And then there comes a point of resistance, where what is firm persists and what is fleeting falls away, there in that creative tension we are found in Christ. In the midst of these formative processes we grow in stature and the likeness of Christ. Much like the fascinating rock features of the American Southwest. The Arches of Moab, Utah, Devil’s Tower in Arizona, the Kissing Camels of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado. Each were formed by various metamorphic and compaction processes beneath the surface of the earth until the softer surrounding rock was worn away through the erosive properties of wind and water. What remains are the stunning results of competing forces working over great lengths of time.
What a Christmas it’s been! It has certainly been unlike any that I’ve known before. But, isn’t that the way with Christmas? This season of the heart seems to surprise as often as not.
It was a surprise to the Grinch when it came without ribbons, it came without tags, it came without packages, boxes or bags. Well, in Whoville they say, the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.
The Ghosts of Christmas may be haunting, cajoling, and fearful but they may inspire in us a reaction like Ebenezer Scrooge’s, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
The surprising lessons of Christmas have so much to teach a willing heart. Even today, there is a joyful mystery before us in the gospel of Luke. It’s a particular treasure, this story, unique to Luke’s gospel and the only glimpse of Jesus we see between the events of his birth and his baptism. Introducing the gospel, the author makes clear the intent, “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you…so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
If you’ve ever played games with children you may have found that the rules are often subject to change without warning. Or, there may be a different set of rules for you than for the child. When you draw the blue square card in candy land you just go to the next blue square on the path, but when the child draws, they get to bounce ahead three blue spaces until they’re in a commanding lead. And that’s just the rules.
There’s an innate sense of wanting to control a situation and get what you want on your terms deep in the human experience. When Jesus poses the question, “What are you people like?” and offers the image of children at play he may be referring to the kind of schoolyard contracts of cause and effect. When I play the happy song, you dance. When I play the sad one you cry. But when someone refuses to play by their rules, the social contract is broken, expectations are thwarted and the children are left upset. “I’m taking my ball and going home!” Is the response I can imagine.
I learned something wondrous about seeing in the dark back when I was very young. Each year, the little public school I went to sent the sixth graders to Keystone Science School for a several days up in the mountains of Colorado. We’d spend the days learning about alpine ecosystems, geology, and the like. But one evening, after dark, instead of just going to bed they took us on a night hike. A bold move with a bunch of sixth graders, I understand in retrospect.
When we reached a clearing, our guide told us to turn off our flashlights and look around. Predictably, it took more than a few minutes of giggling and tittering until all the lights were finally off. At first it was as dark as you might expect. But then our guide began telling us about the special night vision that we all had. He explained that even though we couldn’t see anything very well right now, in 5 minutes or so the structures of our eyes would adjust to allow us to see much better than we thought we could. And sure enough, as we waited, things began to become visible that were previously cloaked in darkness. Although it seemed like some kind of wizardry, it was actually just allowing our God-given bodies to work the way they are equipped to work.
I can imagine that the frantic search for a missing object is familiar to all of you. You reach for your wallet and find that pocket empty, you go to put on that watch that was given as a gift and it’s nowhere in sight, or your fingers grasp for “the good pen” and it’s gone. Then your heart starts beating a little faster, eyes scan the surroundings, hands patting every surface. As the search continues, frenzied energy sets in…When something goes missing we can begin to learn a bit about our levels of attachment.
While the monastic discipline of detachment is useful in freeing a person from inordinate and restrictive relationships to transient things for the sake of freedom and availability to God; when it comes to lost humankind, God is anything but detached. For God, the person who has wandered, gotten lost, forgotten their way home, is irreplaceable and must be found. In this regard, God is utterly attached and cannot abide simply to “let go.”
It was an unusual thing for the Romans to transport one of those pesky 2nd century Christians all the way to Rome when they could just as easily been killed quickly at home by the local officials. Antioch in the year 115, in modern day Turkey was a major city in the Roman empire with a large Jewish population that was an early destination apostolic missionaries.
Ignatius was the second or third Bishop of the ancient province of Syria. And, in the frequent persecutions that flared up he was arrested and taken, bound in chains overland through Turkey into Rome.
And by virtue of this lengthy trek, we have seven awe-inspiring letters from this early Christian Bishop modelling the fervor and joy of giving his life for the sake of Christ.
“Let me be fodder for wild beasts—that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ. I would rather that you fawn on the beasts so that they may be my tomb and no scrap of my body be left…Then I shall be a real disciple of Jesus Christ when the world sees my body no more. Now is the moment I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing seen or unseen begrudge me making my way to Jesus Christ. Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—only let me get to Jesus.”