In his audience with pilgrims from El Salvador soon after the martyr Oscar Romero was beatified, on 30 October 2015, Pope Francis told the faithful present: “From the very beginning of the life of the Church, Christians have always believed that the blood of martyrs is a seed for Christians, as Tertullian said. Today too, in a dramatic way, the blood of a great number of Christian martyrs continues to be shed on the fields of the world, with the hope that it will bear fruit in a rich harvest of holiness, justice, reconciliation and love of God. But we must remember that one is not born a martyr. Archbishop Romero remarked, ‘We must be willing to die for our faith, even if the Lord does not grant us this honour . ... Giving life does not only mean being assassinated; giving life, having the spirit of martyrdom, means offering it in silence, in prayer, in the honest fulfilment of one’s duty; in this silence of everyday life, giving life a little at a time’.”
The word “martyr” derives from the Greek word μάρτυς (martus), an eye or an ear witness. Originally, the martyr was a witness of Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:22). As recounted in the Book of Acts on the outpouring on the Holy Spirit on them, the witnesses of Jesus were to bear witness to him throughout the world. “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
When Christians started being persecuted, Jesus’ word became so clear in their lives. Their heroic example convinced many of the powerful veracity of their faith. No wonder many others embraced their faith. “And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).
As Father John Anthony McGuckin put it in his book The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, up to this day, “Christians regard the martyr’s task in the time of their trial [is] to be above all one of witness (martyria) or public confession of the faith.” Martyrdom of the blood shows the Christians’ perseverance of following their Lord, Jesus Christ to their Golgotha – the shedding of their blood. It is interesting that the second century prolific Christian writer from Carthage, Tertullian, in his treatise On Modesty (De Puditicia), writes: “Christ is in the martyr” (no. 22). Tertullian’s affirmation makes perfect sense when one observes what we find in Acts 9:4, where Jesus confesses that he is present in the Christians Saul was persecuting. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).
Besides the martyrdom of the blood there is also the martyrdom of everyday life. In other words the witness of those ordinary people who, as Sr Benedicta Ward explains in her book The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks “were sincerely concerned to live out their understanding of the Gospel”.
We do not need to be monks in order to espouse this kind of martyrdom which the Christian tradition dubs “white martyrdom”.
In his book Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definite Manual for the Scholar, Father Dimitru Staniloae wrote: “Christians in the world can’t exercise such radical self-control as monks, but we too can practice a certain amount of moderation ... If we accept them [i.e. those toils and troubles] with patience, we can be purified from our passions, almost the same as monks. If self-control is more of a virtue of monks, patience is more that of lay people, although neither should totally forget the virtue of the others.”
Am I ready to bear witness of Jesus Christ by being patient and vigilant over my passions? Is this not a powerful way of being a convincing martyr in today’s world?