Reflection for Day 3 – Martyrs After Christ

We are not an orphaned people— we have the Lord and each other. Saints are not made in isolation. Neither are saints self-made because holiness is only possible through the mysterious movement of divine grace. The communion of the saints is intricately connected to apostolic succession and the origins of faith. This unity of the Church encompasses the whole world and all of human history. Indeed, it reaches into eternity.

The first and foremost of the saints were always the martyrs. While it seems contrary to reason, the wisdom of the kingdom is that the benedictions of Christ are realized most in those persecuted for him.

“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

Early believers gravitated to the graves of those who gave the witness of dying in the Lord.  The sanctoral calendar or cult of the saints began not with papal dictate but through a sentimental gathering near the graves of those who rendered heroic witness. It was natural that believers would commemorate the anniversaries of their deaths, when they were born into eternal life.  The ancient Church father Tertullian spoke about their spilt blood as the seed of the Church. Others would speak about it as the fruitful rain that would bring about an abundant harvest.  The more the pagan Roman Empire oppressed the Church the more it grew. At the heart of this legacy was a real sense of Christ’s abiding risen presence and that he had formed a saving relationship with believers. The understanding of “saint” which had once been applied to all the living who followed Jesus was narrowed to those martyrs that had proven their faith. After the empire came under the headship of a Christian, the three centuries of martyrdom came to an end. The emphasis would move from death to holiness of life and great accomplishments of service. The saints were viewed as those who made tremendous personal sacrifices. They gave up fortunes, embraced severe penances, and made special promises of celibacy and religious obedience. They were literally understood as those who lived in the world but were not of the world. Their surrender of so much that ordinary men and women treasured as goods made them into living martyrs. They lived only for Christ and seemed touched by divine power. Saints quickly became associated with miracles, both prior to and after their deaths. Indeed, even today proof of miracles is required for canonization. The danger or tension in this is obvious— which is more important, that saints be venerated or imitated? It is for the former that non-Catholic critics would wrongly charge Catholics with idolatry in worshipping saints.  The fabrication of statues only caused an escalation in such Protestant concerns. Over time, growing numbers of saints are added to the canonical listing other than bishops, priests, monks or nuns. Indeed, while there are several kings and queens, there are also peasants and slaves.  

About Father Joe

Father Joe Jenkins I am the pastor of Holy Family Church and a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.
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