After having presented the whole picture of the “Christian Journey”, we need now to come back to the final goal of Christian life, which is as well the goal of the second part of the journey we are exploring: “dying out of love”, or more classically expressed: “martyrdom”, or simply “Christian death” (not any death).
Martyrdom is the Royal way. The best imitation of Jesus, “the highest level of holiness” in the understanding of the Church, the closest transformation in Jesus. When Jesus sees a Martyr He can say: “now I have a real brother” (saint Francis of Assisi said that when 5 of his brothers died, killed for their faith, in Morocco).
“There is no greater love than to give one’s life to his brothers” (John 15:13). “the disciple is not greater than his master”, he’ll have to die like him: He is the Martyr par excellence.
When we say “holiness is the goal of our Christian life” we need to be more precise and state it this way: “becoming martyr is the goal of our life”.
– Who set that goal? Us (the Church) or Jesus?
– Jesus obviously, and He did it when He asked us to follow his footsteps: “I have the power to give my life and to take it”.
Jesus, The first Martyr
Jesus is the first Martyr. He is “The Way”, He is our Way. We are invited to follow Him, to do as He did, to allow Him to come in us and continue the mystery of His Salvation through us. “Since Jesus, the Son of God, manifested His charity by laying down His life for us, so too no one has greater love than he who lays down his life for Christ and His brothers.” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 42) Indeed, Jesus is our example.
Martyrdom, the highest ideal
“From the earliest times, then, some Christians have been called upon – and some will always be called upon – to give the supreme testimony of this love to all men, but especially to persecutors.” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 42) In dying as martyrs, we participate to the work of Salvation of Jesus. Help spreading the Good News in a very powerful way. We help the Grace of God change the world. “The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Tertullian), it allows the transformation of people. See Saul – who is supporting the killing of Stephen, first Deacon – is touched by the Grace of the death of the first Martyr. It is a kind of a mysterious “exchange”.
|S. Stephen’s Martyrdom (Acts 7). One can see Saul, sitting, watching and approving.
As saint Paul will say later in one of his letters: “death works in me, and Life in you”. Jesus involves him in the work of salvation, by the Power of the Holy Spirit he receives the evil that is working in people, and “transforms” it (the Spirit does that) into Higher Good. This is “the Power of the Cross”, “the Power of the Blood of Jesus”, this is “the Power of the Lamb”! The Crucified only had that unique power, capable of really changing the Evil into a Higher Good.
The blood of the Martyr is the most sacred thing after Jesus. In the early Church, christians used to celebrate Mass on the body of the Martyrs; they are transformed to the highest point into His Body and His Blood. The Perfect imitation of Jesus.
Not only the blood of the Martyrs is the most sacred thing after Jesus, but it is capable of being (by the power of Jesus, and by His unique Merits, being the Only Saviour) seeds for new Christians. Watering the earth with their blood, one can see new shoots of Christians blossoming. This is how Christianity can change the World. The Power of the Martyrs, the Power of their Love, the Love of God outpoured in them.
What is Martyrdom?
“The Church, then, considers martyrdom as an exceptional gift and as the fullest proof of love. By martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world – as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood.” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 42)
What about me?
“Though few are presented such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men. They must be prepared to make this profession of faith even in the midst of persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church, in following the way of the cross.” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 42) Are you aware that this text expresses our Faith, yours, mine, and that this teaching is for all of us. This text alone sums up for me all the Council Vatican II. This is how the Church becomes everyday “Sacrament of Salvation” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 48).
This means that: I have to be prepared for martyrdom. This is simply frightening! But in the same time, attracting… fascinating… it puts everything in my life upside down. This is THE measure, THE criteria of being Christian, wouldn’t you agree? So let us “get serious” about our GOAL in life.
Dying out of love, deepening Martyrdom
Since we are all called to the fullness of love, and martyrdom is the classical common expression of this love, it is important to deepen our understanding of martyrdom, so it becomes more accessible to any person. It is important to bring it to its right proportions.
Many many saints desired to reach martyrdom. Just to mention two of the most known ones: saint Francis of Assisi, and saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Both of them desired Martyrdom with great great aspirations and sought it. They both failed in finding it, but for different reasons. The main reason is that God wanted to show them that if the realisation of it is rather rare, realising “the essence of Martyrdom” is accessible to any person, without necessarily dying killed out of hatred of faith (or of any virtue related to faith).
At mount Alverna, Saint Francis of Assisi received the Stigmata. One can see in them the answer (finally) to his prayers wanting to become a martyr. But Thérèse of Lisieux as well sought martyrdom, with all her heart and all her life, and her desire grew exponentially with her spiritual life (see Manuscripts A and B where she mentions it). Instead of dying killed, or receiving the Stigmata, she just simply “died in a bed”, as she said. Apparently one can say: “what a disappointment!”. But in fact, it was an occasion for her and for all the Church to deepen the understanding of the “essence of Martyrdom”. This is an important step for all the Church toward understanding the Way (the stages) that leads to Perfection, to the fullness of the Christian vocation. Remember that Thérèse’s mission was to offer a Way, valid for everybody, and that any person can practice. This is very important.
She understood (and made us understand) many aspects related to martyrdom. We can’t right now explore all of them but we can mention at least the followings:
1- Through her reading saint John of the Cross and his explanations of the deep transformation in God, she understood better Martyrdom, and that it is, in its essence: “dying out of Love”. One finds his explanation of dying really Christianly, in his last Masterpiece: “The Living Flame of Love”. You can read as well something that I am not sure Thérèse did read: his fantastic, and luminous explanation of the essence of Martyrdom, in the third book of the “Ascent of Mount Carmel”.
2- She understood that her desires of Martyrdom are inspired by God. If God inspires something to us, this means that He is capable of realising it.
3- She understood that there is a way to reach martyrdom, starting with the small acts of martyrdom: the daily faithfulness to Jesus. Not dying “out of a sword”, but dying on a daily basis by the “little needles” of daily normal struggles, lived in Jesus, with the help of His Grace… the “little needles” as well of the “dry land” of the apparent absence of the Beloved. Please read her letters to her sisters from her noviciate until early 1893.
4- On day, after that first stage of preparation, purification, transformation, she is lead to discover to which extent she has to rely on the Fire of Love of God, the Holy Spirit, and understands to which extent Jesus-God wants to be love by her (9th of Jun 1895). She offers* herself to the Transformative Power of the Love of the Holy Spirit. She understands that her desires for martyrdom can finally be fulfilled.