We noted last week how the Early Christians valued the Unity of the Church under their ‘Fathers’, the Bishops. Yet there was another authority in the early Church, and it was the authority of the Martyrs. The early faithful cherished the words, witness and acts of those who died for the faith.
The word ‘Martyr’ means ‘Witness’ in Greek; so the Martyrs were nothing other than witnesses to the power of faith in Jesus. St. Justin, himself a martyr in the mid-second century, said: “Though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, in chains and fire, and all other tortures; we do not give up our confession; but the more such things happen, the more others, in larger numbers, become believers.” Tertullian noted, “The more often you mow us down, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” And in fact, during the times of the worst persecution, the Church grew by a steady 40% per decade.
Christianity was different. The pagan religions made no exclusive claims to their worshippers, pagans were free to mix and match their gods at will; but the Christian God made a jealous and total claim on His children – a claim they embraced. Since they refused to worship other gods – or the emperor – they were often charged with atheism or treason, which were both capital crimes. Rarely did the Emperors attack the average citizens however; they went after the ones in charge – the Bishops. This failed because for every bishop there were thousands of believers whose faiths were personal, exclusive, and firm.
“Your cruelty is our glory,” wrote Tertullian to the Imperial rulers; and none were crueler than Rome. But it backfired. St. Irenaeus wrote of the shock of pagans who witnessed the willingness of Christians to endure lingering torture and “the games,” rather than renounce the cult of Jesus. Tertullian actually taunted the authorities in that their own philosophies gave them nothing comparable to die for. “The sword, the fire, the cross, the wild beasts, the torture – these surely are but trifling sufferings to obtain a celestial glory and a divine reward.”
One of the earliest accounts of Christian martyrdom comes from the pagan historian Tacitus, an aristocrat of Rome, who reported Nero’s execution of “vast numbers” in AD 64 (about 30 years after Christ’s death). “Ridicule accompanied their end, “ he wrote, “They were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs, or they were fastened on crosses and, when daylight failed, were burned to serve as torches by night.”
But what the Romans failed to realize was that Christians looked upon martyrdom as the ultimate imitation of Christ: for they too were accepting a cruel and unjust death. Hence, there was no greater proof of one’s faith than death over apostasy. Some Fathers taught that the martyrs earned a sort of “priesthood” by their endurance, and entered heaven immediately upon death. Since a priest offers sacrifice, and the martyrs offered their lives in union with the sacrifice of Jesus, this was true in a sense. In fact, 2 of the most famous early martyrs, St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna, used Eucharistic images to speak of their dying. St. Ignatius wrote, “I am the wheat of God. Let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” And strapped to the wood of his execution, St. Polycarp gave an oration that read like a Eucharistic Prayer. The thousands of witnesses of his death reported that the smoke of the fire gave off an aroma exactly like that of baking bread – and not burning flesh.
And so.... did YOU know some details of the early Church Martyrs?…
(Information obtained from “The Fathers of the Church” by Mike Aquilina)
Ashley and Susan
Two women asking the world to not just hope, but to hope in Love.