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PREFACE I OF HOLY MARTYRS
This preface is used for commemorating the saints who’ve sacrificed their lives for Christ.
The sign and example of martyrdom
The word martyr comes from the Greek verb μαρτῠρέω (“to bear witness” or “to give evidence”). In the case of the martyrs they died giving witness to the love of Christ, both on the giving end and on the receiving end. They laid down their life for him as a sign of love. A holy life presents its challenges and rewards, but a martyr’s life bundles up an entire life and places it on the altar of sacrifice alongside Christ himself to die with him.
St. Paul taught us how hard it is to lay down your life for someone, especially if that someone doesn’t appreciate it: “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). St. Stephen, the first martyr (and many martyrs after him) prayed for his killers even as they stoned him to death (“Lord, do not hold this sin against them” Acts 7:60), and St. Paul, who had attended his murder approvingly, later recalled that witness when he converted to Christianity (cf. Acts 22:20). We can only wonder how much St. Paul was thinking of St. Stephen when he saw his own martyrdom near. Witnessing a radical love for Christ has a great transformative power.
“For the blood of your blessed Martyr … poured out like Christ’s to glorify your name, shows forth your marvelous works, by which in our weakness you perfect your power and on the feeble bestow strength to bear you witness, through Christ our Lord.”
A holy life is lived in imitation of Christ, and the martyrs achieve the greatest degree of imitation. A holy life is simply loving God and loving others out of love for him. Our Lord taught us at the Last Supper that we should love each another (cf. John 13:34,35; 15:12,17), imitating his example of love (“…even as I have loved you…”). This love was not simple reciprocity; it was the way to show the world that the disciples learned to love from him (“By this all men will know that you are my disciples”).
A good friend undeniably is one who would lay down his life for you, and the only way to match that would be to have the same dispositions. Our Lord teaches that this willingness is the greatest degree of love: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Our Lord showed this degree of love by laying down his life for us (cf. John 10:11, 15, 17). The martyrs not only learned that from him, but were strengthened by him to give witness in this way. Peter thought he was ready to lay down his life for Our Lord, but failed when the moment of truth came on the night of Our Lord’s Passion (cf. John 13:37,38). Later, when the dark night of the Passion was over, Our Lord reminded Peter that martyrdom still awaited him (“…when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go…”—John 21:18). It was only after asking Peter how much he loved him (John 21:15-18) that Our Lord told Peter his own martyrdom still awaited him. Our Lord said the act, not just the disposition, to lay down your life was the greatest love. Peter teaches us that we don’t really know until the moment comes. In the end Peter did lay down his life for love.
We’re not all called to the heroic sanctity of martyrdom, but we have many opportunities to spiritually lay down our lives for the Lord and for others. Let’s all give witness to the love of Christ, strengthened by him, however we can.