Witnesses: For All the Saints (A Reflection on All Saints Day)

I have a friend who enjoys freaking out his friends by smilingly saying “My marriage is my martyrdom.” I have to admit, the looks on their faces were pretty priceless. It’s such a shocking turn of phrase to the ears of people whose ideas of love and marriage have been shaped primarily by happily-ever-after Hollywood romances and “love” songs that don’t look beyond desire and lust. At the same time, as much as it rubs against naive pop-cultural expectations about relationships, conceiving of marriage as martyrdom also hits at a problem with our cultural understanding of what martyrdom is and is not. And in honour of All Saints Day, this is what I want to write about today. 

There’s something about martyrs that has always captured the imagination of Christians. For much of the first four centuries of the Christian faith, martyrdom was a possibility for many, if not most, Christians. It wasn’t the pervasive threat we sometimes imagine, but there is no doubt that periodic and localized persecutions significantly shaped the identity of the early Christian churches. In fact, in the first centuries after Jesus, being put to the sword or fed to lions on account of one’s faith became the dominant paradigm of Christian life.

There is unquestionably something beautiful and even romantic about this: standing boldly against the Evil Empire to the point of being willing to die for our faith. But, while the stories of martyrs are often moving, there’s also something deeply troubling about them. As much as the focus on martyrdom in the arena helped the nascent Christian communities understand what it meant to take up their cross and follow their crucified Messiah, it also became a coping mechanism for a traumatized community, and one that distorted their understanding of what the Christian life looked like. 

The word μαρτυς (martys), from which we get our word ‘martyr’, means ‘witness’, someone called to testify publicly to what they have seen. In Jesus’ farewell speech at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, he tells his disciples: “You will be my witnesses” — my martyrs — “in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8). The fact that the word has come down to us in English as specifically about a bloody public death shows just how big of an impact the trauma of those early centuries had on the burgeoning Christian community. 

And yet in privileging this story the Church was only telling part of the story. There were other compelling Christian witnesses in this period of history. To name just one example, during the Antonine Plague in the second century — which even conservative estimates suggest killed 2,000 people a day at its peak in Rome alone — Christians risked their own lives to care for the sick, even as they were often scapegoated as the plague’s cause. So impressed were the people of Rome at the Christians’ witness of compassion and care that many chose to be baptized in response. These Christians embodied the self-sacrificial way of Jesus and were willing to die for their faith at least as much as those who were sent to arena.

Once the persecutions against Christians began to give way to social privilege, thousands of Christians fled to the desert to become monks and nuns: No longer under threat of physical death for their faith, they took it upon themselves to seek spiritual death. The old ideal of martyrdom survived but was now spiritualized. This bore a lot of beautiful fruit and the Church has much for which to thank these early Abbas and Ammas of the Desert. But their extreme vocation continued to overshadow day-to-day faithfulness in the Christian imagination. St. Anthony the Great, the traditional founder of Christian monasticism, was hit with this truth in one of my favorite incidents in the Lives of the Desert Fathers: Famed for his miracles and the extremity of his asceticism, Abba Anthony was told one day that there was someone who was his spiritual equal. Who was this Christian? An anonymous doctor in the heart of the city who gave generously to the poor and communed with the angels in prayer.

And this is the point. Being a witness — being a ‘martyr’ in the true sense — is not a special or extreme calling. Martyrdom is at the heart of every single Christian life. The question isn’t whether you’ll be a martyr, it’s what kind of martyrdom you are called to live. For some — a blessed rarity in our own culture but more common than ever in some parts of the world — the call to bear witness to Christ will in fact end with a bullet or machete. But for most of us, today as much as in the days of the first Christians, our martyrdom will be far more mundane, though no less challenging: the everyday acts of dying to self and taking up our cross daily. My friend was neither joking nor being morbid when he said his marriage was his martyrdom. It is the arena in which his Christian witness takes place. For you it might be parenthood, or caregiving for an aging relative. For some of us, it’s the challenge of living out single life as a faithful witness to Christ and the Kingdom of God. 

We are Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. We are called to testify in our words and lives, in whatever context we find ourselves, to what we have seen and experienced of the good news of Christ’s coming Kingdom of justice, peace, and love.

On this day when we remember and celebrate the lives and witness of all the faithful Saints, named and unnamed, known and unknown, throughout history, let us take their examples and rededicate ourselves to this calling we have received.

Amen.

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