“And He was saying to them all, If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it…. For whoever is ashamed of Me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory…” (Luke 9:23-24, 26).
Born from the shed blood of our Lord, Christians are not a squeamish people. The Church across the ages has not shied from ridicule, torture, or death. Perhaps the grisly spectacle of public execution itself strengthened and expanded the faith.
In his Apology for Christianity, an “open letter” to the Roman authorities written less than 200 years after Christ, Tertullian plead for tolerance, pointing out that their persecution was having the opposite of its desired effect. “Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers [allows] that we thus suffer…. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apologeticus, Chapter 50). This last phrase is often repeated as “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Armed with the honorable defiance conferred by unjust suffering, we imagine ourselves able to go to the lions like our forbears, heads held high as we slip into Christ’s presence. What happens, though, when there is no host of error to hear our confession, no one in the audience to believe Christ and recount our last act of witness to future generations? What of martyrdom when the injustice is softer, subtler, and the arena a workplace, classroom, or courtroom of precipitating thumbs and upturned noses each thoroughly satisfied at your demise? What if, rather than an immediate crown of glory, your last stand is followed by professional disgrace, financial hardship, social excommunication?
Much has been made of the increasing persecution of Christians around the world, whether the brazen death-dealing of a Caliphate reborn or the general sneer of the West at the faith that birthed it. The specter of real suffering is rising for many of us for whom the idea of persecution has hitherto resided only in the untroubled past or romantic ideal. We know that we should be willing to suffer and die for our faith, maybe we’ve committed the relevant verses to memory. Now, for the first time, we are asking ourselves what comes before the blaze of glory; groping to “count it all joy” when the “various trials” we encounter are both excruciating and mundane.
We are coming to terms with the fact that we have not practiced dying. Outcasts are ready to be martyrs; children of privilege require preparation. We who are accustomed to open doors, wealth, and influence have so much to lose, we don’t know how to be thankful for the gift of life. A thousand small deaths stand between us and the moment of truth before the mob. Maybe we have asked ourselves if we are willing to die for the Lord, but not what we are willing to let Him kill. Take my life? Fine–I’m courageous as can be. Take my comfort, my power, my stuff? I wobble.
It is precisely to these miniature martyrdoms God calls us. The cost of following Christ is turning our worship from the trifles that surround us to His infinite worth. He knows what stands in the way, and when He tells us what must be cast off, may we not be like the rich young ruler who “was saddened, and went away grieving,” for our beloved possessions (Mark 10:22). The eye of the needle stares us down, and paradoxically the strength to forsake all for Him must be given to us by Him as well–”with people it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:26).
The Apostle Paul tells us to “put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5) in order to “put on the new self.” This our forefathers seized as the discipline of mortification, recognizing that there is no sanctification without such daily murder. Every new birth of holiness in our hearts corresponds to a mangled sin excised from within. In the Colosseum of our hearts, we are both gladiator and bloodthirsty crowd. Death by death, we practice. Our faith, invigorated by battle with our nature, is trained for assaults from without. Until we recognize this, we will not be ready to give honor and glory to God for whatever persecutions may come.
So it has been, and so it will be. Ours is a liturgy of blood. Death is life unto us.
Originally from my other blog.