By Joel Hess –
“She could never be a saint, but she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.” Flannery O’Connor describes her 12 year old protagonist in her wonderful short story, ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost.’
The Christ is calling for martyrs and the world needs them. Will you answer His call?
After laying out the ‘dirty job’ job description of the Christ to Peter and the disciples, Jesus challenges all who claim to be disciples to be, not a fan on His Facebook page, but a follower as Kierkegaard would say it today. He commands His disciples to deny themselves and pick up their crosses and follow Him. Even more drastically He tells us that if we want to save our lives we will lose them, and those who lose their lives for His sake and the Gospel will find them.
The church right away took this quite literally. Early Christians embraced persecution, even death, due to their allegiance to Jesus. It was considered the highest of honors.
For sure, it is an honor and privilege to be killed on account of Christ. What a powerful witness to the everlasting promises of Jesus. So we applaud those who choose death instead of security when they are asked to deny Jesus or die.
We are very much like O’Connor’s young character who wasn’t much into living the Christian life, being a saint, but was attracted to being a martyr so long as the death was quick. In fact, O’Connor’s heroine goes on imagining a grand heroic finale. We like that. It’s extraordinary and something for movies.
But that isn’t the only way to obey our Savior, to carry our cross, to lose our life, and to be a martyr. Most of us will not be called to such cinematic climaxes, and yet we are still called to lose our life for the sake of the Gospel. I call it chronic martyrdom. Quite frankly it may be a bit harder, as O’Connor’s character complained, than doing it all at once.
We lose our lives and carry our crosses when we act contrary to the way the world would expect.
We do this when we forgive someone who deeply hurt us while the world advises otherwise. “Tit for tat,” mankind demands. We carry our cross when we liberally give to our neighbor and to those in need without setting up a payment plan, or without making sure that we get something back, or at the very least without checking to see if the recipient is a good investment. “What a waste!” our wise conservative friends tell us. “She’ll just use that for cigarettes,” snickers the fellow who smartly put away money for retirement. We look like dead people to the world when we act as if our life and health in this world are not really a big deal. We don’t scratch and claw to gain or hold what we have as if it is all that matters. We can let go of all these things over time, give them to others, even remove them from our lives so as not to make them gods.
When we love our enemies, speaking kindly to them and about them even as insults are hurled, we carry our cross. When YOLO is not our life’s theme, we look like corpses to the world.
This is our martyrdom. This is our chronic cross carrying. This our witness.
It’s not exciting. Hollywood isn’t interested. It won’t make the papers or inspire politicians to protest. You won’t make the pages of “Life of the saints” or “Voice of the martyrs”. It is ordinary and plain like the two pieces of wood the Romans hastily bound together to hang our Lord upon.
We marvel at Peter who was fleeing Rome for safety when he had a vision of Jesus who told him to go back. And back he went; to certain death hanging upside down on a cross.
But what empowered him to die all at once is what empowers us to die every day, slowly. It isn’t Jesus’s stern command. It isn’t out of fear of punishment. Jesus’s warning failed to even change Peter as he quickly discovered himself denying even knowing Jesus as an acquaintance.
No, what empowers us to lose our life is experiencing what Peter experienced after Jesus alone laid down his life: taking the blame for our turning away, our greed, and self-centered lives. Jesus rose again and went looking for Peter not to deny him before the Father, but to forgive and breathe the breath of eternal life into his whole being.
We don’t need to cling to this world as if we only live once! We don’t need to cling desperately to our health, our stuff, even our friends and family. We don’t need to scream for justice, to pay back our enemies, to hold grudges and guard against enemies.
Christ has carried our cross, buried our cross, crushed our cross, so we may embrace our cross and let go of the dust we once called our lives.