The Martyrs Witness to the Finitude of This Life

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “The Martyrdom of St. Agatha” (1750)
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “The Martyrdom of St. Agatha” (1750) (photo: Public Domain)

About two years ago, my eldest daughter at the age of four showed me a painting of St. Agatha’s martyrdom that she found in a children’s book of saints. The painting shows a deathly pale St. Agatha after the torture impose upon her of cutting off her breasts, gesturing in a pleading manner up to Heaven. A sorrowful looking woman is holding her from behind, pressing a bloodied cloth against the wound. And her breasts are being carried away on a platter. My second daughter at a similar age was fascinated by this painting and by this martyrdom, in her turn. She still has a great devotion to St. Agatha, though she has not yet asked to carry a basket of bread to the All Saints day party at our church. I will say that I have not yet been explicit with them about the details of her death.

My children’s wonder at martyrdom has always been prevalent in our discussion of the saints, and the manner of the saint’s death is often the first thing they inquire about. Christians should draw strength from the witness of the martyrs, and in my children’s youthful innocence, they see something appealing in martyrdom, in making a sacrifice.

The love of the martyrs and our love for the martyrs are such a rich part of church history. Christ himself said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend. You are my friend if you do what I command you” (John 15:13-14). And then he went and laid down his life for his friends. All of the apostles but John were martyred, and the early church was full of martyrs.

More recently, we have been hearing in the news about the persecuted Christians; those fleeing for their lives, those losing their lives, those refugees, and most recently the murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel at Holy Mass. Everyday I think of those Christians and their families, all that they don’t have because they live in a place where they are not safe because of their religion. I look at my favorite creature comforts of my comfortable home. Things like clean running water, hot showers, cell phones, the Internet at my fingertips, a food garden in my backyard, easy access to food at a grocery store, new clothes to wear, and above all, reading peacefully in bed. But the martyrs and the persecuted Christians help me to realize that all of these things are passing.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

What does man gain by his toil at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, a generation comes,

but the earth remains forever. (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4)

It is all a vanity. What does it matter that I have these things now; when it all will ultimately be taken away, and all that will be left is me before my Maker standing in judgment of the life I have lived? And I pray that with this judgment comes also His mercy. What am I doing with the vanities of this life? Yet, I am living in relative safety, for now, but am I living like I could die at any moment?

The recent events of history show me that I could be anywhere when my life comes to a sudden, violent end. I also could die in any number of other sudden ways. There is and there always has been turmoil in the world. There are accidents. There is disease. And what do we gain by all of it?

What has been is what will be,

and what has been done is what will be done;

and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already in the ages before us.
(Ecclesiasates 1:9-10)

In the traditional breviary there is the reading at Prime, which was suppressed as a canonical requirement in Sacrosanctum Concilium, from the Roman Martyrology, which goes through a litany of those martyred the next calendar day. The morning after the death of the priest at the altar in France at the hands of extremists, my husband and I prayed Prime from the brieviary of 1911. It was my first time praying from the Martyrology, and the list of those who were martyred and the various ways in which they were was long.

For example:

On the same day are commemorated many holy martyrs in the Thebaid, in Egypt, who suffered in the persecution under Decius and Valerian, when the Christians eagerly accepted death by the sword for Christ's name's sake, and the subtil enemy, seeking to slay souls rather than bodies, invented slower paths to death. One of them, after he had conquered the rack, and plates, and vessels of heated metal, had his hands tied behind his back and was smeared with honey, after which he was set in the burning sun, exposed to the stings of bees and flies. Another was tied down softly among flowers, and a shameless harlot was sent to excite him to lust, but he bit off the end of his tongue and spat it into her face as she was cajoling him. (From July 27, 2016, Prime, Divino Afflunto).

And on it went until after many tortures there was a martyr who was beheaded. My thoughts flew to Fr. Jacques Hamel, and I wondered if maybe one day, he too, will be in the Roman Martyrology. The Church has yet to declare if he is one. However, his death should remind us to refocus on the very fact that the Church has been built upon martyrs and that we should expect to be persecuted, for Christ told us that we would be. Blessed are those who are! We are persecuted all over the world for standing for and believing in truth. We should read about the martyrs and take courage in their witness to the faith even unto death.

As it turns out, there is a new edition of the Roman Martyrology published in Latin in 2004, but there seems to be no approved English translation of the whole of it. If we had it available, one could daily pray from it in a Church approved liturgical action in private prayer with all of the saints canonized since the older editions. However, there is an English edition from 1914 available online which we can pray from to the martyrs for daily courage in our Christian lives. Further, those obligated by canon law (ordained clerics) were given permission in Summorum Pontificum to use old form of the breviary, which has the hour of Prime with the daily Martyrology. The lay faithful, who have no canonical obligation to pray the breviary may pray any of the hours that they may like, and there are great online resources which make it very easy to do so.

Like my children, I have always prayed to and read about the martyrs. In my youth, St. Maria Goretti was one of my patrons, and in my adulthood I have read about so many more. Let’s read about martyrs. Let us pray to the martyrs. Martyrdom and persecution are nothing new in history of Christianity; it has always happened and it always will happen until Our Lord comes again. And we must take courage and have faith as we remember that this Earthly life is a finite life, and the life we are really living for is the one to come.