Why Does Martyrdom Matter?

We cannot be reborn with Christ until we have first died with Christ

Gabriel von Max, “The Martyrdom of St. Julia of Corsica,” 1865
Gabriel von Max, “The Martyrdom of St. Julia of Corsica,” 1865 (photo: Public Domain)

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.”
—T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

As almost anyone who has been to Mass since the 1970s can tell you, there are four optional Eucharistic Prayers, the oldest and longest of which being the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I), which is hardly ever heard by anyone these days. This is a great pity, of course, and deeply impoverishing, owing both to its obvious antiquity and its undeniable beauty. Indeed, among its many consolations is the fact that, unlike the other three, it includes a list of some of the earliest saints of the Church, including apostles and popes on whom we may reliably depend for help and protection. 

Of the 39 numbered saints in the Roman Canon, nearly all are men, leaving only seven women. However, this is not surprising. Nor should it even matter, for in a Catholic economy, where we distinguish only in order to unite, what unites all 39 is the fact that each died a martyr to the faith we all share. What possible difference can it make in the sight of God if, at the moment of death, Peter is busy being pope, while Perpetua is busy nursing her child? The blood shed remains equally red for each.

The real question to ask is: Why does martyrdom matter? Why is it so highly esteemed by Mother Church? This immediately raises the objection, which has become ever more insistent in an affluent and decadent West, that in regarding so bloody a finale as the finest moment of one’s life, one is being morbid and maybe even masochistic. There are fewer and fewer things that, as the saying goes, we cannot bring ourselves to do. More and more, it seems, dying for Christ is not one of them. Besides, does God really expect that much of us? Does he really require the shedding of our blood as proof that we love him? Do people actually die for their beliefs anymore? I mean, besides Muslim fanatics in search of 72 virgins on the other side? It seems antique — atavistic, even. Sort of like a vestigial organ we can no longer even remember having once used.

So, why not get rid of it? Don’t encourage the practice lest it unduly depress and distress the faithful, right?

The trouble with doing that, of course — and there are far too many who, by their silence on the subject, wish it would just go away — is that once you’ve gone down that road there’s no turning back. You’ll have to put baptism on the chopping block as well since the two stand or fall together. What else is martyrdom if not, as Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us, “the externalization of the logic already implicit in the event of baptism?”

Not to mention all the other sacraments, since the price paid by God to produce them was nothing less than his Son’s death upon the cross. And while you’re at it, you’d better take out Christ, the whole trajectory of whose life is toward that moment — “the hour,” St. John calls it — when his own martyrdom beckons. It is the climactic moment of his life, the endgame for the Son of Man. Can there ever have been a bloodier or more painfully protracted instrument of torture than crucifixion? Even Romans, especially the refined and sophisticated, shrank from the sheer barbarity of the practice.

“The very idea of the cross,” declared Cicero, who died a generation or so before the coming of Christ, “must never pass through their thoughts, eyes or ears.” So shameful an execution was not even to be spoken of among decent and fastidious folk, who, being citizens of Rome, were spared the ignominy of the cross, never mind how heinous their crimes.

The obscenity of crucifixion was not like the last hours of Socrates, with the learned philosopher sipping his hemlock among friends before taking civilized leave of a world too surly to suit his taste. There was nothing civilized about Roman crucifixion. How could there be when the whole point of the exercise was to inflict the most unimaginably concentrated and protracted pain and humiliation? It could take hours to kill a man in that way. Is it any wonder that not until the fifth century in the Church of Santa Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill, would any depiction of the Christian cross that included the corpus, in either paint or stone, be permitted?

It is to this symbol, and the reality it signifies, that we conform ourselves in the Order of Christian Initiation. There can be no sacrament, no grace afforded by the encounter, without that awful, looming presence of the cross. We cannot be reborn with Christ — in other words, raised up and restored to baptismal innocence — until we have first died with Christ and engrafted ourselves onto the flesh of the pierced and crucified God. We’re all in this together. 

In fact, as early as the end of the first century, the fourth Bishop of Rome, Pope St. Clement I, in the only surviving letter he wrote, reminds the quarrelsome Christians in Corinth:

We are all in the same arena, involved in the same struggle. Let us fix our eyes on the blood of Christ, and let us realize how precious it is to his Father, since it was poured out for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance for the whole world.

Stirring words, indeed, from one of those 30 saints and martyrs of blessed memory. How wonderfully Roman of him, too, to strike the authoritative note of traditio, whose use referred not to some dead weight to be handed down, but a living thing to be handed over. And what else could that be but the Blood of Christ, given with the most lavish and reckless abandon to a world avid for redemption, for a deliverance it could never give itself?

One thinks of St. Catherine of Siena, going about her business in the streets of the city, muttering piously under her breath, “the blood, the blood…”