Saturday, March 7, 2015

On the Feast of Sts Perpetua and Felicity

As Christians we once again live in an age of martyrs. By my inexpert reckoning, we have lived in such an age for roughly the past 100 years. I mark the beginning of this age by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which began in 1917. In that regard, I am reading Fr Michael Plekon's Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church, which profiles the lives and works of leading figures of the Russian Orthodox emigré resurgence. In my view of lives and work of men and women such as Mother Maria Skobtsova, Nicholas Afanasiev, Fr Lev Gillet (a man after my own heart,) et al, was the healthiest development in Orthodoxy and ecumenism perhaps ever. While the bloody, atheistic regime that swept into power in Russia collapsed more than 25 years ago, the number of Christian martyrs is on the rise, as we witness in graphic detail almost every week. Recently we were the blessed recipients of the particularly powerful witness, that is, martyria, of 21 Christian brothers, the so-called "Coptic Martyrs of ISIS."

Holy Coptic Martyrs, pray for us

Let me note, despite the fact that he did so twice, it did not take a public declaration by the Roman Pontiff for these brothers to be revered as martyrs. Given the public approval of the Bishop of Rome, one must ask the question, Why has the Catholic Church not canonized the Holy Martyrs of Baghdad, who were killed celebrating the Lord's Nativity and for no other reason than that they were celebrating the Lord's Nativity, along with other recent martyrs? In order to be considered genuine, or authentic, must their witness be approved by an incomprehensible bureaucracy? Taking my cue from the early Church, I venerate them, but anyway, I digress... (see "we ask that the martyrdom of our people be officially recognized", "'do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul' (Mk 8,35) )," "In Memoriam", and "Sadness in Anatolia").

When we consider Tertullian's observation, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," I think it is important not to merely, or even primarily (perhaps not at all), to think about this in terms of breadth (i.e., quantity- the number of people who will come to believe as a result of the witness of martyrs), but to consider the depth, summons to follow Jesus to the Cross (i.e., quality- imitating Christ, who was crucified).

Historian Dr Christopher Shannon, in a stunning article for Crisis on-line magazine, simply entitled "Sts. Perpetua and Felcity," published three years ago, provided some important insights into both the history and the (super)nature of Christian martyrdom. I am more interested in the latter than I am in the former, even while recognizing that the latter depends on the former for accurate articulation.

Dr Shannon began his piece by observing, "In the early Church, to be a saint was in most cases to be a martyr." While this may shock the ultramontanists among my Roman Catholic brethren, Dr Shannon also pointed out, "The city of Rome earned its privileged standing among early Christians less as the see of Peter than as the home of shrines to many of the earliest Christian martyrs." For the Church to be "apostolic" we must heed the call and be sent to give our lives selflessly for the sake of Christ and to usher in the reign of God.

Sts. Perpetua & Felicity

After surviving her initial exposure in the Coliseum, St Perpetua implored her sisters and brothers in Christ, "Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, all of you, and be not offended at my sufferings." The martyrs today issue us the same exhortation. It is an exhortation, not a plea, by which I mean that Perpetua's words can in no way be taken to mean that the glorious martyrs look to us for approval. They have their approval and their crowns. It is for our own sake that we must heed her words. What Dr Shannon noted three years ago only grows truer by the day: "Today we live in a new pagan culture that once again worships power and despises weakness."

Indeed, as it seems we must be taught over and over again down through time, Jesus' grace is sufficient, "for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9).

Sts Perpetua & Felicity, pray for us!

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