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Contemplating Martyrdom: A Test of My Faith

January 15, AD2017 2 Comments


Imagine living in a time when Roman soldiers could walk into your house without notice and demand you show your loyalty by burning incense as a sign of worship to the Emperor. Anyone failing to do this would be given a death sentence. As a Christian in America I have fortunately not faced anything similar to what the early Christians experienced, but I do try to reflect on these events. This is not due to morbid curiosity but as a test of my faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). Placing myself in their shoes, I ask myself: Am I truly willing to die for Christ?

Jesus says, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matthew 16:25-26). Do I take these words truly to heart? Am I willing to do anything and give up everything for Christ? What would my response be if submitted to agonizing torture physically, spiritually or psychologically? Many Christians, past and present, are asked to accept the call to martyrdom. Torture and execution have come in many forms, including crucifixion, being beheaded, impaled with a wheel of spikes, pierced with many arrows, or being burned, yet Christian martyrs were resolute in their faith. Am I ready?

Recently, I came across several accounts of martyrdom and the tactics used for persecution were unsettling and even imaging these scenarios challenged me spiritually. In these cases, the extreme suffering was inflicted to the Christians by torturing those they loved.

Challenged by Silence

In the historical fiction novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, two Jesuit missionaries, Father Sebastian Rodriquez and a companion, have been smuggled into Japan. They were sent to evangelize, serve the Christian people and to search for a priest who was missing. Ultimately, Father Rodriguez is captured by the anti-Christian authorities and is tortured in a most intense spiritual and psychological manner. The persecutors take advantage of his vocation to be a pastor and try to persuade him to apostatize by physically torturing those he loves – the Christian people in Japan. Father Rodriguez convinces himself an act of apostasy in his case would be the will of God and not only an act of mercy but of great love for others.

Even though fictional, this account of suffering allows you to intimately experience a spiritual battle being waged in this Father’s soul. His reactions to horrific events were natural and relatable – fear, anxiety, selfishness, confusion, pain, love, concern and self-deception. But in the end, he tramples on the face of Christ, apostatizing from the faith.

Though shocking to see this priest defile Christ symbolically and succumb to his persecutors, the story left me in deep meditation – what would I have done? With those most dear to me being brutally treated, could I have stood firm in my faith, trusting in God and His providence? Putting myself and those I love in this same situation is painful even to imagine!

Martyrs in Aleppo

I then came across a story on the internet of an attack in Aleppo by members of ISIS last year. A Christian man faces a similar situation to the priest in the book Silence, though in this case, the threat is not fictional. This father was forced to witness the terrorists cutting off the fingertips of his twelve-year-old son, one by one. They would stop if the Christian father would convert to Islam. The father remained steadfast so they brutally beat his son. When this was unsuccessful, the father and two other Christians with him were severally tortured. Refusing to apostatize, the father, his son and the two other Christians were crucified.

In another location in the city of Aleppo, eight people were tortured by ISIS and commanded to convert to Islam or be executed. Included in this group were two Christian women who were then raped before a crowd of people involuntarily watching this ordeal. It would only take speaking out and accepting Islam and this would stop. But these eight were willing to endure until the end, standing firmly in their faith in Christ. For that they were finally beheaded.

Jewish Saints

Even just imagining myself in the above situations is spiritually distressing. The thought of a situation where my failure to apostatize would then be the cause of continued anguish to those I love is hard to bear. It brings to my mind the question: Am I willing to lay down everything for Christ – not only my life but all attachments even to those I love? Can I have the courage and strength to persevere? Is my trust and hope in God genuine and devout?

Reflecting on these things, I remembered the account of the heroic Jewish mother and her seven sons found in Maccabees 7:1-42. They all accepted death with the hope of resurrection and are even implicitly referenced in the book Hebrews as the Old Testament Saints are recalled (11:35). Re-reading their experience was inspiring.

The setting for the book of Maccabees is when the Greek King Antiochus IV Epiphanes was reigning over a vast empire including the land of the Israelites. One demand of the Greeks was for all to submit to their culture and way of life, including accepting their pagan gods. Refusal to obey was a death sentence. Reading the two books of Maccabees, some of the Jewish people do succumb to the pressures but many remained very faithful despite the consequences.

A Mother and Her Sons

In 2 Maccabees 7, an Israelite woman and her seven sons are arrested and confronted by the king. They are commanded to consume swine as a sign of their submission to the Greeks and as an act of disobedience to God’s laws. If they refuse, they will be tortured and executed. One by one the seven sons are ruthlessly tortured in front of the mother who could free herself and her sons from these torments if she would simply repudiate their Jewish faith.

The first son had his tongue cut out, then was scalped and had his hands and feet amputated. He was then laid into a pan and fried to death. Each of the next sons was taken and treated in the same manner as the first. Before being tortured the youngest son was bribed with great riches but remained unwavering in his faith causing the king to torture him worse than the others. Finally, the mother, refusing to turn away from God, is executed.

The mother and her sons exhibited great saintliness during these trials. Encouraged by their mother, all had complete trust in God’s promise of resurrection to new life for those who are faithful and obedient. They accepted their sufferings as penance for their sins, offering them up to God. Acknowledging God who created all things out of nothing and who alone was responsible for their existence, they could not infringe on His laws. In their holiness, love for God towered above everything in this world including their own life and the lives of those most dear to them.

Throughout this ordeal, we are even told “the mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord” (2 Maccabees 7:20).

God and His Grace

With these inspired words in the Old Testament Scriptures, God clearly teaches us what it truly means to love Him above all things. Contemplating these harrowing circumstances is a test of faith. Are we prepared for the possibility of persecution? Are we ready and willing to die for love of Christ?

God, knowing our limitations, consoles us if we listen to Him speaking through St. Paul: “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). We are to trust in Him. Regardless of the form of persecution, the divine assistance of grace will give us supernatural courage and strength to endure to the end.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said on August 11, 2010, in his General Audience:

(W)here does the strength to face martyrdom come from? From deep and intimate union with Christ, because martyrdom and the vocation to martyrdom are not the result of human effort but the response to a project and call of God, they are a gift of his grace that enables a person, out of love, to give his life for Christ and for the Church, hence for the world. If we read the lives of the Martyrs we are amazed at their calmness and courage in confronting suffering and death: God’s power is fully expressed in weakness, in the poverty of those who entrust themselves to him and place their hope in him alone (cf. 2 Cor 12: 9). Yet it is important to stress that God’s grace does not suppress or suffocate the freedom of those who face martyrdom; on the contrary it enriches and exalts them: the Martyr is an exceedingly free person, free as regards power, as regards the world; a free person who in a single, definitive act gives God his whole life, and in a supreme act of faith, hope and charity, abandons himself into the hands of his Creator and Redeemer; he gives up his life in order to be associated totally with the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. In a word, martyrdom is a great act of love in response to God’s immense love.

Let us continue to pray for the outpouring of His grace into our hearts so we can overcome all of life’s difficulties, especially if one day we are called to martyrdom.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Allison Tobola Low is a lifelong Catholic, passionate for sharing Christ and the Catholic faith with others. She works full time as a physician in Tyler, Texas, and also received a Master's degree in Theology from the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. Allison finds time to teach and share the Catholic faith every opportunity she can find, including being a catechist for Adult Faith Formation and RCIA at her local parish. Allison enjoys giving talks in parishes on a variety of faith-related topics and is also a regional leader for St. Paul Street Evangelization. Her website is where you can find short simple Catholic videos she creates (that are especially for children/young adults).

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