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Appeal for witnesses

May 4, 2015

Monday 4 May 2015       The Feast of the English Martyrs

Acts 7: 55-60              Matthew 10: 17-20

Martyr is the Greek word for ‘witness’ – and it originally meant simply that – it was used for someone who could say what he or she had seen and heard. But before the first generation of Christians had died, the word ‘martyr’ took on a different meaning, describing a special witness who at any time might be publicly challenged to deny their faith, at risk of death if they refused under penalty of death. Most commonly those who were persecuting the first Christians would demand that they offer sacrifice to the pagan Roman gods. If they refused, they would be killed. You see, under Roman rule, everyone in the Roman Empire was required to worship the Roman gods – with one exception: the Roman uniquely allowed the Jewish people to worship their God. So this meant that after a Jew had embraced Christ and was baptised to become a Christian, they were no longer a Jew, no longer exempt from pagan worship, and the penalties if they didn’t. As the early years of the Church passed Christians were increasingly expelled from their synagogues: at any time from then on they faced the very real threat of suddenly being denounced and told to worship the pagan Roman gods on pain of death. A horrible threat hanging over their lives – they were ‘living martyrs’, ready to die at any moment. (Incidentally, that’s why cardinals wear red: it is a symbol of blood, that they are ready to give up their lives for their Faith at any moment, that is what cardinals vow to do. They are ‘living martyrs’.) They were living martyrs, ready to die at any moment.

So the word martyr began to be applied to someone who was a witness of Christ, someone who, although they had never actually seen nor heard Jesus in the flesh, was so convinced of the truths of the Christian religion, that they would not deny Jesus, even if it meant death.

As I mentioned yesterday, St Stephen was ordained as a deacon and is recognised as the first Christian martyr. He was denounced by the mob after being challenged about his Christian beliefs. The stoning of Stephen, that we have heard this morning, which actually sounds more like a lynching by a mob – he wasn’t handed over to the Romans, was written in such a way by Saint Luke in the Acts of the Apostles so as to make his readers see a direct parallel between the death of St Stephen and the life and death of Jesus:

For example, Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit”. In today’s gospel we heard Jesus had tell his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come to their aid when others condemned them for their faith[i]. This is in contrast to his accusers, who have resisted the Holy Spirit, thus joining those who, throughout the history of the Jewish people, had refused to listen to the prophets, who had rejected the prophets of God and had killed them.

St Stephen shouts out that he “can see heaven thrown open”. And that is very similar to Luke’s description of what happened at the baptism of Jesus:

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened….”    (Luke 3:21)

We are then told that the mob of his accusers then “rushed at him and sent him out of the city” – that’s an echo of when Jesus preached in the synagogue in Nazareth and the people tried to stone Him to death:

“They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.” (Luke 4:29)

(Actually, that’s what stoning was: you would throw someone from a great height and they would be killed; and if they weren’t killed they would finish them off with stones. That’s why we think St. Stephen’s death was a ‘lynching’ – they didn’t do it the normal way.

As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, ‘Lord Jesus receive my spirit.’

…. very similar to the words of Jesus: ‘Father into your hand I entrust my spirit’ (Luke 23:46)

And St Stephen final words are, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’, and then he dies, repeating what Jesus had said immediately before He died: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23: 34)

This drawing of a parallel between the death of Jesus and the death of St Stephen is very deliberate. He satisfies the new interpretation the early Christians were putting on the word ‘martyr’. Stephen was a witness of Christ, even though he had never actually seen nor heard Jesus in the flesh; Stephen was so convinced of the truths of the Christian religion, that he would not deny Jesus, even if it meant his own death.

And that reading is used today for the Feast of the English Martyrs so that reading isto today, when we recall the faith of the English Martyrs for those same reasons, to draw those parallels as we recall the faith of the English Martyrs who were executed during and after the Reformation. The English Martyrs include the 40 martyrs of England and Wales who were canonized 45 years ago.

Incidentally, this means that our own patron, Saint Ambrose Barlow is remembered as one of the English Martyrs today.

Today is chosen as the Feast of the English Martyrs because on this very day in 1535 the first of many martyrs of the English Reformation were executed at Tyburn in London. Those first three martyrs were Carthusian monks.

Very many men and women from England (and Wales) were to follow them to their deaths, suffering persecution for the ancient faith of their country. They shed their blood like Christ and like St Stephen, witnessing to the Truth, refusing to deny the teachings of the Church, offering up their lives rather than denying the True Presence of Jesus in the Mass, remaining loyal to the successors of St Peter, refusing to accept division of the Church for the political convenience of mere human rulers.

Of the many martyrs, forty-two have been canonized,; a further 242 have been declared Blessed; but the true number of those who died on the scaffold, perished in prison, or were tortured and persecuted for their faith cannot now be worked out. The persecution lasted a hundred and fifty years. The martyrs celebrated today came from every walk of life. There were rich and poor; married and single; men and women. We honour their memory today, we ask them to pray for us and for the Church today, and we look to them as role models of what we should do when our faith is tested. We need to ask ourselves – ‘would I be a martyr?’. Like the poor Christian souls in Libya, Syria and Kenya – these people are being challenged now. Will they give up their faith?

Because, let’s be clear, as always happens during persecution of the Church throughout its history, many of us Christians buckle under the strain and conform to the demands of their accusers and persecutors. We must pray to the English Martyrs for the strength to maintain our faith and to give us the strength and resolve to follow their example. To be living martyrs in a culture that is hostile to Christianity.

[i] Luke 12:12

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