Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"I am the wheat of God..."

"...Let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may become the pure bread of Christ."
- St. Ignatius of Antioch, martyred in AD 108

A reflection on the Martyrs

The Coliseum in Rome is one of the most famous sites in the world. It has stood  watch over the ancient Roman Forum since its completion in the year 80. It was the Cowboys Stadium of its day, the largest and most advanced amphitheater ever built in the Roman Empire. Even today, as it lies in a ruined state, it impresses visitors to the Eternal City with its sheer size and with its classic, arch-embellished architecture.

In its heyday, the Roman Coliseum played host to chariot races and performance arts. The floor of the venue could even be flooded to stage elaborate mock naval battles for the spectators, which could number around 50,000. Underneath the floor, however, was a vast labyrinthine network of tunnels and holding cells - the last routes for many of the participants in the Coliseum's more nefarious performances: public executions. 

First and second-century Romans were generally known to be measured and decorous in many facets of public life, but they had a real blood lust when it came to entertainment. This was the culture which gave rise to the fight-to-the-death world of gladiators and, as a society, they had a real flair - demented knack, if you will - for creative and extravagant methods of public execution. Guillotines and the  hangman's noose would not have satisfied the crowds which gathered to watch the execution of criminals and "enemies of the republic" such as rebels, traitors, deserters from the army, runaway slaves and... Christians. Those who were unfortunate enough to be sentenced to death in the amphitheater knew that their end would be bloody and very public.

Public executions usually occurred during the noon break when the Coliseum, which operated on a very tight schedule, was between a morning of wild animal hunts and an afternoon of gladiatorial combat. Roman citizens sentenced to death elsewhere in the Empire had the right to appeal directly to the emperor, so many Christians who were Roman citizens ended up being martyred in Rome after an unsuccessful appeal to the emperor. If their death sentence was upheld by the emperor, Roman citizens were exempt, as citizens, from scourging and from death by crucifixion. They were usually beheaded by the sword. This is why St. Peter (a non-citizen) was crucified but St. Paul (a citizen) was beheaded, though they were guilty of the same crime.

Christians and others sentenced to die were often forced into mock gladiatorial combat against trained fighters or may be damnacio ad bestias, "condemned to the beasts" - thrown to a group of wild animals to be mauled and/or possibly eaten. Any wild animal would suffice, but there seems to have been a penchant for the exotic and creatures were imported from all over the empire for this purpose. Records tell us that the condemned were thrown to hippopotamuses, rhinoceros, bears, leopards, crocodiles and lions. If they survived these, the citizens might then be beheaded but the non-citizens would be impaled, crucified or burned alive. And all the while, witness after witness reports that these things were done to men, women and - horrifyingly - even children, on account of nothing other than their faith and their willingness to follow Christ their Lord in all things, even unto death.

But instead of stamping out Christianity, these public executions had the opposite effect: they inspired those who witnessed them and the Church grew. And it grew. Against all odds, the faith grew not by the sword, but by acts of genuine kindness, humble love of neighbor and by the stalwart example of the martyrs. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,"  observed an early Church leader. Those who died willingly and innocently for their faith lived on in the vast numbers that they inspired and encouraged. And so it was, that martyrdom - long before the word became sullied and confused, in our modern language, by those who use faith as an excuse for murdering others - became the basis for constructing a Christian calendar, because the days on which Christians entered into their eternal reward were to be remembered and to be celebrated by those left behind, and the prayers of those "holy ones" (i.e. "saints"), eternally before God's heavenly throne, were to be sought and implored for all of us.

Martyrs for Christ are not a thing of the past. We are willfully (and woefully) ignorant if we tune out the recent news reports of our fellow Catholics who have been slaughtered for their faith in countries such as Iraq and Somalia. Entire communities of Christians have been put under enormous pressure to leave their homes or to face violence. In your prayers, please remember those who would be modern martyrs, those persecuted and abused for the faith in many areas of the world today. Pray for them and seek out the intercession of the saints whose merits and prayers we rely on for help and protection.