Jesus, Love, and Martyrdom

Does martyrdom begin when a knife is held to your throat? If laying down our lives for another shows the greatest love, can we not show that love unless our lives are taken in violence?

The story has already faded from the headlines — not enough guns or enough people dying for it to stay long in our news cycle — but on July 26th a Catholic priest, Father Jacques Hamel, was killed in a vicious attack. The attack occurred during mass in the church at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, where, despite being of retirement age, the 85 year old had served as auxiliary priest since 2005.

The circumstances of his death and the outpouring of love and appreciation for him from the community he served are cause to consider more closely what martyrdom means for Christians and what it means to show love as Christ did. Christ commanded the disciples to love as he loved. He then added a statement that may be applied to Father Hamel — the greatest love is to give one’s life for one’s friends. After saying this, Jesus went out and did it.

It’s easy to think that when Jesus said this, he was referring to his imminent death on the cross. And we are right to do so. He died for us. He gave up his life on the cross. But stopping there simplifies what Jesus did — and what he said — into one single act.

Dying on the cross was not the only way that Jesus gave up his life for his disciples. On the cross it was finished, not begun. Jesus didn’t just live for himself his whole life and then in one grand gesture, decide to sacrifice his life for all of humanity. He gave up his life for his followers in little moments and big ones, bit by bit, in every minute that he was with them.

When Jesus talked about giving up his life and commanded his followers to do as he did, he hadn’t died yet. What he had just done was wash their feet. He had lowered himself from his position as leader to serve them. And he served them in a way that was unreasonable, even degrading in the eyes of some.

Our laying down our lives for each other as Christ did may include physical martyrdom, but it definitely includes more than that. It is harder than that.

As terrible as Father Hamel’s death was, it was over in nearly an instant, especially when you consider the few seconds — perhaps minutes — of pain and suffering against the backdrop of his 85 year life and his over-half-century of priestly labor. Father Hamel didn’t give up his life for his community on July 26th. He first gave it up when he took up the mantle of calling himself a follower of Christ. He then gave it up formally and vocationally on June 30, 1958 when he became a priest. And he continued to give it up functionally, day-by-day serving the community until the day he died.

Many members of the the community he served, and the priests he served with shared about this before the press cooled to the priest’s tale. Father Hamel served long past his expected time of service. Priests may retire at 75, yet on an occasion of discussing his retirement he is reported to have said, “Have you ever seen a retired pastor? I will work until my last breath.” Then he went out and did it.

Giving up your life for others, doesn’t always mean that you die. Sometimes, you give up your life and still survive. An example of this is the nun, Sister Danielle, who escaped the church as the attackers were distracted while executing Hamel. She flagged down a motorist, and brought the authorities. She did this at risk of her own life had she been stopped, and her action ensured the men could do no further harm to the community.

Father Hamel and Sister Danielle — one running out the door to bring help, one bleeding out on the floor of the church — both gave up their lives to stop further violence. Both took up their crosses, one for the final time and one who will continue to do so for the rest of her life.

Yes. Physically giving up your life — being martyred — on behalf of others is loving as Christ did on one day of his life. But giving up your rights, purposely embracing humiliating servitude to help others, and doing it with a heart of love and not resentment, is how Christ loved us on every other day of his life.

We are commanded to take up our cross daily, not finally. It is in the so-called small, everyday sacrifices that we give our lives for each other. We do it in each hour, each moment, that we remember to not stay in lofty positions as respected teachers and friends, but to lower ourselves, perhaps humiliatingly, to serve each other.

Christ left no doubt that he chose his death. Speaking of his life he stated clearly, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” To follow him, we must choose this as well. However, I believe it is unlikely that we will choose to die for Christ in a moment of extremity and anguish, if we won’t sacrifice for others as he did in the excruciating slog of daily life.

Martyrdom is a very specific type of giving up one’s life and, by God’s mercy, not every believer will face it. But dying through another’s aggression is merely the completion of martyrdom. It doesn’t begin there.

Father Hamel’s martyrdom didn’t begin at knifepoint; it began at an altar. And it is there — at an inner altar of sacrifice — that every believer’s martyrdom should and must begin. We must live as sacrifices every day, ready for any day to be the final day.

It is not through our own bravery or strength that we can do this, but only through reliance on Christ. Relying on their own bravery, Christ’s disciples fled his side, abandoning him and breaking their oaths.

Martyrdom is merely completed at the hands of aggressors. It begins in each of us. Not everyone, thank God, will be a martyr. But every believer who lives, and loves as Jesus commanded, must daily embrace such an end.

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