This is cercis siliquastrum, the Judas Tree:
It is, according to legend, the type of tree from which Judas hanged himself, and its once-white blossoms blushed with shame to be part of such a terrible history.
Or perhaps it’s called the Judas Tree because the clusters of blossoms sometimes hang from the branches, suggesting a hanging man.
Or maybe it’s all just a mistake: its French name–“Tree of Judea”–misunderstood as “Tree of Judas.” Legend is funny that way.
The Wednesday of Holy Week is sometimes called “Spy Wednesday”: a reference to the day Judas allegedly made his deal to betray Christ. There is a lot of lore surrounding Judas, invented as an attempt to fill in the gaps in the Gospel narratives.
Jacobus de Voragine relates some wild tales about Judas in the entry for St. Matthias in The Golden Legend. Jacobus admits that these are legends and we shouldn’t put too much stock in them, but they open an interesting window into Medieval perceptions about the figure of Judas, which are not at all as simplistic and some might think.
For example, we are told that his mother–Cyborea–has a premonition that her son would be the downfall of her people. He told her husband, Ruben, and when the boy is born they set him afloat in a basket.
The baby washes up on the shore of an island called Scariot, whose Queen is lonely and childless. She takes the baby in, hides him, and then feigns pregnancy and produces the child as her own nine months later. The King is overjoyed to have a son, and Judas is raised in royal style.
Shortly thereafter, the Queen becomes pregnant, and the two little princelings grow up together. Judas, rotten to the core, mistreats his brother, and the Queen begins to resent the foundling. Eventually, the truth comes out, and Judas slays the true heir to the throne, then flees to Jerusalem.
There, he enters the service of Pilate, who sees a kindred spirit in the wicked young man and puts him in charge of his household.
One day, Pilate spies a field of fruit and is overcome with a desire for some. He sends Judas off to gather it, whereupon he gets in an arguement with the field’s owner: his real father, Ruben. Judas slays the man, and Pilate gives all of Ruben’s property and his wife to Judas.
Judas finds his wife/mother in misery one day, and asks her what is her sorrow. She pours out her entire tale, at which point Judas realizes the true horror of his situation. Cyborea urges him to seek out and follow Jesus, beg forgiveness for all his crimes, and repent.
This Judas does, but his wicked tendencies cannot be checked, and he soon begins stealing money entrusted to his keeping. He rages against the 300 silver pieces spent on the ointment, and then betrays Jesus for 30 silver pieces. The amount is chosen because Judas had been skimming one-tenth of the purse, and the price of his betrayal was the amount lost from the purchase of the ointment.
Finally, after his betrayal, Judas repents once again, but swallowed up by despair he kills himself by hanging: his stomach bursting and spilling his bowels upon the ground. It was deemed fitting that he was burst open, so that the lips that kissed Christ should not be defiled in death, and that the bowels which had conceived the betrayal should burst, while the throat that uttered traitorous words was strangled. Moreover, he died hanging in the air, thus offending neither the heights of heaven where the angels dwell nor the earth where his fellow men roamed.
We see a lot of the Medieval imagination and misunderstanding in these tales. First, there is the strange mash-up of the stories of Moses, Cain and Abel, Joseph, and Oedipus, but through a dark, inverted lens. It suggests the inherent evil that appears bred in the bone of Judas, known even to his parents before his birth. His attempts to repent end first in backsliding, and then in suicide. He is the very image of a cursed figure.
Yet the classical motifs suggest a strange, uneasy overlay of fate in his story. Oedipus, for example, wasn’t inherently evil, but rather fated to be a tragic figure. It was the role picked out for him by the gods. It’s an element that sits uncomfortably on the story of Judas, who was a more active agent in his own downfall. The very notion of the crushing whims of inexorable fate is anti-Christian to its core.
Some Gnostics, and later some Muslims, regarded Judas in a better light. The Gnostic Gospel of Judas depicts him as an active figure in the ministry of Christ who helped free Jesus of his body, while the very late Gospel of Barnabas offers a Muslim-style Judas who takes the place of Christ on the cross. Different movements imagine the Judas they need.
But today, we remember the more straightforward figure of the traitor, a man who robbed from the poor and betrayed the son of the living God. It’s fitting that, although Judas is not a saint and the only one of the twelve not on the calender, we remember him on this day. He’s there as a warning, because each of us, every day, betrays Christ in ways small and large.
Judas didn’t just know the truth: he walked with the Truth. If he can fall so far, what of us?
We must not fear the unknown in our faith, but rather embrace it. There is no reason to be ashamed by the inscrutable aspects of God. Instead, we should point to these very mysteries as proof of His Being, for only when we stand in mystical awe do we truly experience the One worthy of worship.
Our finest moments in life lie beyond words: the inward tremor at a piece of music, the awe at nature’s grandeur, the silent symphony stirred within us by a work of art, the wonder of holding a newborn child, the thrill from the touch of a lover’s hand. All this and more is beyond words, beyond reason or mechanistic explanations. They are in the realm, not of emotion, but of pure experience.
There are thin places where the numinous charges the material world and makes the mystical encounter with God possible. More: their utter irreducibility to mere language points directly to God. My own mystical experience is so far beyond the ability of words or reductionist explanations that I never even speak of it directly, and words are my living. There are things beyond knowing, beyond even feeling: things that the poet grasps better than the scientist, and which neither grasps fully.
The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms–this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.
If the source of all that is had brought forth a world that could be grasped by our unaided intellect, he would be pretty poor deity. He dwells in absolute mystery, and we shall never grasp the essence of that mystery until we see face to face. Revelation can unveil Him only in part, and even then we can only know the depths of these mysteries by analogy. Since we know God is, and we know God cannot be grasped by unaided reason, the rest of the faith flows naturally. The evidence of our reason and sense, the gradual revelation by God himself, and the ultimate act, in which God shows us His face in the incarnation.
Only mystery draws us in, inviting us to a deeper relationship with the unknown and unknowable. A mystery only inspires and drives us forward until it is solved, after which is is filed away and forgotten. God dwells in everlasting mystery, and like the veiled lover, this is why we pursue Him.
I joke. I love Lent, at least since I’ve learned to meet it not as my Everest to be conquered, but as 40 days in the desert with Christ.
That’s a pretty tall order to fill, and our forebears in the faith used to do it with hard Lents that saw them eating one major meal a day and giving up meat, eggs, and diary for the entire period. Indeed, it’s a practice still followed by some our separated brethren in the Eastern churches.
That option is certainly open to modern people, but it’s probably not the ideal for most of us. Life has changed significantly. For long periods of history, people only had one major meal a day anyway, with dairy and meat not always on the menu for many classes.
Does this mean we’ve gone soft?
Of course it does, but it also means that getting back to that spiritual fighting weight is a formidable task made more difficult by a simple fact of modern life: the culture is not fasting. When Christendom was ascendant, everybody observed the fast in the same way. Today, if you want to observe, say, a medieval fast, you’ll be the odd one out. Even Catholics aren’t doing it that way. This has to make it more difficult.
I’ve tried the hardcore stuff with varying levels of success and failure, and found that, for me, the road through Lent is best taken one step at a time rather than with some grand itinerary.
The point of our time in the desert is to draw nearer to Christ. There are three ways to live Lent:
- Carrying the cross with Christ by sharing a small portion of His suffering.
- Emulating Him in acts of charity and kindness.
- Drawing near to Him in prayer and spending time at His feet, learning from him through Scripture and spiritual writing.
And so, this is the way I make my Lent.
Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me
I observe the required fasting and abstinence, but I’ve found that giving up X or Y doesn’t really do anything for me. I make my fast day by day, choosing something each day to bypass and offering that up, in this season, for the deliverance of Middle Eastern Christians.
One day I may observe a full fast, while on another I’ll choose to forgo something I want. It works for me because it makes each item a choice and each choice is linked to an intention. “Forty days without chocolate” doesn’t work for me as well as reaching for a beer and saying, “No” to myself.
That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
Whatever You Did to The Least of These, You Did to Me
Each day should be lived in caritas, but in Lent that charity should be more focused, more intentional, more deliberate. One kind deed a day should be a goal for every day, but in Lent, we should reach beyond and in so reaching, connect those acts to some intention. Sometimes, the most charitable thing I’m capable of on a given day is not throttling someone who richly deserves it, and that just doesn’t count.
I also don’t leave the house very much, which is common for freelancers. On those days, when an opportunity to do good doesn’t present itself, I plan to donate some money to a worthy cause.
This year, we’re planning to get the whole family out to do some works of mercy, either visiting the seniors or the soup kitchen. We are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, shelter the shelterless, bury the dead, visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, warn the sinner, counsel the doubtful, pray for the living and dead, bear wrongs patiently, forgive, and comfort.
These things, too, we should do all year round, so Lent is our chance to make it intentional, reaching beyond ourselves and our comfort zones.
To best do this, I try to live Lent every moment I can, and ask myself, “Am I doing all I’m capable of doing, or simply doing what’s comfortable and easy for me?”
Could You Not Stay Awake One Hour With Me?
The devotional and prayer parts of Lent are easiest for me, and the ones I look forward to. It’s not a burden for me to take on an extra course of spiritual reading or prayer, and thus this part of my observance has no penitential aspect.
That’s okay. The fasting and abstinence is our cross and therefore our penance. Prayer and spiritual reading is for our growth, to help us draw nearer to Christ.
Naturally, this means observing the Holy Days, praying the Station of the Cross, and making a better effort at daily prayers, however we perform them.
For me, it means adding an extra hour of explicitly spiritual (rather than historical or purely theological) reading each day. My devotional plan looks something like this:
- Bible reading—about 15 minutes at the start of each session.
- Praying With the Creed: Meditations from the Oratory—35 meditations on the creed by Fr. Groeschel
- Roman Guardini’s The Lord—A spiritual masterpiece that rewards repeated readings and deep meditation.
- The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism—a handy grab bag of writings by the saints on their encounters with God
- The Golden Legend—As always.
- Various writings by Pope Benedict XVI—His voice gives me such comfort, so I will be selecting different writings by him throughout the 40 days, but will focus on his catechesis on prayer.
We’ll also do the daily readings as a family.
With the exception of the Bible and the Creed meditations, I plan to rotate through the other reading with no particular agenda, simply being guided by the Spirit.
If all this seems rather loosey goosey, it is, and intentionally so.
Over the years, I’ve made hard, structured Lents both well and poorly. This year, I choose to be led through Lent by the Spirit rather than drawing a map and an agenda and charging through with grim determination. I want to be open to the action of grace, and so I’ve chosen some structured elements and some general intentions. What this will mean in practice is uncertain, since
I’ve never tried it before. It could be a complete washout, as I fall into old habits.
The best things I can do to make a good Lent is
- Remind myself daily of the season and its purpose.
- Leave my comfort zone and put myself on a path so the Spirit can do his work.
- Remember that this is not a mountain to be climbed or a marathon to be won, but a long walk into Jerusalem at the side of The Lord, and the best thing I can do on that walk is accompany him, emulate him, and be taught by him.
The best things you can do in Lent is a) be present to the Lord and b) be present to your fellow man, whether that means, for you, daily mass, the rosary, and a holy hour or five minutes of silent prayer at the end of a tired day; an hour playing cards with the elderly, or simply making lunch for your kids each morning. Lent finds us where we are. We yield, we act, we pray, and in unity with the communion of saints and Christians everywhere, we hold up these things as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
How broken is Europe?
That’s their response to the murder of twelve of their fellow journalists at the hands of jihadists.
You cannot measure my indifference to the wholly imaginary thing called “Islamophobia,” which, like “homophobia,” is a way to pathologize those who disagree with a dominant narrative. A phobia is an irrational fear. In this case, it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about a religious movement that has rained blood on the world since its so-called “prophet” claimed to have the final word of God to man.
There’s nothing gained by sloppy sentimentality at moments like this. Charlie Hebdo and its staff were no friends to anyone of belief. They were cynical, nihilistic, and blasphemous, as is their right in our post-Enlightenment, pluralistic world. This relativistic individuality may or not be a good and healthy thing, but now isn’t the time for that debate.
What’s obvious is that these writers,editors, and cartoonists were able to offend Christians and Jews without any fear of reprisal. They published one of the most offensive cartoons I’ve ever seen. I’ll link it here, but be warned in advance: it shows Jesus (crown of thorns, holes in his hands and feet) sodomizing God the Father and being sodomized in turn by the “Holy Spirit.”
There’s no deeper meaning in the image: it’s just a child’s outburst. It’s offensive, yet I never considered killing anyone over it. My religion makes it clear that kind of reaction would be a violation of God’s laws. Islam, however, is considerably less clear on the subject, with both the Koran and the Hadith offering dozens of passages alternately urging violence and peace. And therein lies of the problem of the West’s long and violent interaction with Islam.
The outpourings of solidarity and sympathy in France and beyond show that we are still capable of shock and outrage. Good. We’ll need it.
The other thing we will need is faith. A pallid secularism can’t defend against a diseased religiosity. Only a healthy faith can drive out a sick one.
I don’t have any illusions that we’ll see a huge turning to Christ in France. Anti-clericalism has been part of that nation’s very flesh and blood for too long. But there is something deeper in there, down in the bone and sinew: the Christianity that made France great.
All Europe and the secular west has been feeding like a vampire from that Christian heritage for two centuries without acknowledging that Christ is the wellspring of all our values and freedoms. Since that wellspring is the very living water Himself, it will never run dry, but the walls of the well are crumbling. Even the great cathedrals, built as living prayers in stone to last for centuries, are just piles of rock without faith, as the prayers that made them live fade into a distant echo. Europe is hollowed out, cherishing abstract notions and values without any transcendence or roots. It can’t survive long in this state without something breaking.
It’s rather poignant that the #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) slogan looks so much like “Jesus is Charlie.” As much as the people of Charlie Hebdo disdained Christ, they found themselves at the foot of the cross nonetheless, as we all do. Their deaths are tragic, grotesque, and enraging, but they needn’t be futile. There is meaning even in tragedy.
For now, from across the sea, in a nation that doesn’t forget how much we owe the French, all I can do is offer a prayer for peace in these dark times. May families of the victims find consolation and comfort, and may St. Joan watch over them, strengthen them, and guide them. And may the love and blessings of Our Lord Jesus Christ be a light in their darkness.
This is a short and interesting little video in which Marc Turnage, director of the Center for Holy Lands Studies for The General Council of the Assemblies of God in Springfield, Missouri, uses artifacts to illustrates elements of the New Testament.
There are no ghosts in the New Testament.
We do, however, find the language of spirits and references to death that can illuminate the subject.
When we read passages such as Matthew 8:22 (”Let the dead bury the dead”) and 22:32 (”God is not the God of the dead but of the living”) we may be confused. Is Jesus disregarding the dignity of the dead, or denying the need of people to grieve and mourn? Tobit was deemed a just man because he cared for the dead. Is Jesus saying something different?
We need to read these passages with two things in mind. First, there is the Jewish purity laws governing contact with the dead. The person burying a body would be rendered ritually impure: a kind of “death” that suggests that the “dead” do indeed bury the dead.
Second, there is the pagan background discussed in my previous post, with people sleeping on graves and seeking supernatural aid from the dead. Jesus is saying that God is the God of life and the living, and he grants no special power to the dead. “Why do you seek the living among the dead,” he will say in Luke 24:5.
Jesus has reversed death. Death is conquered, and essentially inverted. “He who saves his life will lose it.” (Matthew 16:25 and Luke 9:24) This is the new life in Christ.
It’s natural, then, for wayward spirits to have no part in this new life, for they represent an intermediary state, neither dead nor alive, that has no place in Christianity.
Ghosts, however, were still part of the culture, and we see this in several places in the New Testament.
»When Jesus walks on water, the apostles mistake him for a ghost. (Matthew 14:26, Mark 6:49)
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” [Greek: phantasma] And they cried out for fear.
»When the women see him after the resurrection, he tells them not to be afraid, most likely because they would have feared he was a ghost. (Luke 28:10)
Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
»When he appears to apostles after the resurrection they believe they are a seeing a ghost.
But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit [Greek: pneuma]. (Luke 24:37)
»In the same scene, we witness again the supposed immaterial nature of ghosts.
See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit [Greek: pneuma] has not flesh and bones as you see that I have. (Luke 24:39–40)
Two Greek words are used to convey the same essential meaning.
Pneuma is a breath of air, and by analogy, a spirit. It is used frequently in the New Testament, both for the Holy Spirit and for evil spirits. For example:
“And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit [Greek: pneuma].” (Mark 1:23–24)
Pneuma appears in Wisdom 17:14-15 with the same meaning:
But throughout the night, which was really powerless, and which beset them from the recesses of powerless Hades, they all slept the same sleep, and now were driven by monstrous specters [Greek: pneuma],and now were paralyzed by their souls’ surrender, for sudden and unexpected fear overwhelmed them. [Wisdom is one of the few OT books composed in Greek.]
Phantasma is what we’d call a ghost: an apparition or phantasm. We find it only in the scene where Jesus walks on the water, suggesting that he is displaying some power (lightness or immateriality) traditionally associated with phantoms.
These passages tell us that the idea of ghosts was known to the followers of Jesus. We also see recognizable qualities of these ghosts: they are immaterial, they’re scary, they represent the restless spirits of the dead, and they are light enough to walk on water, suggesting they float on the air.
Yet at the same time, the New Testament appears to shut the door firmly on the idea of ghosts who can wander the earth. In Luke 16:19-31, the story of Dives and Lazarus suggests that the dead can leave neither heaven nor hell.
In the parable, Dives [which is Latin for “rich man,” traditionally used as the man’s name] passes by the poor man Lazarus without helping him. When they both die, Dives goes to Hades and Lazarus to heaven.
From his place of torment, Dives sees Lazarus resting in the bosom of Abraham and begs him for comfort, or that he at least send a message to his family warning them to change their ways.
Abraham denies the first request, saying
Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us. (Luke 16:27)
Although Abraham rejects the idea of people passing between heaven and hell, he doesn’t directly reject the possibility that Lazarus can return to earth as a spirit. The passage suggests that he won’t, because
If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead. (Luke 16:31)
Augustine used this passage to ground his treatment of ghosts, reading it as a denial of the ability of the spirits of the dead to pass to the world of the living. I don’t see it as quite that clear cut, but it certainly can be read as an indication of the impermeability of the veil separating life from death.
In the next post, we’ll see how Augustine argued firmly against the reality of ghosts, and then how his arguments were gradually watered down by the advance of Catholic culture across Europe in the middle ages.
The posts in this series are filed under Ghosts.
Ghosts posed a problem for the early Church because they seemed to reflect a holdover of pagan belief and superstition. Yet reliable witnesses continued to report encounters with what to appeared to be spirits, and witnesses were not so easily dismissed as they are now. As we head into Halloween, I hope to do a few posts examining the place of ghosts in Catholicism: how have people reacted to accounts of ghosts, and how has the reaction changed over time?
The first place to start is with the Bible, where ghosts are scarce but not absent. The rules governing contact with the dead set the Jews apart from other religions in the ancient world, where ancestor veneration and lavish funeral rites were the norm. Pagans practiced “incubation”: sleeping on a grave in the hopes of receiving an oneiric (dream-state) apparition of the departed with a message or prophesy. Such a practice would run afoul of Jewish purity laws.
Deuteronomy 18-9-13 is pretty emphatic on the matter of necromancy and sorcery:
“When you come into the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD; and because of these abominable practices the LORD your God is driving them out before you.”
The reason for this was very simple: it suggested man could have control over powers reserved to God alone.
Yet ghosts and references to ghosts are found in scripture and must be dealt with if we are to understand the way early Christians treated the phenomena. The most famous instance, of course, is the summoning of the spirit of Samuel by the Witch of Endor in 1 Sam 28. (Also mentioned in 1 Chron 10:13-14 and Sirach 46:23.)
The striking thing about the Witch of Endor passage is how really diabolical it is: this is nothing less than necromancy, which is condemned by both Jews and Christians. Saul himself had prohibited the practice, which is why he meets in secret with the medium.
Saul knows he has done wrong and lost favor with God, but desires to know his fate in an upcoming battle with the Philistines. “The LORD did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets,” (1 Sam 28:6) we are told.
He disguises himself and asks the medium, “Divine for me by a spirit, and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” (1 Sam 28:8-9) The word used for “medium” is “ob,” which may refer either to the necromancer herself, or the object she uses to communicate with the dead, such as a skull. The text leaves out her rituals, suggesting to some that Samuel appears unbidden, thus proving to later readers that mediums have no real power. This interpretation does not appear to be supported by the text, since Samuel is annoyed at being “disturbed.”
The scene is as strange for its language as for its necromancy:
“I see a god coming up out of the earth.” [Saul] said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up; and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance. (1 Sam 28:13–14)
The Christological interpretation would only become clear in the fullness of time, but quite obviously Samuel isn’t even a lower-case-”g” god, which is how the RSV renders “elohim.” The use of “elohim” is provocative here, but the word could also suggest a “spirit” or “divine being” as well as gods and, specifically, Yahweh.
Samuel is annoyed at being summoned from “below” (Hades), but proceeds to tell Saul that he will fall to the Philistines and that “tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me.” (1 Sam 28:19)
The appearance of Samuel challenged exegetes from ancient to medieval times. They offered a wide array of interpretations: it was the devil or a demon taking on the guise of Samuel, it was his reanimated corpse infused with spirit but not his soul (a distinction I won’t dwell on here), it was a phantasm, it was an illusion, it was actually Samuel given permission by God to appear and clothed in flesh that looked like his own, it was Samuel, who had been in Hades awaiting Christ.
This last is suggested by Origen, who examines it at length in his Homily on 1 Kings 28. [1 Samuel is 1 Kings in some numberings.] I do not believe this 5000-word text is online, but it’s found in Homilies on Jeremiah and I Kings 28 (translated by John Clark Smith for Vol. 97 of The Father of the Church series).
Origen’s reading would, in time, be rejected in favor of a diabolical answer. The presence of a fairly extensive medieval art tradition for the scene shows its grip on the imagination, as medieval man came to wrestle more actively with the issue of visions, spirits, and dreams. I plan to address this shift in future posts, first discussing Augustine, the Church Father who developed a kind of “theology of ghosts,” and then the medievals.
There is a minor tradition in art of depicting Christ as the Divine Pharmacist, an Apothecary of the Soul, mixing and compounding the medicine for mankind. In this illumination from a 16th century manuscript, He is shown writing out the prescription to treat original sin. There’s no word on whether Adam and Eve had a co-pay.
There’s a paradox in martyrdom that we must accept even if we can’t reconcile ourselves to it: those being killed because of their faith in Christ are simultaneously tragic victims of injustice and barbarism, and glorious witnesses entering into everlasting life because of their sacrifice. Christ promised little more than this in the world, which would hate us because it hated him first.
In his Exhortation to Martyrdom, St. Cyprian praises those who die for the faith:
And lest anyone become frightened and disturbed at the difficulties and persecutions which we suffer in this world, it must be proved that it was formerly predicted that the world would hold us in hatred and would stir up persecutions against us, so that from the very fact that these things happen the faith of the divine promise is manifest in the benefits and the rewards to follow afterwards, and that whatever happens to Christians is nothing new, since from the beginning of the world the good have labored and the just have been oppressed and slain by the unjust.
The thing is, I don’t want to die for my faith. I don’t even want to suffer for it. I doubt very much that the Christians of Iraq do either. They want to be left alone in their homes in peace to live and love and worship as they choose. These aren’t airy abstractions and pious plaster saints: these are real men, women, and children being brutally murdered.
Few saints sought martyrdom, though many embraced it when the time came. That’s why they’re saints. It’s not that many people have wanted to die for Christ, but that, when pushed to the point of decision, grace gave them strength to hold firm in faith and say, This far and no farther. The promise of something greater awaits.
Christians like to imagine what it would have been like to walk with Jesus in Jerusalem and sit at the Master’s feet. Given what we know of the times, the ministry of Jesus, and human nature, it’s more likely than not that most modern Christians would have been lining the via dolorosa and paying their “homage” not with bent knee and palm branches, but with jeers and spitting. His own friends and followers turned on and abandoned him. Do we think we’re any better?
If I am to be honest with myself, then I must assume that I would have been holding the scourge that drew flesh from His back or the hammer that drove in the nails. Anything more would be hubris. I know what it took for God to drag me back to the foot of the cross from the deeps where I was drowning. I have no illusions about what I would have done had the Master come along with his band of holy outcasts and said “Follow me.”
Likewise, Christians prefer to think we’d embrace that final cross if the time came. I certainly hope I would. I hope my faith would overcome my instinct for self-preservation. If it did, it would only be by the grace of God, which is the most we can hope for when the time comes. We all die, and each only once. Only God can grant us the strength to die on our feet as Christians rather than on our knees as an apostates.
Far worse for the parent is the idea of watching your children not merely die for the faith, but be tortured for it. This is why the story of the mother and her seven sons in 2 Maccabees 7 was an important text for the Church fathers. St. Cyprian references it in his Exhortation, as do St Gregory Nazianzen, St Ambrose, St Augustine, and others in various texts.
The chapter depicts a mother and her seven sons who are tortured and executed by Antiochus for refusing to eat pork in violation of the Law. They are steadfast in their faith, and one after another the mother urges each to keep that faith even as her heart breaks to watch them die. One offers his hands and says
“I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.”
The mother, “her woman’s reasoning [fired] with a man’s courage,” says to them
“I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. 23 Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”
She urges her last child to “accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.”
As a late text which assumes the resurrection of the body as the reward for faith, 2 Maccabees offers a striking prelude to the gospel, and this was not lost on the Church Fathers when they used it for preaching. The youngest son even suggests that their sacrifice will be an expiation not merely for their own sins, but for the sins of the nation:
“For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. 37 I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation.”
We are told in the final line that “last of all, the mother died, after her sons.” A mother would choose to die rather than watching her children killed before her eyes, so we have to wonder at the faith and courage she showed until the end.
She knew what every parent should know in our hearts: our primary goal is not to make our children smart, successful, or accomplished (although these are all worthy goals), but to get them to heaven. Again and again, seven times in all, the mother of Maccabees dashed herself against the ragged stones that were the heart of the king. She did not want fear of a “brief suffering” to keep her children from drinking of the everflowing life offered by God.
As the world continues to mint new martyrs, may we do everything in our power to protect their lives, but may we also pray for them to be strong the last, that faith may sustain them in the darkest hours and that, having suffered, they will attain a reward no army could ever take away.