When you are dealing with Saint Augustine, I think it impossible to reduce down to a single favorite quote or passage. The great Father and Doctor of the Church never stops surprising me and that is indeed good. The Second Reading from the Office for this Wednesday in Holy Week is somewhere near the top of the list:
"Dear brethren, the Lord has marked out for us the fullness of love that we ought to have for each other. He tells us: No one has greater love than the man who lays down his life for his friends. In these words, the Lord tells us what the perfect love we should have for one another involves. John, the evangelist who recorded them, draws the conclusion in one of his letters: As Christ laid down his life for us, so we too ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. We should indeed love one another as he loved us, he who laid down his life for us.
This is surely what we read in the Proverbs of Solomon: If you sit down to eat at the table of a ruler, observe carefully what is set before you; then stretch out your hand, knowing that you must provide the same kind of meal yourself. What is this ruler’s table if not the one at which we receive the body and blood of him who laid down his life for us? What does it mean to sit at this table if not to approach it with humility? What does it mean to observe carefully what is set before you if not to meditate devoutly on so great a gift? What does it mean to stretch out one’s hand, knowing that one must provide the same kind of meal oneself, if not what I have just said: as Christ laid down his life for us, so we in our turn ought to lay down our lives for our brothers? This is what the apostle Paul said: Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we might follow in his footsteps.
This is what is meant by providing “the same kind of meal.” This is what the blessed martyrs did with such burning love. If we are to give true meaning to our celebration of their memorials, to our approaching the Lord’s table in the very banquet at which they were fed, we must, like them, provide “the same kind of meal.”
At this table of the Lord we do not commemorate the martyrs in the same way as we commemorate others who rest in peace. We do not pray for the martyrs as we pray for those others, rather, they pray for us, that we may follow in his footsteps. They practised the perfect love of which the Lord said there could be none greater. They provided “the same kind of meal” as they had themselves received at the Lord’s table.
This must not be understood as saying that we can be the Lord’s equals by bearing witness to him to the extent of shedding our blood. He had the power of laying down his life; we by contrast cannot choose the length of our lives, and we die even if it is against our will. He, by dying, destroyed death in himself; we are freed from death only in his death. His body did not see corruption; our body will see corruption and only then be clothed through him in incorruption at the end of the world. He needed no help from us in saving us; without him we can do nothing. He gave himself to us as the vine to the branches; apart from him we cannot have life.
Finally, even if brothers die for brothers, yet no martyr by shedding his blood brings forgiveness for the sins of his brothers, as Christ brought forgiveness to us. In this he gave us, not an example to imitate but a reason for rejoicing. Inasmuch, then, as they shed their blood for their brothers, the martyrs provided “the same kind of meal” as they had received at the Lord’s table. Let us then love one another as Christ also loved us and gave himself up for us."
It is one up on a piece I wrote for friends unknown in Ireland, but may help contextualize my own poor attempt to say something of worth about an issue foremost in the minds of many.
The Persecution of Christians Looms Larger
Even if the June issue of the journal entitled 'CHRISTVS REGNAT' (which is published twice a year by the Catholic Heritage Association in Ireland: www.catholicheritage.blogspot.com) is still a ways off, I thought it appropriate to put down in writing now, during Passiontide, my reflections on the troubling question of the suffering caused through attack on the Church and on Christians, and the duties we owe to our fellow Christians under persecution. I thank Thomas Murphy for agreeing to the publication of this text also on my blog, DEO VOLENTE EX ANIMO (http://deovolenteexanimo.blogspot.com/). As Mr. Murphy pointed out to me when proposing the topic, the persecution of Christians is very much on the minds and in the prayers of the members of the Catholic Heritage Association and ought to be more so for all of us, brothers and sisters in Christ.
As odd as it sounds, I suppose we ought to be grateful that as a Church we can still attract persecution, that our Christianity has not become so lackluster that the power of Satan simply ignores us in the world. The why’s and the how’s of persecution of Christians today are multiple. A short article can’t really do them all justice, but I hope it can set some things clear and motivate all of us to prayerful solidarity on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ, who find themselves, for whatever reason, under trial.
Where to begin? Perhaps we should start with the words “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”? This statement teaches by describing what has happened time and again in the history of the Church: persecution and repression, even unto death, have not stifled but rather fostered the growth of the Church. Not only have their courage and singular attachment to Jesus Christ inspired others to martyrdom, but ultimately and often even quite immediately the accounts of the passio of certain martyrs have drawn others to faith in Christ. Similarly, it can be said of confessors of the faith, who laid their lives on the line for the Lord Jesus, even though the supreme sacrifice of their life’s blood was not required of them.
As Christians, we don’t seek banishment, prison, torture or martyrdom for ourselves, nor do we wish these on others, especially not on our brothers and sisters in Christ, whether close at hand or far from us in terms of space or custom. Nowhere does it say in explaining the quote about the blood of martyrs being the seed of Christians that the Church wishes people to be martyred for the sake of its own increment. We don’t solicit names for some list of martyr volunteers, such that the Church might grow and prosper. We know from the teaching of the Church Fathers, from the ranks of the great and saintly Doctors of the Church, of those who went overboard in their zeal for martyrdom; the Church does not accord them the title of saint because of this excessive longing to the point of provocation, to emulate Christ in His suffering and death; no one calls down martyrdom upon himself, despite his readiness and fervent prayer to receive that grace, as long as it be God’s will and not his own. When martyrdom happens, we stand in awe before the witness of those called to testify with the supreme sacrifice of their own lives to Christ, the King of Martyrs and Confessors.
Part of the art or insight of the novel of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Callista: a Tale of the Third Century”, is to illustrate the inexplicable in all of what came to be for good through the persecution under Diocletian of the Church in North Africa and through the shedding of the blood of Callista in defense of the Gospel. Blessed Newman offers a great and profound gift (and in the form of historical fiction) accessible to all who seek to enter more profoundly into the mystery of the role played by persecution in the life of the Church, then and now, as well as answering the question concerning the stuff of which martyrs are made by the grace of God. Yes, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”, but the mystery is intimately tied to Golgotha; the Gospel of St. John refers to Christ’s Death on the Cross as His being lifted up and drawing all to Himself, His Glorification, yes, but in and through His sorrowful Passion. We stand speechless on Calvary, whether at the foot of His Cross or that of those whose lives most perfectly emulate His through their martyrdom. We are drawn to Him and to them because of the absolute clarity of the witness of their love.
Time and again, we find people grappling with the injustice suffered by those under persecution and doubly so when it regards fellow Christians. Perhaps this is what makes any measure of persecution which may enter your life or mine so hard to accept. It is simply not fair; you don’t heap abuse on people of good will. It is a theme much rooted in the Old Testament with reference to the suffering of the virtuous man or of the innocent (cf. Wisdom 2:1,12-22). The relativism plaguing contemporary society, which denies the truth which comes from God alone, would beat down everything perceived as putting limits on their pretended options and unfettered choices. Of late, there has been much talk on college and university campuses of the so-called “new PC”, a moralizing “Political Correctness” which tolerates no linguistic bounds (not even standard pronouns: he, she, his or her) to their inglorious self-seeking (much of it centered on the topic of gender). Especially in North America and Western Europe, people berate the Church as tyrannical and judgmental, insisting that matters of personality and sexuality are questions of preference, not nature, of a self-centered longing hardly distinguishable from the caprice of the moment. The loneliness, the abandonment of Calvary is very much a part of this path of suffering, to be borne by those who object to such nonsense. Wickedness rejects virtue and turns its back on God; it pushes away not only fraternal correction but any form of counsel, denying even to parents the right to lovingly tell an errant, not-all-that-adult child that he or she is wrong and far from God.
Even in our supposedly civilized world we find Christians ostracized or otherwise persecuted and taken before the courts for defending marriage, for seeking to save unborn children from abortion, for wearing a little necklace with a cross to work. What is it, if not persecution, when court action threatens the possibility of a Catholic school to be just that, namely Catholic, both in its teaching and in its hiring policy? Our Catholic hospitals come under pressure from so-called good Catholic doctors on staff, who for money or prestige want to admit procedures which fly in the face of the unconditional respect due to the human person. Catholic social services are forced to close their doors rather than accept that they must also favor the placement with same-sex couples of children up for adoption. Examples of this kind of discrimination against the Church or believing Christians could be recounted without number. Their common point of departure might be a denial of the existence of objective truth, but they are all shot through with the same venom of that black heart described in the Book of Wisdom, which refuses righteousness its due:
“Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls; for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.” (Wisdom 2:21-24)
This too is persecution, and while short of martyrdom, we pray for ourselves and those thus subjected that by the grace of God they might be of good courage, persevere and through their sufferings bear much fruit for Christ’s Kingdom.
Another image of persecution, however, I would wager is foremost in our thoughts. For most of us, our mind’s eye is filled with images from the news of the last months of the persecution and martyrdom of our fellow Christians from the Middle East and North Africa. Brutal men waving black flags, dumping the lifeless bodies of small children, young men being crucified or shot in the back of the head, or the twenty-one Coptic Christian martyrs brutally beheaded in Libya with the name of Jesus upon their lips! We are confronted with something on the rampage, which touts itself as Islam. It has been almost a millennium, but here we are again threatened with the extinction of Christianity in the lands of its birthplace and first flowering. Not only the Holy Land and its region have witnessed such trials; we need think only of Nigeria and Pakistan. Not only groups professing to be Muslim have been persecuting Christians, as Hindu rage in India would attest. Godless regimes in China and North Korea do not lag far behind in their fury to repress the faith.
We would like to see the leaders of our home countries championing the cause of justice before international forums, but we find groups like the UN to be generally impotent, and our own leaders diffident if not indifferent when it comes to the persecution of Christians. Nobody seems to care much even about the monitoring bodies meant to inform or document this specific type of terror, even as it happens in Europe. Hearts need to change and, as such, we must be confident and persevering in our prayer. Ours is not only a struggle against wicked men but against the powers of darkness. I would recommend the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel for your regular recitation and devotion.
St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.