“If They Persecuted Me, They Will Persecute You”
Martyrdom is the supreme testimony. It is the most vivid and most credible summary of the Gospel.
Martyrs are Christians who take up the cross as Jesus did. They vividly fulfill the condition of discipleship laid down by the Lord himself (Matthew 16:24). They assume the role of Jesus on Calvary. Their death is a proclamation, even when the victim utters no audible words at the end.
No testimony to faith in Christ could be more compelling. In martyrdom, the servant willingly identifies with the Master and consents to dying the same sort of death as he died, suffering the same injustice and humiliation – and gaining the same reward.
This is the case for the two martyrs we celebrate today, Peter and Paul, both of whom were martyred and both who were instrumental in the spread of the Gospel following the death of our Lord. Tomorrow the Church lifts up as well the other martyrs of the early Church in Rome who at that time also offered the supreme testimony.
According to an ancient tradition, all but one of the apostles – Saint John – died as martyrs. But even John suffered persecution that should have killed him and certainly left its marks. Instead of suppressing the Church, as intended by those who perpetrated it, it was persecution that in fact spread the Gospel from one place to another, as the disciples scattered from city to city and their blood served as seed in the ground. Persecution, though it seemed to be a setback, turned out to be God’s providential way of ensuring the growth of the Church.
The earliest traditions tell of Saint Peter fleeing Rome only to encounter Jesus on the Appian Way. Seeing Christ heading back toward Rome, Peter knew he must return there to face persecution and a martyr’s death. Saint Paul also knew death was approaching, telling Timothy, “I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand” (2 Timothy 4:6).
Saint Clement wrote both of the subsequent crucifixion of Peter and beheading of Paul during the reign of Nero, saying that in their deaths in Rome, they are joined in our memory as founders of the Church of Rome. As Saint Irenaeus went on to write, “Since, however, it would be very tedious in such a volume as this to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, [we do this] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul” (Adversus Haereses, III-3:2).
In their suffering, Peter, Paul and the other martyrs imitate Jesus in his witness and fulfill his prophetic words, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20; see also Matthew 10:22)). But they do more than that. Because of their communion, they participate in Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice.
Each time Christ’s one sacrifice is made present in our celebration of the Mass, and each time we read the Eucharistic prayer of the Western Church, we recall by name even today these early martyrs Peter and Paul and many others, including Cosmas and Damien, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecelia, Anastasia. This should enrich our understanding of what martyrdom means.
As the Eucharist is a re-presentation of Jesus’ Passion, so is martyrdom. As the Eucharist is a voluntary self-offering, so is martyrdom. As the Eucharist brings about communion with Christ, so does the act of martyrdom. As the Eucharist is given so that others might live, so are the lives of the martyrs.
This is what Paul meant when he said to Timothy that he was “being poured out like a libation.” Earlier, he had also written to the Church at Philippi, telling them that he would be “poured as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith” (Philippians 2:17). In the first Christian generation, the Apostles saw their own suffering as a sharing in the cup of the new covenant in Christ’s blood, which is poured out for us for the forgiveness of sins.
As we live the liturgy within the Church, we become witnesses together with Peter on the Vatican hill, with Paul outside the walls of the city, and all those martyrs whose blood is the seed of the Church. We too are witnesses to the life we share with Christ. In the Eucharistic Prayer we make the offering with Jesus. And in Holy Communion we receive his life in exchange for our own.
This blog post draws from passages of my book “To the Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness.”