CNEWA Connections: Martyrdom and Mission

In continuing our treatment of the three characteristics of the church, today we will deal with martyria — which has implications and applications for CNEWA in ways we might not realize.

 In English and other modern languages, martyria is translated by two words, viz., “witness” and “martyr,” each with at times quite different meanings. However, in the Greek of the New Testament (NT) one word covers both meanings. Thus, in English we differentiate between a witness and a martyr. The NT is aware of the differences. However, it not only does not differentiate, but sees the two as related.

First, some background from scripture.

In the Hebrew Bible there is a great deal of legal material in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. There are many references to court cases and witnesses (true and false) in those cases. The Hebrew words for “witness” are ʽed, for the person, and ʽdȗt, for the act. This is called a forensic usage because it deals with courts and trials. This is the most common usage in the Hebrew Bible; it appears also in the NT and is common (perhaps the most common) usage in English and other modern languages.

However, even in the Hebrew Bible there are non-forensic usages, often translated “testimony.” In Joshua 24:27, after he makes a covenant for the people with God, Joshua sets up a large stone under a tree in the sanctuary and calls it “a stone of witness.” Likewise, the tent/tabernacle set up by Moses is referred to as the Tabernacle of Witness (Numbers 17:7, 8; 18:2; Acts 7:44). This is not forensic language. The witness here is more a proclamation of the covenant, God’s presence etc.

It is with the NT that the other meaning of “witness” comes clearly to the forefront. It is related to the forensic usage but goes far beyond it. Witness here is the public proclamation that something is true. Jesus is “the faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5; 3:14) and speaks extensively of giving witness to the Father in the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel. After the Resurrection and especially the Ascension/Exaltation of Jesus, his followers are witnesses to the truth of his teachings and resurrection. This is a constant theme in the Acts of the Apostles (1:8; 2:32; 3:15; 10:39, 41; 13:31) where the word used for “witness” is martyr.

It acquired a meaning with explicitly bloody connotations, and for understandable reasons.

Within 30 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians began to be persecuted. There had been some violence directed at Christians in Jerusalem by some of the religious leaders. However, while Stephen was killed, some apostles arrested and Paul more than ready to start a major offensive (Acts 9:1-2), there were Jewish leaders like Gamliel who called for tolerance (Acts 5:34-41).

“Our lives, even our lives as Christians, do not consist of an unbroken chain of the spectacular. Rather they consist in those often small, grace-filled acts which make the Good News of the Gospel credible.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

It was with the fire in Rome in July 64 A.D. under the Emperor Nero that the massive power of the Roman Empire began to persecute Christians. Between the years 64 (the burning of Rome) and the Edict of Milan (Christianity tolerated) in February 313 — almost 250 years — Christians were imprisoned, tortured and killed by the Roman authorities. Understandably those brave and committed believers who suffered death rather than deny their faith became the heroes of the community.

They were called martyrs, “witnesses,” primarily because they proclaimed the truth of Christ and the Gospel before the power of the Roman Empire. It is true that they paid for their witness with their lives; but originally, they were called “martyrs” because of their profession of faith.

As the decades became centuries, a cult of the martyrs developed. It was a cult in the sense that those who witnessed to Christ — and like Christ were executed by Roman power — became the great saints of the early church with feast days, commemorations and churches named after them. The martyrs also became the heroes of the church, in some cases larger than life. It was not long before a “martyr” was by definition one who was killed for their faith. The “witness” was subsumed into “the blood of martyrs.” While the church did honor some as martyrs who did not die for their faith, the overwhelming and ultimately (in the popular mind) victorious understanding of martyrdom was inextricably connected with the shedding of one’s blood.

By identifying martyrdom — witness — with the shedding of blood, and with the forensic notion of witnesses in court, the NT notion of witness has been restricted and, if the truth be told, impoverished. The notion of witness, that of both Christ and the believer, in the NT involves bearing witness first to the Father, who has been revealed in the Son through the Holy Spirit; but it also means bearing witness that Christ is risen from the dead.

This witness, this martyria, is not limited to the shedding of blood — and this is where the word comes to have a powerful connection to us at CNEWA, and all who seek to carry out Christ’s teaching in the world today.

One of the best descriptions of the NT notion of witness, is attributed to Francis of Assisi, who tried to pattern his life on the Gospel.  That description is “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” This “witness” does not exclude the shedding of one’s blood. However, neither does it exclude or diminish the acts of kindness and service, often unheralded and unnoticed, done quietly in the name of Christ and in the power of the Risen Lord.

If the incarnation means anything, it means that the eternal Word of God took flesh and became one of us in all things but sin. In the incarnation, the Christ also took on the “everydayness” of us humans. Our lives, even our lives as Christians, do not consist of an unbroken chain of the spectacular. Rather they consist in those often small, grace-filled acts which make the Good News of the Gospel credible, i.e. believable.

We strive to do this in our workaday lives as Christians. And CNEWA seeks to do this, in ways large and small, through its work among the most vulnerable peoples of the world.

Several years ago, a religious sister, working on a CNEWA project that involved helping many non-Christians, was asked if they were Catholics. Her response was, “No, I don’t do it because they are Catholic; I do it because I am.” That sister is in the full sense a martyr: a witness to the transforming Good News of the Risen Christ. Not many of us, thank God, are called to shed our blood for Christ. That, however, is no reason to excuse us from giving witness to our faith.

This, in fact, is the primary, often unspoken mission of CNEWA — in a beautiful and enduring way, a mission of martyrdom. 

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