Wednesday, June 02, 2010

A Week of Witnesses

The way the calendar falls, this entire week is one of commemorations. From the Feast of the Holy Trinity on Sunday through this coming Monday, day after day allows us to reflect on the witness of Christians to the faith we are called to confess in the Creeds. Some of these commemorations are joyful, as in the story of the visitation of the Virgin Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth. Others call us to reflect on the efforts made to renew the Church, and through her the world. June 4th will bring us to the commemoration of Pope John XXIII, and two days later the commemoration of William Passavant, who established the first Protestant hospital in the United States and brought over the first Lutheran deaconesses in 1849. But the other days give us commemorations of martyrs.

These martyrs convey the scope of those who have witnessed to the faith, even unto death. Justin's martyrdom in Rome in 165 A.D. recalls the time of direct persecution in the first centuries of Christianity. He was a student of philosophy, and wrote his famous "Apology" trying to explain Christian teachings. The account of his trial and death show his dignified but steadfast approach to the charges brought against him. Another martyr from that same time is remembered the next day, June 2. Blandina was a slave, and a woman, who was tortured and killed in Lyons in the year 177. Her witness was no less powerful than Justin's, as she kept repeating over and over, "I am a Christian, and we do nothing vile." On Thursday the Martyrs of Uganda are remembered, 32 men and boys who were killed by fire when they held fast to the Christian faith. "In the months that followed, many other Christians died by fire or spear because of their faith. The king's attempt to exterminate Christianity was turned upside down by the example of the martyrs who went to their death singing hymns and praying for their enemies and so inspired many who saw these things to understand that Christianity was truly African and not simply a white religion and to seek instruction in the Christian faith."* June 5th brings us the commemoration of another missionary martyr from an earlier era, as it marks the day of the murder of Boniface, archibishop of Mainz and missionary to the Germans in 754.

A week such as this is an opportunity to remember, and give thanks, for those men and women who went to death trusting and hoping in the resurrection to life in Christ. It is a time to see what runs like a red thread through all of these stories, the conviction that what is done in and for the sake of the Gospel cannot be destroyed, even if one's own life ends before seeing the fulfillment of what one has worked towards. These witnesses, some of whom are known to us by name, others who are only remembered as the companions, the nameless "others," are connected to us through the mystical Body of Christ, through the eternal relationship into which we are baptized when we are claimed by the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, in the faith. Their work and witness allowed the Church to grow and take root in the lands of our ancestors, and their stories encourage us when threats and challenges come to us.

These confessors, martyrs, and faithful witnesses are the living icons through which the life of Jesus Christ shines; they are the broken earthen vessels spoken of by St. Paul, through which the power of God is revealed. The power of the Church is never found in the structures which we construct, as proud as we may be of them. Rather, the power of the Church is in the broken lives of those whose words and actions were "not thought wise," but who continually point to the Crucified One as the only source of life and hope, in defiance of death. In this week, may we also be strengthened in our own witness to the One who is Faithful and True.

*Page 257 from Pfatteicher, Philip A. New Book of Festivals and Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints. Copyright 2008: Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis.