Thursday, February 3, 2011

St Blase, Bishop and Martyr

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 / Matthew 16:24-27

On 11 November 1918, John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces sent to fight alongside the Allies in the Great War, ordered a military assault on the German forces. Although the Germans had signed the Armistice early that morning, and even though it was set to take effect at 11 a.m. that very day, Peshing sent men into combat as late as half past ten. As a result of this offensive, some thirty-five hundred American soldiers lost their lives.

In the year 316, Blase, a man so famous for his powers to cure that even the wild animals came to him for healing and who had been made bishop of Sebaste in Armenia, had his flesh torn by iron combs and his head removed by a sword for the crime of practicing the Christian faith. This was, however, three years after the Edict of Milan had ensured that throughout the Roman Empire, under Constantine in the West and under Licinius in the East, the Christian faith was granted full legal freedom and the restitution of whatever it had lost under the cruel persecution of Diocletian. It was also only eight years before Constantine would become sole emperor of Rome, ensuring that the persecution of Christians in the Roman world would come definitively to an end.

In both cases, the loss of American lives on Armistice Day and the loss of the saint's life under the "Peace of the Church" effected by the Edict of Milan, we have a sense that there is something worse than the loss of life. It is not that the lives of the soldiers who died on 11 November 1918 were more precious than the over fifty thousand combat deaths in the months of combat that preceded. It is not that the holiness of Blase's witness to Christ is greater than the glorious martyrs who died under Diocletian, or Decius, or any number of persecutions before or since. What strikes us, though, is that these deaths seem especially unnecessary. They seem an affront because by all rights there ought not to have been any killings at all. Had Pershing stayed his had, had Licinius and his governors followed the Edict to which Licinius had committed himself, then the brave men who died on 11 November would have returned home as veterans of the Great War, and Blase would have been recalled perhaps as a holy confessor.

However, what the American soldiers revealed unwittingly, and what St Blase manifested in knowing obedience and love, is that no death comes at a right time. Likewise, no martyrdom, no witness of Christ even to death, is more fitting because it occurs in a time of general persecution as opposed to taking place when all else seems to be going well. The conditions for our discipleship to Christ — If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me — are not more true in times of crisis than in times of peace and calm. Our losing of our life for the sake of Christ does not have any less meaning, is no less glorious, if it seems, on human terms, that it "need not have happened."

Our call to martyrdom is universal, as universal as the call to holiness. We ought, every one of us, those who face daily persecution from the enemies of the Gospel and those who live in quiet and comfort in lands more congenial to the Christian faith, are equally called to lose our lives that we might find them in Jesus Christ. If we find the death of a martyr "untimely" because his persecutors ignored that the time of persecution was past, might it be not there there is a tragedy in the martyr's death, but rather an unwillingness to die on our part? Do we, who live at ease in the Christian, or sometimes post-Christian, world, have the courage and love to die for the sake of the Gospel?

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