Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Great Martyr Barbara

1 Timothy 5:11-21 / Luke 21:12-19

You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost.

In the Arab Christian world, the feast of St. Barbara, Eid il-Burbara, looks, to all appearances, like Halloween in North America. Children and adults dress in masks and costumes, the children going house to house for treats, the adults watching horror films, and even the carving of jack-o'-lanterns. As odd as this celebration may seem, associating the great martyr of the early Church with witches, goblins, ghosts, and ghouls, there is at least some element in the rather rich legend of Barbara to motivate this spooky and fanciful masquerade. In her legend, Barbara, fleeing from her father, who sought to have her put to death because of her Christian faith, made use, along with her retinue, of a series of disguises. Always changing the disguises, her father and other pursuers could not make out who she was, and even when they did, they could not guarantee the next day that she would look the same.

Yet, as in so many stories of the early martyrs, these many escapes, rooted both in her divinely-graced cleverness as well as direct miraculous intervention, eventually come to naught. Barbara is captured and exposed to day after day of terrible torment. Even if her wounds are healed every day and the darkness of her cell bathed in heavenly light, even if the torches meant to burn her come to be extinguished inexplicably when brought near her flesh, Barbara eventually meets her doom. Not just any doom, but beheading by a sword wielded by her own father.

Why, we may well wonder, does God play this pattern out in the lives of those he loves? Why hold out one wonderful escape after another, why cloak us from the machinations of the wicked with impenetrable disguises, why blunt the sharpness of our foes' weapons, why cool the heat of their terrible torches, if only to withdraw his protecting hand and submit us, in the end, to terrible and painful death?

In preparing his own disciples to face just this quandary, Jesus is quite clear: It will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony.

Everything we do, every occasion in our lives, everything enjoyed and everything suffered, each defeat as much as each victory, is meant to be another occasion, another opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ, and him Crucified. We have no other goods, no other goals, however splendid and noble, that will satisfy the cravings of our hearts, apart from the joy of knowing Jesus Christ, of being made to be like him, and so enjoy with him the love of the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. So also, there is no evil whatever so great that it can overcome the joy of knowing Jesus Christ as we are known by him, to see him as he is.

This is why the life of the Gospel, the life of a martyr, a witness for Jesus Christ, is as compatible with carnival and masquerade as it is with cruel torment. What the joyous and fanciful celebration of Barbara in the Arab world reminds us is that these people, these brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, who have suffered so much for so long for their faith in this ancient cradle of the Church, know better than we that the victory is already ours. Like Barbara, they know that real suffering, real betrayal by one's blood brothers and sisters, is no reason not to play a game of hide-and-go-seek, not a time to make one's accusers a source of fun before submitting to their cruelties. They know this because they know Jesus Christ, and they know that to give testimony of his saving grace and merciful coming in the flesh for our redemption, is always and ever a reason for joy, a share even here and now in the unassailable joy of Jesus Christ, the joy of the life of God himself.

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