Tuesday, December 2, 2014

St. Bibiana, Virgin and Martyr

Ecclesiasticus 51:13-17 / Matthew 13:44-52

The Kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in a field.

We don't know much for certain of the life of St. Bibiana. Skeptics suggest that everything told of her life was merely concocted to account for the presence of the church now bearing her name in the city of Rome, and etiological myth. Those less cynical must nonetheless admit that our knowledge of the details of her life and martyrdom are, at best, less than certain. One thing that we are assured, however, is that St. Bibiana, like many martyrs before and after her, experienced joy during her martyrdom. First punished with the deprivation of food, then alternately seduced and beaten by a cruel woman, and then finally tied to a column and whipped with scourges tipped with lead, Bibiana yet remained joyful.

Some may worry that these stories of joyful martyrs are cruel, even dangerous. On this worry, they suggest that we should not be moved by the real suffering, indeed the real acts of torture, that continue to be perpetrated before us and in our name. The worry is that, in telling the stories of martyrs joyful in their martyrdom, we become calloused against the brutality—physical, psychological, spiritual—of abuse, comforting ourselves in the thought that it can't really be so terrible, if it would be possible, with enough faith, to endure it with joy.

But, this worry is mistaken, and for two reasons. The first reason is that the joy of the martyrs in their martyrdom is known and accepted to be exceptional, a special grace like the working of miracles. When Jesus Christ himself endured great agony, pain so intense that his sweat came from his body like drops of blood merely in anticipation of his Passion, long before a single hand had touched his sacred and innocent body, we can be under no illusion that we are guaranteed to be spared terrible pains, should they be directed our way. We can hardly expect that a Christian death ought to expect, in the norm, to be exempt from the example of Christ.

The second reason is that the joy of the martyrs in their martyrdom is meant to be a sign of hope. This is not the hope of a kind of spiritual anæsthesia that numbs us against the pains of the world. Rather, it is the hope of a sure and certain knowledge of the presence of God in the lives of the faithful, not merely generically or remotely, but deeply, intimately, like a treasure hidden in a field, a treasure so great that, against all reasonable expectations of those who do not know its value or even its presence, one would sell all she has to obtain it, even when, to outward appearance, the exchange is without sense—a fortune for a seemingly empty field. In the joy of the martyrs, we are awakened to the hope that in our sufferings, which are certain to come, we are not alone. Rather, the one whom we love most, the one who loves us more than we can ever know or tell, is with us in the midst of our sufferings. Indeed, what we want above all in our every searching for happiness, that is God himself, is already present in and to those who love him, not less but even more so in their suffering.

This is why the pains of martyrdom cannot annul joy. This is why Advent can be, and ought to be, penitential and joyful all at once. We must awake ourselves and the world to the joyful news that he who has come, and will come again, is already here in our midst. He has come, and will come, and for those who have received him in faith and love, in already and abidingly present with us. When he whom we love above all things, when he who has loved us with a love beyond all telling from before the foundation of the world, is with us, what pain would not be transformed into joy? What sorrow would not be swallowed up in hope?

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