Personal Martyrdom

Today we celebrate the Feast Days of Saints Peter and Paul who were martyrs for their faith and who paid the highest price for their beliefs by dying for Christ. By wearing red vestments the Church recognizes, in a visual way, the supreme witness to the faith given by the blood of these martyrs.

Tradition holds that, under the persecutions of Nero, Peter, not being a Roman citizen, was to be crucified – he is said to have asked the authorities, who complied, that he be crucified upside down – claiming he was not worthy to die in the manner of his Lord. Paul, being a Roman citizen, was executed by having his head cut off with the sword. It is said that his severed head bounced three times and, in each place, a fountain sprung up.

But enough of the bloody details instead let’s concentrate on the basis for martyrdom. It is the belief that God is truth, and each of us is called to be a witness to that truth in our words and deeds regardless of the consequences.

And what better models to imitate than the lives of Saints Peter and Paul? They are examples of God’s ability to take flawed individuals and turn them into powerful witnesses of the Gospel. Neither Saint Peter nor Saint Paul accomplished what they did simply by virtue of hard work. They were both formed in the fire of difficulties and failures that left them humbled. As a result, they became more aware of their need for God and were captivated by His love.

The Peter we find in today’s Gospel is the same Peter we have come to know as the one who is much like us. He is the one who does not always understand the teachings of Jesus. He is the one who is terrified in the boat in the storm. He is the one who falls asleep in the Garden of Olives, and who later denies Jesus three times.

Yet, in today’s Gospel passage Simon Peter clearly understands that Jesus is the Messiah. He gets it right for a change, and Jesus knows that it is God who has revealed this to Peter. Our Gospel reading recounts Peter’s great profession of faith and the special office that Jesus gave him, that of becoming the rock of His new Church. Since Peter is receptive to God’s revelation, Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter, which means ‘rock’ and gives him the authority, power and keys to lead the Catholic Church that Jesus has established.

Saint Paul, once a persecutor of Christians himself, is also a witness to the truth of Jesus as recorded in his Second Letter to Timothy. His letter was probably written toward the end of his ministry to the Gentiles for he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Paul is not boasting, but recognizes the strength of Our Lord at his side as he anxiously awaits the prize of eternal life. Paul speaks with confidence that no matter what happens; God will continue to rescue him. Therefore, Paul’s advice to Timothy, and to us, is to always keep the faith and rely solely on God.

God’s power to transform His people is unlimited. Saints Peter and Paul completely surrendered themselves to Jesus so that He could work through them to give birth to His Church. When we surrender ourselves to God as these two prominent saints of our Church did, giving God permission to transform us and to use us as He sees fit, great things can happen. Even if the work we are called to do seems little in our own eyes, we should never underestimate its importance to God.

But there is another side to the power of God and that lies within the personal martyrdom that many people go through in their lives. Sometimes it is not the same type of martyrdom that Saints Peter and Paul went through but most of us, at one point or another, go through an experience or a suffering that is so deep, that it brings a searing pain and feels as if it is a personal martyrdom. Sometimes it is the death of a loved one – or equally, if not worse, the loss of a child. Cathy and I had a 20 year old nephew murdered on the streets of Boston some years ago. The pain that his mother and father went through was beyond words and it was a pain that his father carried to his grave. Sometimes it is an illness that calls into attention our own mortality and the ability to go on; sometimes it is an estrangement from someone whom we loved or still loves but now that person is dead to us. In each case, there is an emotional pain, a feeling of being “a victim” and the question of “why me.” How we deal with that pain and that loss is our response to a martyrdom that feels larger than life itself.

I sometimes think that St. John Paul II faced that question as he battled the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. Surely, he could have retired or stepped aside because of his illness. But he did not. And my belief is that he chose not to in order to give us a model of suffering. Regardless of the pain, regardless of the physical changes that took this handsome, strong Pope to a man bent over and ravished with pain, he chose to carry on. I believe fervently that he

had the words of St. Paul in his mind as he faced his last days: ““I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” It was his faith that gave us a model of suffering.

For those of us who are more mortal, keeping the faith in times of great distress and great personal agony is sometimes quite difficult. As any human being, we not only ask “why me” but we wonder why our God has not intervened.

I remember when I was a deacon in California, during the early days of the AIDS crisis; I chose to do hospice work among those who were afflicted with this ravishing disease. Time and again, I would hear the “why” question. And while I could not give them the definitive or wise answer, I could assure them it was not the punishment of God for their lifestyle as so many believed. I talked to them of God’s love for all of his children, for God’s care for all of his children, and for God’s grace that is and can be imparted during times of great agony. And I prayed and sometimes begged then to ask for God’s grace to carry them through their suffering.

Today, I stand here and ask you to reflect on the love of God in your life. Today, I stand here and ask you to dwell on the love of the Holy Spirit that is within you. Today, I stand here and ask you to remember always that he knows you by name and will never forsake you.

It was the fall from grace of the original man that brought both discord and evil into the life of humanity – not God. But the birth of Christ brought us deliverance. It did not stop evil from existing — even the human Christ underwent a suffering that few of us can truly imagine or endure. But his emergence from that pain and that death brought us the Great Promise.

The Great Promise that if we keep our eyes fixed on the love of God for us, there is no battle, no loss, no enemy that we cannot overcome. Sometimes that Great Love also calls us home – home to be with the eternal source of love. But even in that answer there are the enfolding arms of Christ who picks us up as a child and carries us gently home to His Father.

And in all of this, there is also the call of that Great Love to be an agent of that love. There is the call for each of us to step outside of our comfort zone – regardless of age or circumstance – and to extend our arms – as if they were the arms of Christ himself – to those who are going through their own personal martyrdom.

For you see, God invites every one of us to share in the calling of the Apostles: to teach, to witness to the truth in the Gospel, to love with the love of Jesus, and to run the race. We are called to be saints, each in our own way. But this will happen only as we allow Jesus to form us. As we let His firm but gentle and loving hands break our outer shell of self-centeredness, we will be Christ-like within our family, our parish, our neighborhood, our place of work, our school, and with all those who come into contact with us.

Christ wants us to stand up for your faith. Christ wants us to profess our faith by the way we live our lives. Christ wants us to be used as instruments to draw others to him.

Let me leave you with this. Christ truly wants each of us is called to sainthood. Each of is called to rise above our failings and our flaws. Each of us is called to be like these stained glass windows that surround us. The image remains static but the sun shines through. Every time we walk in this Church, we should look at one of those windows and ask “ Have I let Christ’s light shine through me this week?” Our bodies remain the same but the light of Christ shines through us. It shines through us in the things we say and do. In the way we treat one another. In reaching out to those that are in pain – physical or spiritual. Of swallowing our self-centeredness and learning to live selflessly. Of trying to walk in the other’s footstep before we whine and complain of our own hurt. In reminding others that our love of Christ is so great that we want them to experience that love.

We came to this Church today hungry for this celebration; we heard stories of our ancestors in faith that assure and give us courage and we hunger for what nourished them. We know that the same Word and food that sustained them is ours as well.

As he faces death, Paul’s words give us wisdom. Using the perspective he gives us, we should ask “When the day comes that I look back on my life, what will I see? Will I feel satisfied, a life well spent, energies invested in the right place? Or, will I feel disappointed by the choices I made? Energies misdirected and invested in shallow places? A lifetime distracted by less important and passing things? You see, being a Christian for “the long haul” means resisting passing attractions to compromise. Paul shows us that the life of a faithful Christian does take perseverance and sacrifice. He says it is a life “poured out like a libation.” A dedicated life of discipleship does set us apart, it has us going against the stream of the majority, and consequently requires long and consistent sacrifice. Our lives in service to God are a libation that prepares us for our final journey. Such a life is only possible, Paul reminds us, because God has been there with us, enabling and helping us day by day to live out our faith despite periods of personal martyrdom that sometimes seem to cripple us. Thank God for the love of Christ that is always with us to sustain us, to support us and to love us for no other reason than to let us know of His love that is both constant and eternal..

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