The Colour of Martyrdom

Homily at St Philip Evans for Maundy Thursday, 2018.

What colour of martyr will you be?

This may seem a strange question, but tonight is a celebration of martyrdom.

That word, martyr, may be an uncomfortable word. Often we hear it in the news in connection with a terrorist who has carried out some atrocity, killing innocent victims and themselves in the process. But the word has a long history.

In Greek, a martyr is simply a witness. A martyr is a person who makes it clear what they believe. Any Christians who publicly acknowledged that they were followers of Jesus were ‘martyrs’. In the earliest centuries of Christendom, such believers were persecuted, and if captured could suffer ‘red martyrdom’: their blood would be spilt, by the sword, by a wild beast, or by crucifixion. From Saints Stephen and John the Baptist, to Blessed Oscar Romero and the 21 Coptic Christians killed by Isis, every age has mourned and celebrated its red martyrs. But these are not the only kind.

Last Saturday, a terrorist took some shoppers hostage in a small town in southern France. He released most, but kept one woman to bargain with – until a policeman, Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, stepped forward and offered to take her place. Officer Beltrame, who grew up with no particular faith, had become a Catholic in 2010 and went to Mass regularly. Now he showed the depth of his love by freely offering himself – an act for which he paid with his life. Pope Francis has called this a “generous and heroic act”.

Last summer, the pope declared that the Catholic Church will recognise a new category of saint – one who ‘offers their life for others’. Heroic acts like those of Lt. Col. Beltrame and St Maxmilian Kolbe, who gave their life to set another person free, and of Chiara Petrillo and St Gianna Molla, who risked their life to save their unborn children, are royal acts, made of one’s own free will, embracing the high standard set when Our Lord himself said that ‘greater love has no-one than the one who lays down their life for a friend’. We might call this a ‘purple martyrdom’, since purple is the colour both of royalty and of sorrow.

Few of us will have the opportunity to be purple martyrs, but all of us can aspire to another kind of martyrdom – that of living a life of daily service. In the early church, they spoke of ‘white martyrs’ who were monks or hermits, abandoning all their worldly comforts to follow Christ in a radical way. We are not all called to the extreme form of this, but we are all called to a kind of ‘grey martyrdom’, where we put ourselves out to love our neighbour in the context of our daily life. “Wash one another’s feet,” said Our Lord to his apostles. So must we.

Today, I would like to give a special word of thanks to volunteers from our community who have faithfully taken Holy Communion to the sick and housebound members of this parish. Liz, David and Carol have asked to step down after many years of service. Without them, Holy Communion would have been a rare treat, rather than a weekly gift, for the precious souls they visited regularly. Tonight we will commission new extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, recently trained to minister in church. My question to our new and serving ministers who assist at Mass is this: which of you will volunteer to replace Carol, David & Liz in this ministry of visiting, which is one form of grey martyrdom?

And now we are to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. What kind of martyr was Our Lord?

He was surely a white martyr, because he poured out his life in service of all who came seeking his healing touch and heavenly teaching.

He was surely a red martyr, because on the night we celebrate tonight, he was taken by force and sentenced to death.

But he was also a purple martyr. In his divinity, he had the power to call upon a legion of angels to rescue him. In his humanity, he had found strength not to flee from the garden but to tarry there in the expectation of capture. As the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, he had royally conspired with His Father and the Holy Spirit to agree that he should take frail human flesh, in order to become a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

For this reason, the opening prayer of tonight’s Mass declares that “He handed himself over”. Yes, he was betrayed by Judas and seized by the Temple Guards; but no less than Lt. Col. Beltrame, he chose to become a hostage for our sins. It is from that word ‘hostage’ we get our word ‘host’; and just as the Israelites of old had to eat of the passover lamb to be spared the curse of death, so we must eat of the Lamb of God to enter with Christ into eternal life. St Thomas Aquinas knew this, and wrote a hymn in praise of Our Saving Victim – “O Salutaris Hostia“.

O saving Victim, opening wide
The gate of heaven to man below,
Our foes press on from every side,
Thine aid supply, Thy strength bestow.

Our Lord does indeed strengthen us. He aids us to be his witnesses, his martyrs, in this world. Purple or red? White or grey? What colour of martyr will you choose to be?

Oil Stocks and Ribbons

At this evening’s Mass, we will receive the holy oils blessed by Archbishop George at yesterday’s Chrism Mass. Today the Sacred Chrism will be brought up marked with a red ribbon, a reminder that when we are confirmed we pledge to be “a witness to Christ in the Church and in the world“. It’s not likely, in 21st Century Wales, that we will be targeted for what we believe – but it’s not impossible. Our own patron, Saint Philip Evans, knew this was a very likely fate for a Catholic priest in his day, and he became a red martyr. Every confirmed Christian has declared before God that if He should choose us for the unexpected gift of red martyrdom, we will gratefully accept it.

Today the Oil of the Sick will be dressed with purple ribbon. The anointing of the sick asks God for a special “re-confirmation” giving us strength to bear a particular sickness gracefully. But the purple ribbon will also remind us of our bittersweet and royal calling to be ready to accept death in the service of others.

Today the Oil of Catechumens will be dressed with white ribbon. Everyone who is baptised must learn the basic Christian skill of laying down one’s life for others; and if we do not reach the dizzy heights of doing so as a hermit, nun or monk, we can at least aspire to the hidden fame of serving our neighbour in unseen ways, the grey martydom.

 


Acknowledgement: With gratitude to Revd Dr Giles Fraser – partly inspired by the linked Radio 4 Thought for the Day.

Footnote: Ancient sources speak of both white martyrdom and green (or blue) martyrdom. The terms are used inconsistently. The earliest references have white martyrs as the true aescestics who abandon comforts for the monastic or eremitical life, while the green martyrs don’t go to that extreme, practicing penances in the context of their worldly life. Later usage sometimes switches these with the green martyrs as the hermits in the (green) countryside.

The Gift of Life

This week, Pope Francis has declared that the Catholic Church will recognise a new kind of saint – one who ‘offers their life for others’ (oblatio vitae). There is no surprise in learning that this is a true pattern of holiness! Our Lord himself said that ‘greater love has no-one than the one who lays down their life for a friend’. What is surprising is that until now, the prayers the church uses to honour saints have not recognised this.

Open an official Catholic prayer book – the Missal used for Mass, or the Liturgy of the Hours which priests and religious order members use for their daily prayers – and you will find many ‘Commons’ for honouring different categories of saint.

Among the martyrs there are special prayers for those killed for defending their virginity. Among the ‘confessors’ (or ‘holy men and women’) there are subcategories for those who worked for education or in service of the poor. There are ‘virgins’, ‘pastors’ (ordained to at least the rank of priest) and ‘apostles’ (a closed category, though last year St Mary Magdalen’s feast day was upgraded to recognise her as ‘apostle to the apostles’.)

Statue of Maximilian KolbeYet no existing category quite fits in the case of a holy person who makes a deliberate choice to lay down their life for another. This problem came to the fore in the case of St Maximilian Mary Kolbe, founder of Franciscan friaries and a prolific evangelist through his expert use of the printing press. At the end of a life already remarkable for its holiness, Kolbe was a prisoner in Auschwitz, and stepped forward to offer his life in place of a Jewish man, a father of children, who was chosen to be executed. Kolbe proved difficult to starve, and eventually died by lethal injection; the man he offered his life for lived to be liberated at the end of the war.

When Blessed Kolbe was proposed for canonisation, Pope John Paul II faced intense lobbying from Germany and Poland to declare him a martyr. But was he a martyr? Had he been killed specifically because of anyone’s hatred of Christian faith? There was no evidence that the camp guards had targeted his beliefs – they had simply accepted his offer to lay down his life for someone else. John Paul II commissioned two officials to consider the matter, whose opinion was that Kolbe was not a martyr – but ultimately the Pope overruled them and canonised St Maximilian while wearing red vestments.

Gianna Molla holding two babiesA similar question can be asked in the case of the ‘martyr of life’ St Gianna Beretta Molla. An Italian physician, she was diagnosed with a serious condition while pregnant. She faced a choice between one kind of surgery almost certain to save her, but with a high chance of triggering a miscarriage; or another kind which was safe for the baby but less sure to resolve her condition. She chose the latter, gave birth safely, but died of complications soon after. She, too, would seem to fit this category of laying down one’s life for another.

It will be interesting to see what steps follow the announcement of this new category. Are such saints to be celebrated using red vestments, or using white? Will there be new Commons to add to the Missal and Divine Office? Will existing saints like Maximilian Kollbe and Gianna Molla be assigned to the new category?

Overall, this does seem like a necessary addition to the way the church classifies her saints and honours them in prayer. Perhaps once this is tidied up, some other missing categories can be filled out – men honoured specifically for their virginal purity, and women who, though not ordained pastors, are recognised as Doctors of the Church. Meanwhile, Holy Saints offering the Gift of Life – pray for us!