The Church has in its rich and long history many heroes of our faith who suffered gloriously for the Kingdom of God. The Liturgical calendar is replete with vivid stories, many of them highly embellished to be sure, of how strong in faith some of the martyrs were in the face of terrible and brutal persecution of the faith.
Deservedly, these who shed their blood for Christ and his Kingdom had their noble acts of bravery recognized and every so often in the Liturgical calendar, we will be reminded about their heroic lives and deeds. But the point of these celebrations is not so much as to highlight their courage and valour, but to be reminded what they were courageous about. While I am in no way watering down their grit and daring, we would be missing the point of all liturgy if we only stopped at what mere mortals have done in their lives. What has to be constantly borne in mind is that all liturgies have but one purpose – to give glory, honour and laud to God in worship. That was the central purpose of the lives of these martyrs. It is their faith that we celebrate and hope to imitate in our journeys of faith, which have yet to find their last chapters. That these men and women were so graced with such strength and tenacity in their love of God and their steadfastness in time of trials and even torture is something truly worth praising God for.
But aren’t times of such barbaric persecution events of our distant past? Surely, there is a vast majority of Christians who do not live in these kinds of situations that those martyrs did, especially when there is a clarion call for tolerance and freedom of religion in many countries. Does that mean that the age of martyrdom is but a thing of history? Do we as Church simply become nostalgic each time we celebrate a martyr’s feast day, and ‘reminisce’ about the ‘bad old times’?
The Church has always taught that there is a difference between a ‘Red Martyrdom’ and a ‘White Martyrdom’. The red martyrs were the ones who had physically shed blood for their faith in Christ. The familiar names that come readily to mind are Stephen, Laurence, Agatha, Cecilia, Maximilian Kolbe, Justin, and the Vietnamese martyrs Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions, which we just observed on Saturday. Of course this list is not legion.
White Martyrdom is one that is lived out without the shedding of blood or loss of life through violent means. This is a different calling in life, but applicable to every Christian who is baptized in the Lord Jesus Christ. These are martyrs who are willing to give up what takes them away from the Kingdom of God and instead, with great sacrifice and suffering, remain steadfast to the values of Christ.
Let me give a few examples of where white martyrdom can be evinced.
- When a pregnant mother refuses to abort her down-syndrome child in her womb despite knowing that the life ahead for the entire family is going to change in many ways.
- When a married man resists temptation to have a fling with a very attractive business associate while outstation.
- When a student makes the decision to not plagiarize in a term paper even though it will make for an easy ‘A’ grade.
- When a sum of money found is returned to the owner even though it is something that is not going to be found out if it was kept.
- When a chore is done without complaining and grumbling but rather with a certain joy and responsibility.
- When care is given to people who are in need, especially when it involves a great sacrifice of energy, time and resources which one could have used for one’s own purposes.
- When one does the right thing even though no one will know about the deed and no one around is looking.
- When one who is ill or undergoing some medical treatment which is most uncomfortable and agonizing, but offers up the pain and discomfort to join others who are in similar situations of suffering.
Of course, these are just small examples of where white martyrdom can be exercised in our daily lives. Each does have its own gradation of difficulty, but there is something else that cuts across all of them. Each of them can be done simply for their own sakes – meaning that there is an intrinsic and inherent good that is in each act. One doesn’t need to be a Christian to carry these out in life. One can appeal to ‘civic mindedness’ or ‘good upbringing’. But where the Christian is concerned, white martyrdom requires it of us to live this way as a demonstration of our love for God and our strong belief in the Kingdom of God as revealed by Jesus. Not out of fear, not with great unwillingness, but with zeal and love for the Lord, because a white martyr’s strength to live the right way requires of one to unite oneself to the sufferings of Christ, and to live as Christ would live. To live that way requires of us a constant attentiveness to our call of discipleship which will not be there if we are people who only pray on occasion, because prayer is what develops and brings the love of God to fruition.
When one is looking down the barrel of a gun of a persecutor of the faith, in some ways, it seems to be a relatively easy choice to make to want to live for the Lord. After all, suffering and pain seems to be over in a moment, and one can repeat what Jesus said on Calvary “into your hands, I commend my spirit”. I am not saying it is an easy thing to die, because none of us really wants to die.
But in a white martyr’s dying, it is more long and drawn out. It requires of us constancy and a vision for the kingdom that is here and not yet. The fruit is often not tasted with much immediacy, and the joy is, for the most part, one of delayed gratification. But it is for certain something that is going to be asked of each of us at different moments of our day.