Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
The readings today are selected to fit the feast of the deacon/martyr Saint Lawrence. They reflect cheerfully on the story that is told about his death. Burned alive over an open pit he quipped, "You can turn me over now; I'm done on this side." I understand there is little factual evidence for this tale; it appeared centuries after his death.
But the story reminds us that grace can accomplish amazing, astonishing things on a willing human being.
Christian traditions about martyrdom have sometimes been co-opted by other religious movements. American patriots, since the Civil War and in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, have regarded the United States as a semi-sacred institution. Slain leaders and common soldiers are said to have died in a good cause. Recently some Muslim fanatics call their murderers martyrs.
Meanwhile, some Christians declare that martyrdom is never necessary; no one should die for their faith. To their way of thinking, it's just not worth it. Google "Is martyrdom a good thing" and you'll find much controversy on this point.
Those who denigrate martyrdom say the individual human being has absolute worth. His or her right to life must be regarded as superior to every other value. Nothing is worth dying for: not the life of an unborn baby; not the good of the nation; not one's belief in Jesus.
They are welcome to their opinions, of course; but the witness of Christian martyrs tells another story. Martyrdom, I'm sure you know, is about giving witness to one's faith. That's what the original Greek word meant.
The Christian martyr testifies to the presence of Jesus and his undying Holy Spirit; they are still alive and active in our world today. While many martyred saints died when they were hunted down and captured, many also refused to flee. Some even volunteered -- cheerfully.
- I think of the Ugandan boys who, returning to their school on Sunday evening and finding their classmates had been arrested and were being paraded to the traditional place of execution, hurriedly caught up with the party.
- The movie For Greater Glory depicts the English priest who would not flee the Mexican village as the paramilitary killers arrived. He stood before the firing squad in his Mass vestments. Five other Mexican priests died during that persecution.
- Saint Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take another prisoner's place and died in a Nazi work camp.
- Two Conventual Franciscan priests and one Italian missionary were executed by the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru as recently as 1991; these young men had been warned to leave the area but preferred to stay where God had sent them.
Millions of men and women have died for unworthy causes, especially in warfare. Others gave their lives to cigarettes and alcohol, or wasted their health watching television. Some people idolize money or popularity or vanity.
The Christian martyr asks, "Whom do you serve? Is your god worthy of you?" The Christian martyr tells me that my personal life has value only in relation to Jesus Christ. As his willing disciple I am at his disposal.
I cannot say I want to die a martyr's death; but I hope I am found worthy of their company.