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Our Christian history is marked by the stories of many saints who, on a daily basis, serve as examples to the Christian community. Among the saints are some whose lives have been marked by pain, whether chosen or not. In ancient times, in the time of the early Christians, there were many who, refusing to renounce their faith, accepted to suffer for Jesus as Christ himself did for us.
The suffering of Jesus Christ, like that of these martyrs, helped give suffering a power: the power to draw closer to God and to suffer in communion with those who experience hardship in their daily lives. Historians and hagiographers have classified the martyrs into three categories:
- The red martyrs, the best known, are those who experienced torment by refusing to abjure their faith. They were numerous in Roman times.
- Green martyrs are those who wanted to experience pain in order to share the pain of Christ.
- White martyrs are those who suffer persecution in their daily lives because they are Christians.
In the coming weeks we will dedicate a series of articles to those Christians of other times or today who have suffered or are suffering because of their faith.
The existence of martyrdom in the name of the Christian faith is attested as early as the first century AD. Most of Christ's apostles died under martyrdom. The word martyr itself means witness. This etymological origin shows the extent to which these men and women who preferred to die rather than renounce their faith were an example, a testimony for the Christians of their generation and of future times.
Before that, the term martyrdom originated from the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century BC. The Maccabees were pious Jews who fought against the Greeks and in particular against the Greek Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. They preferred to be put to death rather than eat pork, forbidden by the Torah.
Even before the existence of Christian martyrs, this word was reserved for people who preferred death to the renunciation of their principles.
Even before the birth of Jesus Christ and before He spread His message, the Romans only tolerated monotheistic Jews. The Romans had a polytheistic religion, which made it easy for most conquered peoples to assimilate. The deities of the new peoples integrated into the Empire were accepted by the Romans, just as these peoples accepted the Roman deities.
The assimilation of monotheistic Jews into the Roman Empire posed a problem: the Roman gods included the emperor. The latter was considered a living God, which the Jews and then the Christians could not accept.
The Jews therefore had a separate status in the Roman Empire. Since the Jewish people did not proselytise, they enjoyed the indulgence of the Roman administration.
This more or less precarious balance was broken by the arrival of the first Christians, whose mission was to spread the Good News. It was essentially this proselytising that caused them problems in their relations with the Roman authority. The desire of some to spread the news that Jesus Christ had died on the cross for the sake of mankind upset the Roman order. The apostles are asked to recognise that the Roman emperor is indeed a God. This is non-negotiable for a new Christian. Following the example of Christ dying on the cross, the first saints accept the same fate as Jesus with a certain joy.
Martyrs multiplied in the Roman Empire from the first century A.D. onwards and had value as examples, as witnesses, and this gave even more credence to the religion of the one God.
By the 2nd century AD, several Christian communities had spread throughout the Roman world. For a Christian community, having a martyr in its ranks gave the group additional prestige and legitimacy.
Indeed, the man who faces pain for his opinions 'testifies to the strength of his faith' (Aviad Kleinberg: Histoire des saints: leur rôle formateur dans l'Occident). This has a lasting impact on the surrounding population, serves as an example and reinforces the legitimacy of this new faith.
In this respect, it can be said that the first martyrs and the treatment they received from the Romans contributed to the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
All the martyrs we shall discuss have in common that they are mentioned in the New Testament. St Peter is mentioned several times in the Gospels, while St Stephen, St Andrew and St Paul appear in the Acts of the Apostles.
St Stephen is called the protomartyr. In fact, tradition indicates him as the first martyr of Christianity. He appears several times in chapter VI of the Acts. He is presented as a Hellenistic Jew chosen together with six other men of good reputation and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom to assist the apostles. They are the first deacons.
Saint Stephen is accused of blasphemy for mentioning the name of God, by definition unpronounceable in the Jewish religion, with the following words: "The heavens are open and the Son of Man stands at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55-56). After a trial, Stephen was sentenced to be stoned to death.
St Andrew was one of the first apostles to get to know Jesus, immediately after his baptism in the river Jordan. At that time he was a disciple of St John the Baptist. He joined Jesus' disciples some time later, when Jesus called him and his brother Simon to the Lake of Tiberias.
After Pentecost, like most of the apostles, he went to preach the good news around the Black Sea. It was in a region of the northern Peloponnese that he was crucified in the year 60, under the emperor Nero. The X-shaped cross on which he was crucified is called 'St Andrew's Cross'. His torture lasted two days, during which he continued to preach to the crowd.
St Peter, because of his designation by Jesus as the first disciple 'You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church' (Matthew 16:18), is also, according to Christian tradition, the first bishop of Rome and of the Catholic Church.
Persecuted like so many others for his Christian faith, it was the governor Agrippa who sentenced him to be crucified in Rome. According to 2nd century writings entitled 'Acts of Peter', it was Peter himself who asked to be crucified upside down, as he did not consider himself worthy to die like Jesus.
St Paul was probably arrested in Nicopolis and then transferred to Rome for trial. As a Roman citizen, he was tried on charges of belonging to the sect of Christians responsible, according to Nero, for the burning of Rome. Because of his status as a Roman citizen, St Paul was beheaded.
Until the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Christians were regularly persecuted in the Roman Empire. For about 300 years, early Christianity was in struggle. Sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted, it was important that Christians had a living faith to grow their community.
There were many Christians who opposed the empire. Those who refused to abjure their faith suffered a death that the Romans wanted to be exemplary. But the martyrs and this public death gave courage to the early Christians because of their unshakeable faith. The story of each of them was an example to the Christian community from which they came. The story of their martyrdom spread and reflected on the community.
St. Blandina's death occurred in the 2nd century in 177. It is part of the event of the martyrs of Lyon according to the account of Eusebius, a 3rd century historian. In 177, some Christians in Lyon were condemned to the arena. Before being tortured, Blandine was interrogated under torture to abjure her faith. She always gave the same speech: 'I am a Christian and we do no evil'. Afterwards, Blandine was taken to the arena with two other Christians, then hung on a pole to be handed over to the beasts. Since the beasts did not touch her, Blandine was then scourged, placed on a hot grill and delivered in a net to a bull. Her throat was finally cut by the executioner at the end of the games in the arena.
Sebastian lived in the entourage of the emperors Diocletian and Maximus Hercules, when Diocletian decreed a persecution of Christians. Despite his closeness to the emperors and also because they felt betrayed by the knowledge that Sebastian was a Christian, he was executed on their orders for supporting other Christians. First he was tied to a stake and pierced with arrows. Eventually he was killed with a rod, after having been miraculously healed the first time.
The young Catherine of Alexandria had contracted a 'mystical marriage' with Christ. She therefore refused to marry Emperor Maximilian. Furious, Maximilian gathered 50 philosophers to demonstrate the futility of the Christian faith. However, Catherine emerged victorious from the argument and managed to convince the doctors, so they were all burnt alive. Catherine was condemned to be smashed to pieces by a spiked wheel. The wheel miraculously broke and Catherine was beheaded.
The memory of these saints and their martyrs remains alive. All the saints mentioned and many others are still examples for the Christians of our time. Devotion to these saints does not wane.
Prayers for the martyrs of Christianity
Lord Jesus, we praise and thank you for the martyrs of the faith who gave their lives to bear witness to your truth.
We thank you for their courage and determination to remain faithful to you despite persecution and suffering.
We pray that we may follow their example by being courageous in our own faith, even when we face trials and opposition.
Help us to be true witnesses to your truth, loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.
We pray for the souls of the martyrs, that they may rest in peace in your eternal kingdom.
We pray for the Christians who are still persecuted today, that they may be protected and comforted by your grace.