Imitators of Christ: Is Martyrdom a Sacrament? Part 1

In the next few days/posts I will be sharing a paper that I will be reading at the North American Patristics Society on May 25, 2012.  It is asking the question can martyrdom be considered a sacrament.  I have to read the paper in 20 minutes at the conference, but you will get the whole paper here.  So it mainly focuses on the sacramental nature of martyrdom, the liturgy of martyrdom, and the use of relics in the early church.  I hope it will be helpful to all who read it to remember martyrdom and the martyrs. 

This section of the paper is mainly the introduction and laying the foundation of what a sacrament is.  

“We call martyrdom perfection, not because the man comes to the end of his life as others, but because he has exhibited the perfect work of love.”[1]  These words, written by St. Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century, seem foreign to modern ears.  Yet they reflect a perspective on martyrdom which was common in the ancient church.  This paper seeks to answer the question: To what extent is there validity in seeing martyrdom in sacramental terms or as a type of sacrament?  In answering this question, this paper will explore several aspects of martyrdom.  First, it is important to define the main subjects of this paper, “sacrament” and “martyrdom,” and indicate how they relate to each other.  Next, it will focus on the visible signs of martyrdom, the grace associated with the martyrs, the spiritual fruits of martyrdom, and the spiritual battles the martyrs face.  Lastly, it will focus on Robin Darling Young’s purposed liturgy of martyrdom.  The paper will focus on martyrdom in the early church by examining the contemporary writings and accounts, mainly those of the pre-Nicene fathers and including some post-Nicene fathers.  It will draw from mainly the writings of St. Clement of Alexandria, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, St. Perpetua’s Vision of Truth, and the letters of St. Ignatius.  This paper hopes to identify martyrdom as a sacrament of the church, although it was never defined as one, and show how it meets the qualifications of a sacrament.

In asking the question “is martyrdom a type of sacrament?” it is important to define the term sacrament, because the ancient church defined it differently than churches do today.  Before the 13th century, the term sacrament was used to cover a number of realities and was used extensively for acts the modern church might not, strictly speaking, define as a sacrament.  In fact, the early church usually used it when talking about an “inexpressible mystery.”[2]  If one were to follow the word “sacrament” back to Latin and then back to Greek, one will find the word is mysterion, which means “secret.”  For instance, the mystery of God was not to be shared with outsiders; an example is the closed communion of the early church, where the non-baptized had to leave the church at the Eucharist.  This mystery of Christ was not for those outside the union of the church and the marriage of Christ.  In the simplest terms, mysterion is God’s secret in relation to human salvation, which is revealed by the manifestation of Christ.[3]  The Apologists of the early church were the first to start calling the rites of the Church sacraments or mysteries.  St. Ignatius of Antioch used “mystery” to describe Jesus’ death and believers’ reception of faith.[4]  St. Justin Martyr gives the name “mysteries” to the happenings and prophecies in the Old Testament which were fulfilled by Christ.[5]  In the third century, St. Clement of Alexandria used “mystery” as a “sacred reality by material signs, incomprehensible to unbelievers.”[6]  The deaths of the martyrs look like suicide to unbelievers, but to the faithful it is the perfecting of the imperfect, it is the fullest imitation of Christ.  Tertullian was the first to use sacramentum for mysterion, since he was the earliest theologian of the Latin Church.[7]  At this point, the idea of sacrament came to mean a rite that produces spiritual effects.[8]  The Post-Nicene Fathers, Sts. Cyprian, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, and Leo the Great shed light upon new aspects of the term sacrament.  These include the belief that sacraments produce grace and spiritual effects and also give meaning to the feasts of the church.[9]  Leo defined sacrament as “that which was visible in our Redeemer has passed over into the mysteries.”[10]  Leo’s definition does not limit the number or depth of the sacraments.  In his understanding, a sacrament could be exorcism, foot-washing, martyrdom, prayer/contemplation, baptism, the Eucharist, or blessing, because all these things were visible in Jesus’ life and ministry and can have an element of Divine mystery in them.  Since the term was still undefined, in the early church for the purposes of this study sacrament will be defined in four parts as visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ to the Church and to the individual for the remembrance and imitation of his life, which dispense divine life with a seal of grace and bears fruit in a believer’s life.  It fulfills both the roles of sacrament in the early church and the roles that developed over time.

At this point it is possible to move on to explore martyrdom, defining what it is and how it could been seen as a sacrament.  Martyrdom has become a very complex issue in our present time.[11]  It had a very complex origin as well.  Martyr in the Greek actually means “witness.”  The earliest martyrs were witnesses for their cause, not people who died for a cause.  After Christians started to use it in the second century and beyond, it came to mean what it does today.[12]  The Apocalypse of St. John uses martyr as a title, and some would argue it is a title, for “someone who dies on account of his or her religious beliefs.”[13]  It seems that Christians took the title and word martyr for themselves, while the world around them did not initially conform to their understanding.  Eventually, however, the Mediterranean world did accept the death of persecuted Christians as martyrdom.  For the purpose of this paper, martyrdom and martyrs will be defined as those individuals who, in the course of standing up for their religious, social, or political beliefs in a non-violent way, accept a violent death over compliance to demands made by civil or political authorities, or who in the process of standing up for their belief in a non-violent way are killed for their beliefs.  In this definition, modern martyrs can be included as well as ancient martyrs.  Some examples of people who would fit into this definition include Martin Luther King, Jr., St. Polycarp, Gandhi, and St. Joan of Arc.  This definition hopes to account for both the ancient and modern understandings of martyrdom.

This paper focuses on Christian martyrs from the 1st to 4th centuries and shows how the ancient Christian Church trained its members to be good martyrs by making martyrdom a type of sacrament.  In training Christians, the church also prepared her members to perform a type of liturgy in the midst of martyrdom.  The life of Jesus provided a basis for the liturgy and training of martyrs, so as to follow his example in dying well.  The martyrs took to heart the exhortation of St. Paul to run their race well,[14] to finish well, and receive their prize.  The training and type of liturgy associated with martyrdom helped them to live out St. Paul’s exhortation.


[1]Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, ed and trans. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson.  Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, vol. 12. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1869), Book 4, 146.

[2] Bernard Piault, What is a Sacrament?, trans. A. Manson, (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1963), 40.

[3] Ibid. 41.

[4] Ibid. 42, cf. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Magnesians 9.1

[5] Ibid. 42, cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 24; 40; 44.

[6] Ibid. 42, cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, 6. 15

[7] Ibid. 43.

[8] Ibid. 44.

[9] Ibid. 44-45.

[10] Ibid. 45, cf. Leo the Great, Sermon 2 on the Ascension.

[11] Some would like to identify suicide bombers like those who attacked New York City on September 11, 2001as martyrs although this does not fit with the common idea of a martyr being an oppressed or helpless figure.  The idea of labeling one a martyr who chooses to destroy as many lives as possible while dying does not seem to fit with martyrdom; yet this is what Samson did.  Perhaps Samson should not be considered a martyr, especially if Christians are unwilling to label, suicide bombers as martyrs.

[12] G. W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 5.

[13] Candida R. Moss, The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 38.

[14] 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.  All Bible passages taken from NIV.

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About Jesse

I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Arts in Theology focusing on Church History. I am a Third Order Benedictine monk, in the Company of Jesus. I am married to a wonderful woman, we just had a baby Michaela Rose. You can follow me and be alerted of new blog post by following me on Twitter @jtalexanderiv. Or following this blog.
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