Imitators of Christ: Is Martyrdom a Sacrament, Part 3

In this section of the paper, I explore the idea that martyrdom meets the qualification of, “given by Christ to the Church and to the individual for the remembrance and imitation of his life.”  It focuses on evidence from the writings of St. Clement of Alexandria, The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, and the writings of Paul Middleton.  

Martyrdom is also “given by Christ to the Church and to the individual for the remembrance and imitation of his life.”  Jesus gave martyrdom to the Church not only in his passion and death but by saying, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”[1]  In this passage, Jesus is calling his disciples to follow him, warning them that they might die.  They must be willing to give up their life for the sake of the Gospel, just as he was doing.    The Apostle Paul remembered and lived the words of Jesus fully in saying, “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings.”[2]  The apostles are also willing to give up their lives for the Gospel.  The martyrs, like Jesus, die for the betterment of the world.  St. Clement of Alexandria writes,

but that he foretold prophetically what would happen — that we should be persecuted for His name’s sake, slaughtered, and impaled. So that it was not that he wished us to be persecuted, but he intimated beforehand what we shall suffer by the prediction of what would take place, training us to endurance…[3]

He suggests that Jesus, in his own body foretold, what would happen to the martyrs.  Jesus gave the Church and the martyrs the example of his own flesh.  The martyrs live out the example of Jesus in their trials and deaths in the arena.  They look to Jesus and imitate his actions as they die, as the priests look to Christ and imitate his action in breaking and blessing the bread, and as all Christians imitate Jesus in undergoing baptism.

Some martyrdom accounts show striking similarities and uncanny imitation of the passion and death of Jesus.[4]  The Martyrdom of Polycarp is one such account; the imitation of Christ is striking in this narrative.  St. Polycarp waited to be betrayed.[5]  He predicted how he would be killed, by being burned.[6]  The writer of the account uses the names of biblical characters including Herod, who is here the chief of the police, and the one who betrayed Polycarp is said to suffer the same punishment as Judas.[7]  St. Polycarp, like Jesus in the Gospel of John, was taken on the Day of Preparation.  St. Polycarp did not flee from those who were to arrest him, but rather prayed that God’s will be done, just as Jesus had in the Garden.[8]  He offers a long prayer before being arrested.[9]  He rode into the city on a donkey, just as Jesus had on Palm Sunday.[10]  The guards and the proconsul suggest he save himself, just as the crowds and Pilate tried to convince Jesus to save himself.[11]  St. Polycarp experienced a voice from heaven just as Jesus did at various times in his life.[12]  He is finally killed by a dagger in his side, much like the spear being thrust into Jesus’ side.[13]  Finally, just as after Christ’s crucifixion, the Jews argue over the body of both and a centurion stood by each at their death.[14]    St. Pionius, who was also martyred, also imitated Christ when after being crucified and burned, but not dead ended his life in prayer with a joyful face and repeated Jesus’ words on the cross, “Lord, receive my soul.”[15] In the same way St. Ignatius in his Letter to the Romans writes about his imitation of Christ in his death, “Permit me to be an imitator of the Passion of my God…”[16] Paul Middleton, in his work on martyrdom stresses this point, “Therefore, identification with Christ forms a crucial element in the self-understanding of the martyrs, and dramatically influenced the way their stories were told.”[17]   These similarities show martyrs, especially St. Polycarp, imitate the life and death of Christ in their life and death.

Jesus has given the Church martyrdom; through his own example of death, he gave his Church something to imitate when its members would be ripped from her embrace to testify to Christ for her.  The early Church, understanding that she was going to be persecuted, trained new Christians to undergo martyrdom.  One example of the training for martyrdom can be found in St. Clement of Alexandria’s writing.  He explains, “so that it was not that he wished us to be persecuted, but he intimated beforehand what we shall suffer by the prediction of what would take place, training us to endurance, to which he promised the inheritance, although we are punished not alone, but along with many.”[18]  In her lectures on martyrdom, Young writes “At the end of the second century and well into the third, it is evident from the sources discussing martyrdom that that training is being given increasing consideration in the church.”[19]  Training was important because there were several heretical Gnostics that rejected martyrdom[20] and many were uninstructed enthusiastics, which caused many to reject Christ publically and sacrifice to the emperor or gods.  The Church is in charge of giving the sacraments to her members.  While the Church does not actually give the saints martyrdom, she could give them the training so if persecution did come to the Church the saints could be acceptable sacraments.

[1] Matthew 16:24-25.

[2] 1 Corinthians 4:9

[3] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Book 4, 174.

[4] The similarities between Polycarp’s martyrdom and Jesus’ passion and death are most likely a literary device to remind the reader of the Gospel accounts.  Cf. Moss, 57

[5] Of Polycarp, 1, 3.

[6] Ibid, 5, 7; cf. Mark 8:31 and John 12:32-33.

[7] Ibid, 6, 7.

[8] Ibid 7, 7; cf. Matthew 26:42.

[9] Ibid. 7, 7; cf. John 17.

[10] Ibid. 8, 9; cf. Mark 11:7-11.

[11] Ibid. 8, 9, and 10, 9 – 11; cf. Matthew 27:11-23, Mark 15:1-14, Luke 23:3 -22, and John 19:8-10.

[12] Ibid. 9, 9; cf. John 12:28-30.

[13] Ibid. 16, 15; cf. John 19:34.

[14] Ibid. 17 and 18, 15 – 17; cf. Matthew 27:62-64 and Mark 15:39.

[15] Robin Darling Young, In Procession Before the World: Martyrdom As Public Liturgy in Early Christianity. (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001), 29.  Also see Luke 23:46.

[16] Ignatius of Antioch, The Early Christian Fathers: A selection from the writings of the Fathers from St Clement of Rome to St Athanasius, ed. and trans. Henry Bettenson, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 46.

[17] Paul Middleton, Radical Martyrdom and Cosmic Conflict in Early Christianity (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2006), 83.

[18] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Book 4, 174.

[19] Young, 38.

[20] Ibid, 39.


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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1 Response to Imitators of Christ: Is Martyrdom a Sacrament, Part 3

  1. Dear Father,
    I am an Eastern Orthodox Theologian writing on Animal Suffering and Soteriology. I am now seeking copyright permission for the forthcoming book. I would like to use your example of Christ’s crucifixion. Do i have your permission?
    Please see for details of what we are trying to achieve
    with love in Christ
    Dr. Christina Nellist

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