Imitators of Christ: Is Martyrdom a Sacrament, Part 4

In this section of the paper, the idea that martyrdom gives the martyr divine life which is sealed with grace is explored.  Examples are taken from the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp and recent scholarship.  

The next topic to be explored is to show how martyrdom “dispenses divine life with a seal of grace.”  Before this topic can be explored fully some terms should be explained.  Divine life, means a share in the life giving power of Christ and of grace.  It is life given by God himself, which helps to make those who receive the sacrament holy or sanctified.  “The seal of grace” means that Christ has given the life of the sacraments with grace that cannot be removed, the unwarranted love and forgiveness of sins.  In the sacrament of baptism this is done in the forgiveness of sins and brings a person into the Church.  In the sacrament of the Eucharist one takes in the real presence of the Lord, joining him/herself with Christ, taking divine life into oneself, and being sealed with Christ through the body and blood.  Just as the other sacraments have a sealing effect so does martyrdom, sealing the martyr with eternal life and Christ being fully present at their death.

In martyrdom, the martyr is given divine life to the fullest extent.  This life cannot be taken away, sullied by sins, or even rejected.  Instead the martyr is given divine life, in the casting off his/her mortal coil.  The martyr in a way purchases for him/herself eternal life.  Not by works, but by being a faithful witness to Christ and by death itself.  Some believed that the martyrs even before their death were fully present with Christ in that Christ was fully in them and helping them in their suffering.  For example, St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God the Father as he is being stoned to death.  He does not cry out in pain, nor does he ask for mercy, but instead imitates Jesus in crying out for God to not hold their sin against them.[1]  In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the author writes about those who were martyred before St. Polycarp,

…showing to all of us that in the hour of their torment these noblest of Christ’s witnesses were not present in the flesh, or rather that the Lord was there present holding converse with them.  Fixing their eyes on the favour of Christ, they despised the tortures of this world, in one hour buying themselves an exemption from the eternal fire…and with the eyes of the soul they looked up to those good things that are saved up for those who have persevered, which neither the ear has heard nor the eye seen, nor has it entered into the heart of man: but to them the Lord revealed it seeing they were no longer men but angels.[2]

The martyrs are described as having been removed from their bodies or possibly having the Lord standing next to them speaking what could only be words of encouragement and comfort.  In these accounts, Christ is fully present with the martyr facilitating his/her transition into the divine inheritance.

In other accounts, the martyrs are said to have already entered the heavenly realm before they are actually killed or when their tortures start.  The author of the Martyrdom of Polycarp also describes the martyrs as being already angels:[3] not that being martyred makes one an angel, but that they had already entered into the heavenly realms, no longer aware of their suffering.  The same idea is put forth later in the same text when St. Polycarp hears a voice from heaven encouraging him.[4]  He also believes or knows that he will be able to endure the fire without having his hands nailed to the stake, which shows he believes he will be able to endure any physical torment because Christ will be with him, in him, or he will no longer be present to any suffering.[5]  St. Pionious also after being crucified and burned is said to have a body perfectly preserved and looking like that of an athlete.  Young comments, “Here he is presented in his angelic state, his corpse reflecting his new position in heaven.”[6]  It seems from the Revelation of St. John that the martyrs, those in white robes, were given a special place in heaven.[7]  Theirs was a role in the victory of Christ and in doing so they enjoyed a special position.  Martyrs were called angels because they enjoy a special role and possibly a special place in heaven because of their death and good confession of Christ.  The martyrs also entered the heavenly realm either before their death or in some cases immediately after, because martyrdom is considered a second baptism,[8] and because they were sinless when they died[9] they attained God immediately after death.[10]  Jesus said “For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”[11]  The martyrs lose their life for the sake of the Gospel; they also give up mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, and all other comforts of this life, for their heavenly master.  Divine life is made all the more abundant in them and sealed with grace because of their obedience to the words of Christ.

From many of the accounts of martyrdom above and the divine life that is poured out on the martyrs, it is apparent that they were sealed with grace as well.  It was by grace that the martyr St. Pionious’ body was preserved and he seemed joyful, because the Lord sealed him with grace.  St. Polycarp was able to endure the flames and not be burned because the Lord sealed him in a state of bodily perfection.  There are stories throughout history of saints being preserved and protected from bodily corruption after death; this is the seal of grace.  But this seal goes further; it also reaches into the heavenly realms and seals the martyrs in their new life.  Martyrdom is a sacrament which one can only go through once.  Like baptism and confirmation, one cannot repeat the sacrament of martyrdom, because the graces received in all these sacraments are sealed into the believer.

[1] Acts 7:60.

[2] Of Polycarp, 2, 3-5.

[3] Ibid, 2, 3.

[4] Ibid, 9, 9.

[5] Ibid, 13, 13.

[6] Young, 29.

[7] Revelation 6:11.

[8] The grace of the Lord is the seal in baptism as well as the martyr’s second baptism.

[9] Middleton explains that Tertullian believed martyrs purged their own sins by undergoing martyrdom. Middleton, 90.

[10] Middleton, 91.  Also baptism for the remission of sins means that as one went through martyrdom they were being baptized, most likely by their blood, which washed away their sins making them sinless when they died.  It seems that many of the ancient and modern authors writing about martyrdom might have had or have a doctrine of purgatory in some way and thus believe that martyrdom brings one immediately into fellowship with God.

[11] Matthew 16:25.


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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