Imitators of Christ: Is Martyrdom a Sacrament, Part 5

In this section of the paper, I explore the idea of the martyr bearing spiritual fruit leading up to, in, and after his/her death.  It focuses on evidence from The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Vision of St. Perpetua, and modern scholarship.

It now comes time to explore the last statement in the definition of sacraments given above, “bears fruit in a believer’s life.”  Since martyrdom by definition comes at the end of one’s life, sometimes it might be hard to see all the fruits that are born out of it.  One note should be made on this point as well; the idea of fruits in this context is not limited to the fruits of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23.  Some of the fruits that will be examined will come from after the martyr’s death and will deal with the heavenly aid the early Church believed the martyrs gave them.  The first account to be explored will be the account of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, recorded in Acts 7.  In verse 55, St. Stephen looks up to heaven and sees the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  One of the fruits that martyrdom bore in him before his death was a vision of heaven.  Visions are not in the list of the fruits of the Spirit, but it is a fruit that comes from the Spirit; the text describes St. Stephen as full of the Holy Spirit.  In verse 60, St. Stephen prays for his enemies, asking that their sin not be held against them.  This portrays the fruits of kindness, goodness, love, and gentleness.  Kindness, because he prays for those who persecute him, he is showing them kindness where they showed him none.  Goodness, because he is giving them what they do not deserve.  Love, because he loves his enemies; he is praying for them, and if a person hates another he/she does not pray for them.  Gentleness, because he is receiving his stoning without fighting back; he is being gentle in his death.  The Biblical account of St. Stephen shows the fruits present in his life both before and during his martyrdom.

The Pre-Nicene Church Fathers also wrote about the fruits present in the martyrs’ lives before, during, and after their martyrdoms.  The letters of St. Ignatius speak to his ideas of his own martyrdom and show some examples of the fruits he was already beginning to bear, even before he underwent martyrdom.  In his letter to the Romans he wrote, “But through the wrongs they do me I become more of a disciple…and I will coax [the wild beasts] to eat me up expeditiously, and not refuse to touch me through cowardice, as they have done in some cases.”[1]  In this, St. Ignatius shows great self-control, in his willingness to be killed by the beasts, even in coaxing them to eat him.  This showed St. Ignatius was prepared and started to bear fruit even before his martyrdom.  Tertullian expressed this same belief that the martyrs started to bear fruit even before their death.  Tertullian in his book Ad Martyres suggested the martyrs are able to forgive sin.  He writes, “Some who have not this peace in the Church are wont to beg it from the martyrs in prison.”[2]  He believed the martyrs are able to forgive the sins of those who come to them.  This is a type of fruit that gives them the ability to perform something only priests and bishops had the power to do.  The fruit of the martyrs went beyond the fruits of the Spirit.

The Pre-Nicene accounts martyrdom also show the fruits of the characters in their accounts.  Some martyrs were given visions before their death.  St. Perpetua was given visions of heaven, her death, and other martyrs.[3]  St. Polycarp was given a vision of how he must be killed.    He had a vision where his pillow was on fire and commented that he must be burned alive.[4]  St. Perpetua was also received peace about her situation.  St. Polycarp showed great self-control in his willingness to stay at the stake by only having his hands tied.  He was also willing to preach to the proconsul, which showed goodness and love.  He showed much patience in his waiting for the authorities to arrest him and take him to the arena to meet his Lord.  These actions are all in the physical world before the martyr’s death.

[1] Ignatius of Antioch, 46.

[2] Tertullian, Ad Martyres, 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), 155.

[3] The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 4 and 10 trans. Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 111-113 and 117-119.

[4] Of Polycarp, 5, 7.


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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