Imitators of Christ: Is Martyrdom a Sacrament? Part 9

In this section of the paper, I discuss the idea that there is a liturgy of martyrdom.  It focuses on the idea that the martyrs copy Jesus’ passion and death, in their own death.  Much of the scholarship comes from Robin Darling Young.

At this point it is important to explore the liturgy of martyrdom in the early church.  The liturgy of martyrdom was not totally written down on paper; it was written on the lives of the martyrs.  The martyrdom was seen as a type of Eucharistic sacrifice.  Ignatius demonstrates this in his letter to the Romans, he compares himself to wheat and bread which was to be ground by the teeth of the wild animals.[1]  In a time when the Eucharist was still private and only for those in the Church, the martyrs were a public Eucharistic sacrifice and liturgy.  It gave the witnesses of martyrdoms a great example of what Jesus went through and what his followers were willing to go through.  The martyrs’ death became a sacrifice for the whole world.  Their death was not just an imitation of Jesus’ passion but also a sacrifice for the world as they defeated the devil and his demons.

The liturgy had to do with the martyrs trying to imitate Jesus and his passion.  The liturgy of the martyrs tried to follow a set style by undergoing training to make a good confession and a good witness for Christ.  The martyrs were shaped by those who went before them.  This started with the martyrdom of St. Stephen; his imitation of Christ is the basis for all the other martyrs who came after him.  Young writes, “Because martyrs bore the name of Christ, they were themselves like letters meant to be read by the community and the world, letters from Christ that were recognizably like Christ.”[2]  The account of St. Perpetua is an example of this; she was in prison for some time before she was sent to the arena.  During this time she had both visions of herself and others in the arena and visions of heaven.[3]  Her liturgy started long before she entered the arena; she started to imitate Christ in the prison as she left her father and child behind for the sake of Christ.  Likewise, St. Polycarp, as shown above, started his liturgy and started to think about his act of martyrdom well before he was cast before the proconsul.  He knew several days in advance that he would be burned.  He also tried to go beyond other examples of martyrs who were silent at their death by trying to preach the Gospel to the proconsul.  Other ancient writers gave examples of training for martyrdom; this training was a way of making a liturgy for the martyrs to follow.  The potential martyr most likely thought about his or her death and experience in the arena before he or she was thrown before the crowds and beasts.  St. Perpetua understood what was going to happen to her and those with her.  She had to face the grief of giving up her child and seeing her father long for her to deny Christ.  It was almost like a catechism for the early Christians, giving them a process to follow and the theological understanding of what they were to do.  In this way it strengthened and encouraged the potential martyrs so that they could stand up under temptation to deny Christ.  In these ways the martyrs were following a type of liturgy that the Church and those who went before them had set up for them.

Another element in the liturgy of the martyrs was the idea of sacrifice and altar.  The saints were temples for the Holy Spirit and their death was a sacrifice on the altar of their flesh.  It is ironic, because many were martyred because they refused to make a sacrifice to the emperor or pagan gods and ended up themselves being sacrifices to the true God.  The martyrs followed the liturgy of those who had gone before them and the liturgy of the life of Jesus, just as the priest and bishops followed the liturgy of the table when making the sacrifice of the Eucharist.  The martyrs professed Christ and the Gospel in their sacrifice just as the Eucharistic liturgies of the early Church professed Christ in the breaking of the bread and pour of the wine.  Clement of Alexandria regarded the martyrs as true temples, where sacrifices would be made.  Tertullian, believed those about to be martyred could forgive sins, most likely because they were about to be poured out as a sacrifice for the world and their sacrifice could cover the sins of those who can to them seeking absolution.  Young suggests that St. Clement of Alexandria “expected that the martyrs’ sacrifice would extend the work of Christ; the carefully prescribed, ritual aspects of their deaths could be expected to soften the cold hearts of persecutors and cast doubt into the minds of those who were pagans by custom.”[4]  The martyrs may not have had word for word liturgies or written out prayers for their sacrifice but they did go through training and tried to show Christ in their acts.


[1] Ignatius of Antioch, 46.

[2] Young, 10.

[3] Of Perpetua and Felicitas, 4 and 10, 111-113 and 117-119.

[4] Young, 40.

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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2 Responses to Imitators of Christ: Is Martyrdom a Sacrament? Part 9

  1. Sarah says:

    Good piece. Would you also suggest that everyday life has a certain liturgy, especially in the life of a Benedictine seeking Conversion of Life?

    • Jesse says:

      Sarah, I would agree that the Benedictine/monastic life does have a certain liturgy to it. If we keep up with it, I think that we can keep up with the Benedictine rhythm of life, then we have a good foundation for a life of liturgy.

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