Today is the feast of the first martyrs of Rome, commemorating those Christians who died during the persecution of Nero around 64AD. One cannot overestimate the impact of martyrdom on the early Church, as until the 4th century, the Church was the Church of Martyrs.
During this time there was no formal process of canonization; most of those raised to the altars took a simple, if painful, path: they died for the faith. We can see the central place of martyrdom in Christianity with the account of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, in the Acts of the Apostles. That account is a turning point in that book’s story of the early Church. Fourth century St. Ephrem the Syrian sings the praise of the martyrs in his Hymns on Paradise:
Those who have been crowned for our Lord’s sake
with the martyr’s death by the sword
shine out in glory there
with their crowns
because their bodies despised
the persecutors’ fire.
Like stars do they blossom
We who live our faith in comfort and safety can easily forget the sacrifice others have made to pass on that faith. It is unlikely that any of us will face a “red martyrdom” but we must remember that all of us are called to “white martyrdom,” in which we continually die to self in order to “live in Christ.” This can be done by the mother who does the same tasks every day joyfully in order to serve her family or the businessman who gives up professional advancement or more money in order to spend more time with his family. Every day presents opportunities to die to self – we just need to recognize them and, by the grace of God, unite them to our Lord on the Cross.
Holy martyrs of Rome, pray for us!