Homily for June 2, 2019
Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time
A major turning point in my relationship with Jesus occurred when I was blessed to go on pilgrimage to Rome when I was fourteen. I was just excited for ten days without my parents in a foreign country! But I remember visiting the Coliseum, and as I stood there, I realized – over ten thousand men, women, and children shed their blood for Jesus Christ right there, on that spot. Why did I not take my faith more seriously, if they were willing to die for it? And when I returned home, I vowed to live out my Catholic Faith in Jesus Christ more intensely.
The word “martyr” in Greek means “witness”. And these men and women – starting with St. Stephen in today’s first reading, all the way up to those killed in Sri Lanka in the recent Easter church bombings – are witnesses to the Lord Jesus. It’s one thing to say you believe in Jesus – it’s quite another to die for Him. And thus, the martyrs are one of the most credible witnesses we have to the truth of our Faith. As the Church Father Tertullian said, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” If they are willing to shed their blood for Christ, it calls us on to take our faith more seriously!
A few years ago, in 2015, you may remember a video that was circulating on the internet of ISIS who had captured twenty Egyptian Christians. The terrorists brought these men to the seashore and filmed their beheading. Seeing their immense faith and courage, one of the terrorists declared, “Their God is my God!” He was then martyred along with the twenty. It was the courage and faith of those twenty that led one more to the Lord Jesus.
Over the centuries, there have been over fifty million martyrs. Think of it – fifty million people killed for their faith in Jesus. And most of these were in the last one-hundred years! More people died for Christ in the twentieth century than in all other centuries combined.
With the eyes of faith, though, martyrdom is not a tragedy but a blessing. After all, the reward of martyrdom is mentioned in our second reading – they have “washed their robes” (in other words, been purified through the Blood of Christ) and now have the privilege to enter the city of Heaven and eat from the tree of life.
In fact, some of the greatest saints had an overwhelming desire for martyrdom. For example, St. Therese of Lisieux said, “My desire for martyrdom is profound and unsettling.” St. Francis traveled all the way from Italy to Egypt to preach the Gospel to the Muslim sultan, in hopes that he would be martyred. The Sultan listened to the saint, impressed by his courage, and then sent him back home to Italy without harming him at all – much to Francis’ disappointment!
All Christians should love Jesus so much that they would be willing to give up everything for Him. Now, you may be thinking, “Really? I want to live a long and happy life! I don’t want to be a martyr!” But Jesus says that there is no greater love than to lay down your life. And we should all seek to cultivate that kind of love – as Jesus died for us, so we should be willing to live and die for Him. He is not asking us to do anything He has not done first! Besides, union with God in Heaven is far, far better than this world, which the saints have called a “valley of tears”!
But don’t worry, because living in twenty-first century America means that we probably won’t face physical martyrdom any time soon. Nevertheless, there is a type of martyrdom called “white martyrdom” that we can all participate in. This means being willing to endure the mockery, struggles, and misunderstandings of others as we follow our Lord Jesus.
So that family who receives sarcastic remarks because of their openness to life, but responds with a smile – that is white martyrdom. That high school student who is unafraid to wear a crucifix or miraculous medal, despite what others think – that is white martyrdom. The person who suffers from chronic pain but doesn’t complain and offers it up to the Lord – that is white martyrdom. The Christian who prays grace in a public restaurant, who is not afraid to walk away from a dirty conversation or to leave a family barbecue in time to get to Mass when others think it’s silly…all this is white martyrdom. It is a sign of our love for the Lord Jesus, who was willing to suffer a red martyrdom by shedding His Blood for us.
Jesus gave us everything. He held nothing back for Himself but was willing to endure every suffering to draw us close to His Heart. One who loves Him and seeks to give their lives to Him is willing to endure any suffering or hardship, with our eyes firmly fixed on the Lord whom we love. This is white martyrdom – this is the call for every Christian.