Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sacrificial themes in the early Martyrs

In Ch. 50 of his Apologeticus, Tertullian famously acknowledged the following with regard to the early Christian martyrs:
Plures efficimur quotiens metimur a vobis; semen est sanguis Christianorum
"The more often we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed". And indeed it was true and is true today. The witness offered by these Christians who shed their blood for their faith, in one way or another, bears testimony to others concerning the extraordinary power of faith and the power of God's grace to save. Indeed, it is from this that the word martyr derives. And consequently, the Church grows from this witness. The blood of the martyrs is seed.

Many have pointed out that many of the heroic stories of the early martyrs are also related as tales of sacrifice -- sacrifices that are linked to the one sacrifice of Christ, our High Priest, offered in thanksgiving for the benefit of the whole Church. Thus, in view of identifying with a eucharistic sacrifice, their sacrifice is judged acceptable and life giving, not merely for the one being martyred, but indeed for the present and future Church still remaining, if not only for the witness it confirms.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp records a very famous example in Ch. 14 concerning the execution of St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, in the 2nd century. As he was being prepared for execution on a pyre, Polycarp is said to have offered a sacrificial prayer of thanksgiving to God the Father. It is a eucharistic prayer in every sense, which even concludes with a doxology:
And when [Polycarp] placed his hands behind his back and was tied, he was like an exceptional ram taken from a great flock for a sacrifice, prepared as a whole burnt offering that is acceptable to God. Looking up into heaven he said:
Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed child Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, the God of angels, of powers, and of all creation, and of every race of the upright who live before you. I bless you for making me worthy of this day and hour, that I may receive a share among the number of the martyrs in the cup of your Christ, unto the resurrection of eternal life in both soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. Among them may I be received before you today as a sacrifice that is rich and acceptable, just as you prepared and revealed in advance and now fulfilled -- the true God who does not lie. For this reason and for all things I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal and heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, your beloved child, through whom be glory to you, with him and the Holy Spirit, both now and for the ages to come. Amen.
When he sent up the "Amen" and finished the prayer, the men in charge of the fire touched it off. And as a great flame blazoned forth we beheld a marvel -- we to whom it was granted to see, who have also been preserved to report the events to the others. For the fire, taking on the appearance of a vaulted room, like a boat's sail filled with the wind, formed a wall around the martyr's body. And he was in the center, not like burning flesh but like baking bread...
The reference to bread is also not unique. Mike Aquilina is quick to remind us that St. Ignatius of Antioch referred to himself as bread when, in his letter to the Romans, he asked the Church to petition Christ that he be found to be an acceptable sacrifice.
I am writing to all the churches and giving instruction to all, that I am willingly dying for God... Allow me to be bread for the wild beasts; through them I am able to attain to God. I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found to be the pure bread of Christ... Petition Christ on my behalf, that I may be found a sacrifice through these instruments of God.
Praised be Jesus Christ, our High Priest.

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