[Text: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 93, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53]
Has it really been forty days since Easter Sunday?
It seems like I just now got the Easter version of “Hail Thee, Festival Day” out of my head, and now we’re singing the Ascension version. And, a week from tomorrow, it will be time for the Pentecost version. I guess it just goes to show that you can run from “Hail Thee, Festival Day”, but you can’t hide from it—at least not this time of year.
I like that about our hymnbook—I like how it lays out the hymns according to the liturgical season to which they correspond. There are certain hymns we associate with certain days—we sing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World” on Christmas Eve, and “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” at Epiphany. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Good Friday service without the three w’s: “Were You There”, “What Wondrous Love” and “When I Survey”. (“Ah Holy Jesus” usually ends up in the lineup, too.) And you’d be hard-pressed to find a cradle Anglican who didn’t grow up singing “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” on All Saints’ Day. Many of us fondly remember accidentally-on-purpose substituting “and one was slain by a fierce, wild priest” for “fierce wild beast”, much to the annoyance of our Angel Choir directors.
But today, I think it might be appropriate to talk about a hymn that’s usually associated with a different feast day than the one we’re celebrating. Now, before you call up the Liturgical Police, hear me out. I know it’s the Feast of the Ascension, not the Feast of All Saints. But, as I was reading through the lectionary for today, I couldn’t seem to get “Blessed Feasts of Blessed Martyrs” out of my head.
Do y’all know that one? It’s usually sung on All Saints’ Day, and the first verse goes something like:
Blessed feasts of blessed martyrs
Holy women, holy men
With affection’s recollection
Greet we their return again
Worthy deeds they wrought, and wonders
Worthy of the name they bore
We with meetest praise and sweetest
Honor them forevermore
I’m pretty sure the reason I’m thinking of this song has something to do with the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. See that bit there in verse eight, where it talks about receiving power to be God’s witnesses?
The Greek word for “witness” in Acts 1:8 is an interesting word. The word is μάρτυς (MAR-toos). The overwhelming majority of the time, when μάρτυς is used, it’s translated into English as “witness”. Today’s reading from Acts is one, and there are something like thirty other examples, depending on which translation of the Bible you’re using. As a general rule, μάρτυς usually means “witness”.
But that’s not always how it’s translated. Did you notice that μάρτυς sounds a lot like the word “martyr”? That’s because μάρτυς is the Greek root of “martyr”. And, in fact, a handful of times, μάρτυς is actually translated as “martyr” rather than “witness”.
In fact, the first time that most Bibles translate μάρτυς as “martyr” is later in the book of Acts, and it’s referring to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death by the Jewish authorities. Another example is in Revelation, talking about the blood of saints and martyrs, in a time when many, many people were being killed by the Romans in highly inventive and revolting ways for professing the Christian faith.
So, what does this tell us? I think it means that the idea of being a witness, the way the Bible uses that term, is closely tied to the idea of being a martyr—in fact, it’s the exact same word.
When we are asked at baptism, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” and we respond, “I will, with God’s help,” we’re pledging ourselves to be witnesses of God—and, if we are called to be witnesses, are we not also called to be martyrs?
But how are we supposed to be martyrs as twenty-first century Americans? Despite what many folks might like to delude themselves into thinking, Christianity is not under attack in the United States, nor are Christians being oppressed, persecuted, or disenfranchised in any way. (I dare you to compare baking a wedding cake, being told “Happy Holidays”, or the legal validation of someone else’s marriage to being stoned to death, shot full of arrows, or fed to lions.) Besides the fact that claiming Christian persecution in our modern Western context sounds absolutely ridiculous, bordering on clinical insanity, it’s also incredibly disrespectful to people of all faiths, including but certainly not limited to Christians, who actually are being persecuted and killed for their faith in other parts of the world right now. (Pray for them, please, and for the repose of the souls of the ones who have been killed.)
My point is, no one in the United States in 2015 is being persecuted, let alone martyred, for being a Christian. You’re exponentially more likely to be killed for being a young man of color who has the temerity to wear a hoodie in the presence of a police officer. Not for being a Christian.
And yet, we as Christians are called to be witnesses. We are, in fact—according to verse eight—empowered to be witnesses. We are called to be martyrs. We are called to lay down our lives.
In this day and age in the United States, it’s safe to say that none of us will ever have to lay down our physical lives for the faith, and thanks be to God for that.
But we are called to lay down our lives in a spiritual sense—to be willing to surrender whatever we cling to in this life that is preventing us from bearing witness to God. We must lay down our prejudices, our hatred, and our pride. We must lay down our selfishness and self-absorption. We must lay down the notion that we are better or more deserving than anyone else. We must lay down retribution. We must lay down violence, empire, war, and greed. We must lay down the need to be right at all costs. We must lay down the systems that allow for hunger, poverty, lack of access to education and healthcare, and inequality to persist. We must lay down our contempt for creation.
And then we must take up those things that allow us to proclaim the Good News of God, made manifest in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ: we must take up goodness, righteousness, hope, justice, faith, charity, love, mercy, and peace.
We must take up the cross of Christ and follow him, forsaking all that which hinders our witness, wherever that may lead us, because we are promised that the road leads ultimately not to the cross or the tomb, but to new life. In the words of Pope St. John Paul II, “We are the Easter people, and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song!”
We are called to be the holy women and holy men that we sing about when we sing “Blessed Feasts of Blessed Martyrs”. We are heirs to the faith and the legacy of St. Stephen, St. Sebastian, St. Joan of Arc, St. Agatha, and all the blessed martyrs who now surround the throne of God and walk with us daily as fellow members of the Body of Christ.
Faith prevailing, hope unfailing
Loving Christ with single heart
Thus they glorious and victorious
Bravely bore the martyr’s part
By contempt of worldly riches
By their deeds of valor done
Victors at the last day triumph
With the Host of Angels one.
May we, God’s people—called to be witnesses, called to be martyrs—understand what it means to be a different kind of martyr, and live into it with all the zeal and courage of martyrs gone before. And may we rise triumphant with them on the last day.