Traditional forms of western Christianity like Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism use a form of meditative prayer, especially during Lent and Holy Week, called “The Way of the Cross” as a means of remembering the sufferings of Christ on the night of his crucifixion. This series of prayers and meditations follows Christ’s steps toward his death and invites the participating Christian to take up his cross, both spiritually in prayer but also in his day to day life.
Our Lord promised that being his disciples would not be easy. He commands us to take up our crosses and follow him. He warns that the world will hate and persecute those it identifies as Christians. He also promises that though the Church will experience tribulation, he will overcome the world. The first fruits of these promises are seen in Christ’s own suffering, death, and resurrection. We can be sure that, if united with him, we too will experience suffering, death, and resurrection as well.
Suffering and persecution in various forms is a predominate feature of Christianity throughout the world, perhaps most clearly evidenced in the Middle East and Africa. Pope Francis has decried the deadened ears and averted eyes of the international community. In the United States, long a bastion of religious freedom, Christians are increasingly becoming the targets of gay rights activists. Bakers, photographers, and florists are being forced out of business if their religious beliefs require them to turn down some events. States like Indiana that attempt to enact protections for religious liberty long part of federal law are belittled and bullied into surrender. People like Ryan Anderson who politely and winsomely argue for the virtue of the institution of marriage, as it has been understood until less than twenty years ago, are vilified and shunned.
While Christians in the United States can (and should) continue to fight politically for the protection of religious freedom both here and abroad, we ought also to reexamine our calling to take up the cross. In so doing, we must recognize that suffering and even death can be the most powerful and effective witness of our faith. St. Ignatius, a disciple of St. John the Apostle, in his Epistle to the Romans wrote, “ I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ…. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice to God.” He reminds them that “All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die in behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth.” He was fed to the lions in Rome.
St. Justin Martyr wrote that it was a Christian’s expectation to be martyred:
And reckon ye that it is for your sakes we have been saying these things; for it is in our power, when we are examined, to deny that we are Christians; but we would not live by telling a lie. For, impelled by the desire of the eternal and pure life, we seek the above that is with God, the Father and Creator of all, and hasten to confess our faith, persuaded and convinced as we are that they who have proved to God by their works that they followed Him, and loved to abide with Him where there is no sin to cause disturbance, can obtain these things. This, then, to speak shortly is what we expect and have learned from Christ and teach.
He was beheaded in Rome.
The church historian Eusibius wrote that the Christians in Lyons who had escaped death viewed martyrdom as a great honor:
They were also so zealous in their imitation of Christ that, though they had attained honor, and had borne witness, not once or twice, but many times—having been brought back to prison from the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds—yet they did not proclaim themselves martyrs, nor did they suffer us to address them by this name. If any one of us, in letter or conversation, spoke of them as martyrs, they rebuked him sharply. And they reminded us of the martyrs who had already departed, and said, ‘They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are lowly and humble confessors.’
But martyrdom is not only a faithful witness to the unbelieving world. As the confessions of many of the early martyrs show, it is first and foremost a demonstration of obedience to God. Early Christians were ordered to offer incense to the pagan deities or to the emperor; Christians in the Middle East are ordered to convert to Islam or die; Christians in the United States are increasingly being required to offer incense upon the altar of same-sex marriage. All of these actions are fundamentally disobedience. As Christians, we declare belief in “one God, the creator of heaven and earth” who in the beginning created man “male and female.” In standing firm, Christians proclaim the reality that God is the creator and giver of life and that outside of his will there is only death. We must take up our crosses in obedience and witness to the reality of God who is life in a world that follows only after Death.
The prayers of the Way of the Cross help us pattern our minds and wills after Christ. We are reminded of Christ’s condemnation and shaming, his sufferings and falls, his sorrow and the sorrow of those who loved him, and of his forbearance and forgiveness. We are reminded that each of Christ’s actions were undertaken with love and compassion for those who were condemning and tormenting him; we are called to witness and be persecuted in that same love. We are reminded that suffering, shame, and the cross are necessary parts of our redemption, and we are taught that only in uniting ourselves to that suffering, shame, and cross can we hope to be partake in that redemption. Christians need not fear martyrdom, but rather regard it as a sure entrance into life eternal. Christians who currently are not under the threat of martyrdom must become courageous confessors of the truth. As Tertullian famously noted, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The continuing confession of faithful Christians demonstrates Christ’s overcoming of sin and death and the power of the martyrs witness. Blessed are we who are called to that cross.