Being Born Again: Martyrdom

A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.  Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.  (John 16:21)

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Jesus compared the life His disciples would experience to a woman giving birth to a child.  There is agony and pain, besides the birthing process being messy, which all must take place before the joy of the new birth.  Jesus also indicated we all need to go through a new or second birth, not like the natural birth from our mothers, but born of the Spirit.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:3-6)  Our new birth is into God’s Kingdom.  This new birth is experienced by us in our bodies, which means it involves a certain amount of pain, stress and discomfort as any birthing mother and newborn often loudly testify.  We unite ourselves to Christ and thus experience what He experiences on our behalf.  “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

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Roman Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer writes:

The reality of the Passion and the reality of the Resurrection, these two go together and are equally essential.  Christian hope is fed with the certainty that ‘after his resurrection, Jesus ate and drank with his disciples like a corporeal being, even though  spiritually united with the Father’ [Ignatius].   Hence, indeed, it comes about that the believer accepts very real sufferings unhesitatingly, because he also expects, thanks to Christ, a resurrection which will be equally real.

As for myself, I know that I believe that, even after His resurrection, Jesus had a body.  When He came near to Peter and His companions, what did He say?  ‘Touch me, feel me, and see that I am not a bodiless spirit‘  [Luke 24:39]. Immediately they touched Him, and at this intimate contact with His flesh and His spirit, they believed: hence their contempt for death and their victory over it. [Ignatius of Antioch]

The last words, that we have italicized, are decisive.  The disciples did not expect from death as such an immortality of the soul disengaged from its bonds with the body.  Quite the contrary, they expected, from Jesus resurrection, a like victory over their own death.”  (Louis Bouyer, THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT AND THE FATHERS, p 195)

Even believers continue to suffer in this world.  Christ suffered once for all, but that didn’t end or even change what we continue to experience in our own lives in the world of the Fall.  What we hope in Christ is that death is not the final word about us.  By remaining united to Christ, who Himself suffered pain and sorrow in the world, we believe we too will overcome death in Christ.  So whereas our suffering now is real, so too will be our resurrection.  As Bouyer says, ” … it is not death itself that the martyr seeks in death, it is Jesus Christ” (p 199).  It is because Jesus Christ has conquered death that St Ignatius could envision what death will mean for him: “… I, up to the present moment, am a slave; but death will make me a freeman of Jesus Christ in whom I shall rise again free” (p 198).  Christ’s resurrection means Death does not enslave me in the end.  Rather, in Christ I am freed both from the limitations of death and bondage to it.

“… this presence of Christ in the martyr appears as an object of experience.  The Christian writers were quite convinced that Christ revealed himself, conqueror of death in them as in himself, at the moment when they consummated their martyrdom.  The martyr himself, naturally, was the immediate beneficiary of this revelation, but something of it might be communicated to those present.  For this reason, martyrdom appeared as the greatest charismatic experience in the ancient Church.”  (Louis Bouyer, THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT AND THE FATHERS, p 204)

Whatever grief Death causes for us – whatever pain, suffering, sorrow and sighing it may cause – has no eternal value.  It all is limited to this world, but Christ unites us to the world to come.   Martyrdom, to which Christ calls each of us, never involves killing anyone else.  As Chrysostom said, our warfare makes the dead to live, not the living dead.

“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

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