Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Martyrdom Lessons

But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew -- and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents -- that there was all the difference in the world.
J. K. Rowling, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince", Page 512
As I read this passage a couple of months ago, my thoughts turned to the story of the martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow. We are told that these two women, along with their fellow martyrs, "marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear." Such was their spirit in facing death that Perpetua actually "took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat." What are we supposed to make of such behavior?

For one thing, we have cheapened martyrdom. Too quickly and too easily do we cry persecution, too often simply because we have not gotten our way. As David Gibson remarked, "Ah, the joys of being a martyr who is in no danger. Doesn't get any better than that." Whatever else martyrdom is, it is not cheap or easy.

There should be something confounding about people like Perpetua and Felicitas. It's one thing to grimly do your duty while fighting the good fight. But to go to your death not just willingly, but joyfully, even gleefully? We use every means at our disposal to cling to very the last second of life. And yet here we have the young and vibrant, with children and friends to live for, welcoming death like a lover.

When we look at self-sacrificial love, most of us focus on the sacrifice. All the martyr sees is love. And they know that death is no match for love.

"But what of that which you fear most: death? Yes, the end will come, not just for you, but for this world as a whole. Do not be afraid, for this is a great joy. It is not an end, just part of the process of life. That is not just good, it is wonderful."

Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, pray for us.