What have the martyrs ever done for us?
This time last week, we were processing around the block with palms in our hands, a short but powerful proclamation of Our Saviour’s entry to Jerusalem: powerful enough that passers-by joined our number, and I hope that some of you have come back here to celebrate His rising from the dead and triumph over death today with us.
But at the same time, while we were singing our way through the back of Sainsbury’s, far away in Egypt, a church full of our brothers and sisters kept Palm Sunday in a very different way. We may feel that we are making ourselves a target by parading publicly as Christians out in Camden Town, but those Egyptian Christians in that awful bomb attack, even as they were beginning to celebrate their Lord’s victory over death, died for the faith we share.
We are right to be horrified and to mourn, but it is important not to lose sight, especially on Easter Day, of what it was we and our Egyptian brethren were proclaiming last week when they died. We do them a disservice if we now lose hope and join the rest of the world in believing that they are no more and death has won the day. For today we proclaim the deepest truth of the Christian faith, the truth towards which the Incarnation at Christmas and the Cross and Passion of Holy Week lead: the truth of the Resurrection.
Claims of truth are mistrusted in what has, I think misleadingly, been called a “post-truth” age. So let me first be clear: the truth of the Resurrection is not merely a proclamation of dogma, something for your list of 100 impossible things to believe before breakfast. Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not something you merely sign up to to please God or the Church. It is first of all a matter of trust, trust in people: the people who first saw the empty tomb, the people who saw Jesus variously risen and appearing to them from the dead, the people who wrote this down in what would later become the Bible. People chosen by God and inspired by God. And if you ask, “why should we trust them - what were their vested interests?”, the most powerful answer I can give is that so many of them chose to die rather than give up on proclaiming what they had seen. These Christian martyrs did not take anyone else with them - suicide-bombers do not follow a man who ordered his disciples to put away their swords - but they let themselves be tortured and killed rather than deny their Risen Lord. They could have joined any number of Greek or Roman mystery cults promising eternal life, even wealth here and now, but they stuck to the vision of the executed criminal who promised them a resurrection like the one they had seen with their own eyes. Truly, the seed of the Church was sown in the blood of the martyrs.
It might surprise you to hear that the second generation of Christians did not for the most part worship in churches. Nor did most of them even worship in private homes, as is often thought. More recent scholarship shows that around 95% of these Christians worshipped weekly outdoors in graveyards, especially at the gravesides of martyrs. And the nature of their worship was much what we are doing today, and our Egyptian brothers and sisters were doing when they were martyred last week: celebrating the Eucharist.
Now this is something that horrified many non-Christians, especially Jews, for whom the dead were unclean. The idea of praying and offering a sacrifice for the dead was not new, but to do it among the dead, and even to eat among them was beyond the pale. But that is what our early Christian forebears did, whatever later reformers might think about prayers for the dead, and not just incidentally as an aside to more conventional indoor Eucharists, but as the main form of worship for the overwhelming majority of Christians every week. So why?
The answer is simply that the Eucharist was for Christians a matter of life and death. It is the way that Christ has given us to participate in his death on the Cross and his resurrection to eternal life.
In one way this is a great and supernatural paradox and miraculous exchange: God, who cannot die, does die, so that we, who cannot live forever, can live forever. And so it was natural for the early Christians to worship near those who had received the Eucharist before them, and whose mortal remains were therefore destined for resurrected life. Hence the cult of relics, and the reason why relics of martyrs are to this day placed in churches’ altar stones.
But in another way, it is the revelation of something miraculous but nonetheless completely natural: the cycle of death and birth. Imagine a grain sown into the earth. It grows to wheat and the grain is no more. The wheat is cut and ground to be made into dough. The dough is mixed with yeast to rise and then baked into bread for our sustenance. Just so, Christ died, was cut down from the Cross and was buried in the earth, then rose to life by the yeast and fire of the Holy Spirit. We have the bread which sustains our mortal life only because the grain dies and gives wheat. We have the Resurrection to eternal life only because Jesus dies and yields to us his immortality.
What we are doing here, and Christians throughout time and the world are doing whenever they celebrate mass, is nothing other than preparing for death. The historian St Bede writes of several early British saints, such as Hilda, Caedmon and Cuthbert, that they received the Sacrament as close as possible to the moment of their own deaths, ideally surrounded by their fellow Christians. St Dunstan, 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury, during mass in the Easter octave, surrounded by the singing of psalms, received the precious Body of Christ and then, it is written, “gave up his spirit,” so joining his departure with Our Lord’s on the Cross. It may sound strange to the world, but for a Christian, there can be no better way to die.
So now, my brothers and sisters, I urge you to give thanks today at our altar for the blood of the martyrs, even the most recent ones, confident in their Resurrection to life with Our Lord; to offer his sacrifice for them here as our forebears have ever done; and now and at every Mass to prepare also for your own death, praying for God’s grace to transform you into the fulness of Resurrected Life in which he wills you to rejoice.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.