Besides being the first Sunday of Lent, February 22 also celebrates the Chair of St. Peter and the feast of St. Peter the Apostle. These are no small matters. Peter, that most rambunctious of Christ’s disciples, is also the most human. The Gospels depict his bravery as well as cowardice, his faith and his foibles. Peter first declares Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, for which Christ recognizes him as the Church’s foundation (Matthew 16:16-19). On the other hand, to save himself Peter quickly denies Christ three times (Mt 26:69-75, Mk 14:66-72, Lk 22:54-62, Jn 18:16-27). Peter and Paul join to make their contributions to the Church (especially so at Rome). The Catechism celebrates St. Peter’s charism for visible authority while reminding us that the Marian charism—the one of interior holiness—always precedes the Petrine (#773). There are other feast days involving Peter (June 29—Saints Peter & Paul, November 18—dedication of the basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul). These very particular, apostolic reminders link us—in our own locations—to the universal Church that that these apostles founded to proclaim the Gospel.
All that being said, the Islamic State’s recent executions—the burning of a Jordanian pilot, beheading 21 Coptic Christians with a threat to conquer Rome—render moot many, if not all, academic considerations of martyrdom. After all, it’s one thing to write about it; it is another matter entirely to confront the actual, visible reality. I know St. Peter was a martyr; he and so many thousands of believers since have found in Christ the courage to confront death. If we are honest, though, we cannot escape the awkwardness of writing while others actually live.
That living of the faith requires truth-telling. The Catechism discusses martyrdom under the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). God is the source of all Truth, and in Jesus Christ God’s truth is made wholly manifest (#2465-6). All Christians are called to witness to this Truth; the martyrs, in dying, bear supreme witness. They also, through their death, fully imitate Christ (#2472). Sometimes martyrs are well-known, others dwell even in death in relative anonymity. They now rest with God. Meanwhile back here on earth the Church memorializes all the saints—starting with the Blessed Virgin Mother—and thus the martyrs to illuminate the links between the earthly and heavenly liturgies (#1195). These examples encourage and exhort us in our own journey to God.
In the Lenten season the Church encourages us to renew our practice of prayer, fasting, and alms. This requires humility, a virtue rarely praised or valued today (cf. #2559). By knowing we are not God we are thus able to starting praying to God (and with the saints). Humility also forces us to realize, in occasionally awkward ways, that all our words and gestures do not mean much. In 1970 Peter Berger wrote: “In a world full of Nazis, one may be forgiven for being a Barthian.” Referring to the strident style of Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), Berger meant that, in extreme circumstances, unrepentant declarations of gospel truth might be permissible. Perhaps some Christians have spent the last forty-five years wondering if the world has yet filled up with enough Nazis so they can finally start evangelization. The martyrs did not wait, and through their deaths have testified to the good news.
Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.