Sitting in Westminster Abbey for the 500th anniversary service of the Reformation I was close to the lectern on my right and could see the dignitaries next to the pulpit but to see the altar I needed to look at a monitor to my left. It meant that I listened (!) but I was turning my head in a way I wouldn’t usually do in a church service! Across my field of vision came memorials, notices, stained glass, and many statutes! I could see Biblical characters in the glass but historical characters in stone. I didn’t recognise any of the statues I could see but I was reminded that the Abbey has a long history of burying or commemorating national figures – royalty, military, scientists, creative artists – music, poetry, literature, drama, painting, sculpture, clerics, theologians, scholars, and also politicians – all named, except one – that of the Unknown Warrior inside the Great West Door. You can walk on the dead and next to the dead and under dead but not on the grave of the Unknown Warrior.
Entering through the Great West Door one passes under ten modern statues in the niches above the door. These are martyrs of the 20th century drawn from many continents and many denominations. They were unveiled in 1998 and tell stories of oppression, violence, and witness. The word ‘martyr’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘witness’ and we use it today with the association of death – a witness to one’s belief – where words and deeds reflect a truth that death does not sway, alter, or change. We can be pretty pragmatic, at times, about beliefs and values but such martyrdom reminds us that perhaps there are reasons for dying. This isn’t suicide or self loathing but caught in a world of sin it is choosing truth – and often service of others – in a context of sacrifice.
The Early Church hymn of praise ‘The Te Deum’ says, ‘The noble army of martyrs praise Thee’ and there was a description of an aspect of Early Church living from Tertullian that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’. One tends to notice death for a reason or cause – particularly if there appears to be away to dodge death. Fear of death can be a powerful motivator. So to go counter to that and die can cause onlookers to stop and take note.
The world might regard Christians as foolish for their faith and thus delusional if it costs them their lives. Martyrdom – being faithful unto death – is part of what the Christian Faith is about. Christians don’t go looking for such trouble but it may come to them as they follow Jesus in their time and place. For us in the UK and in many parts of the world we do not face persecution unto death and our Christian faithfulness might be seen in our daily dying to self in repentance and walking wet in our baptism as we follow Jesus. In other parts of the world, Christian persecution is actual and happening. The empty tomb of Jesus declares that death, while it is the final enemy, does not have the final say or the last word – for that belongs to the One who has defeated death’s power. Just before his prayer and arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet, instituted Holy Communion, and taught them many things about what was to happen and particularly about the Holy Spirit and then he says: I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 ESV)
This is the message we should hear every All Saints’ Day, every Christian funeral, and particularly when we are called upon to speak and live the truth – which is Jesus Christ. GS