The Imperishable Crown

Martyrdom as the Fulfillment of the Baptismal Call

The Stoning of St. Stephen by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1625

At the heart of the mystery of Christian life is a paradox: although those who are baptized receive all of the supernatural grace necessary for entering eternal life, they do not on that account escape the harsh reality of the present world. While they are redeemed without any price, they must contend for their salvation and hold fast to their faith; while they are blessed by God, they are cursed by others; while they are saved, they must also suffer. Jesus actually declares that suffering and opposition for confessing the Christian faith are blessings, saying, “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you…behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:22-23). Martyrdom, in which one gives his whole life for the sake of the Gospel, is the ultimate test of Christian strength: compelled to choose between eternal life and the sin of apostasy, the one on trial must forfeit his earthly life so as to remain faithful to his baptismal promises. Martyrdom, in fact, brings to fruition the effects of Baptism by conforming the baptized person most perfectly to the passion and death of Christ.

The Institution of Baptism
Before the rite of Baptism can be understood properly as an instrumental means of configuring one to Christ, it must be explained first how Christ instituted the Sacrament. Clearly, His own baptism in the River Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist prefigures sacramental Baptism, whereby catechumens are submerged under water for the purification of their sins. Christ, however, refers to His own baptism differently in the Gospel of Luke: “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). From the context, it is understood that Jesus is speaking of His passion, being a “baptism by blood and martyrdom, which baptism Christ underwent on our behalf,” as Saint John of Damascus teaches.1 The connection between baptism and the cross may be more readily explained by the etymology of the word baptism itself, which is a transliteration of the Greek word baptisma, meaning, besides the act of ritual washing, a “plunging.”2 As Christ was plunged into the waters, so He was later immersed in the suffering. Thus, we must examine the manner of Christ’s death in order to demonstrate thereafter how it was symbolized by the baptism of the faithful.

The Baptism of the Cross
By the privation of Original Sin, men were condemned to death and to separation from God, punishments aggravated by actual sin. God decreed that for the penalty of death to be remitted, some means of retribution be paid in order to satisfy the requirements of justice. Yet, because of man’s sinful condition and finite nature, no individual person could satisfy for the whole human race. Hence, the sinless Christ “came principally to take away original sin,” as Aquinas holds. 3 Christ offered His own death in the place of the death of sinners, fulfilling the requirements of satisfaction by reconciling the offended God with offending man. Aquinas says that this death was more than sufficient to meet this end: “first, on account of the magnitude of His charity, out of which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life, which He offered for satisfaction, and which was the life of God and man…”4 The infinite dignity of His divine person made any sort of suffering on His part of infinite value and, therefore, able to outweigh, in a manner of speaking, the sins of the world. He could then offer the fruits of His most painful death to all those who are united to Him in a sort of friendship, because “atonement consists in an outward action, for which helps may be used, among which friends are to be computed.”5 Christ, as both God and man, could thus pay the debt that men owed to God, so that they would no longer be subject to condemnation.

Perfect atonement was also possible not only on account of Christ’s twofold nature, but because of the love with which He accomplished this act. Suffering as such, Saint Thomas explains, has no intrinsic worth, and is to be avoided; yet “in so far as a man suffers willingly, it has an inner source and so is meritorious.”6 Thus, an act of the free will constitutes the formal cause of one’s act, even when violent force is used against him: either he can suffer it only passively against his will, or he can will it to be an occasion for bringing about a great good. Hence, inasmuch as He was put to death by sinners, Christ was made a victim; inasmuch as He offered up this same death for the good of sinners, He made Himself a sacrifice. Insofar as a “‘sacrifice,’ properly speaking, requires that something be done to the thing which is offered to God … since ‘sacrifice’ is so called because a man does something sacred,” Christ had to lay down His life that He could take that life, transformed for our sake, up again.7 The physical offering of His crucified body received its saving power first from an internal act from His soul, “which is offered to God,” Aquinas explains, “in a certain inward sacrifice by devotion, prayer, and other like interior acts: and this is the principal sacrifice.”8 Because this interior disposition of will remains eternally in Christ, He is able to apply the fruits of His redemption to all men in every place and time, even as He willed their salvation from the cross.

In the first place, His inward sacrifice was efficacious because He was perfectly obedient to the will of the Father out of the fullness of His love. His obedience was not slavish, in the sense that the Father compelled Him to suffer against His will; rather, Christ’s love made Him all the more willing to act at the command of the One to whom He was united in charity. Accordingly, Aquinas sums up this doctrine, “He fulfilled those [precepts] of the moral order which are founded on the precepts of charity, inasmuch as He suffered both out of love of the Father … and out of love of His neighbor…”9 Also, as the Father and Son are of one will as regards their nature, so Christ as man was united to the Father’s will in a perfect moral union, although suffering was repugnant to His natural will. His human obedience, therefore, was all the more meritorious, since He obeyed in the most extreme way, forfeiting His life in loving deference to God.

Likewise, the love that Christ manifested to sinners on the cross enables them to approach the fount of mercy through His death. Men, by disobeying God’s commandments, had become the enemies of God on account of their hostility; in this sense, the execution of the incarnate God was the most human act of all. Yet, the love of Christ on the cross overshadowed their hatred, as Saint Paul says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). In his commentary on this verse, Aquinas notes that the crucifixion demonstrates “a certain immensity of the divine love, which is shown both by his own deed, because he gave his son, and by our condition, because he was not moved to do this by our merits, since we were still sinners…”10 In fact, He chose to undergo the most violent and painful death, though He could have merited the same otherwise, in order to manifest the all-encompassing power of this love. The cross is meant, thereby, to elicit an act of human love in return, by which one is united to God in the bond of charity, “for through this,” Aquinas says, “man knows how much God loves him, and through this he is called forth to loving Him, in which the perfection of human salvation consists.”11 Therefore, Christ’s will to suffer so much with divine love restored the proper friendship between God and the human race by overcoming the enmity that had separated both sides.

Now this power of God’s love was manifested most perfectly in the triumph of Christ’s Resurrection. For when Christ was raised from the grave to the fullness of glorified life, God showed that love is truly stronger than death, rewarding His Son for the loving act with which He laid down His life. Aquinas says that this reward was necessary “for the commendation of Divine Justice, to which it belongs to exalt them who humble themselves for God’s sake…”12 Since Christ had suffered the worst humiliation in His mortal flesh, it was fitting that He would receive the glory of immortality in His human body upon its reunion with His soul. Likewise, His rising benefited those for whom He had satisfied, so that, being purified from sin, they might also hope to share in a newness of life: “just as because of this [human salvation] He endured evils by dying, so that we might be delivered from evils, so He was glorified by rising, so that we might be moved towards goods…”13 Thus, the Resurrection resulted from the good effects of the Passion, and bears witness to the victory of God over evil, because “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20).

The Sacrament of Baptism
1.The sign of the Sacrament

Before speaking of sacramental baptism in particular, it would be helpful to examine the nature of the sacraments of the Church in general. Saint Thomas defines a sacrament as a “sign of a holy thing so far as it makes men holy.”14 The sacraments operate as causal signs: they are channels of invisible grace inasmuch as they signify, by an external movement, an unseen spiritual action. The sign is formed by the use of words and matter; the words spoken by the minister of the sacrament are like the formal element of the sign. The sacred words also help to specify the signification of the material sign, since words are by their very nature significant. The visible sign then brings about the spiritual effect on the recipient that is signified outwardly. In each sacramental sign, Aquinas says, there is a threefold signification, following upon the threefold causality present in it: “the very [that is, efficient] cause of our sanctification, which is Christ’s passion; the form of our sanctification, which is the grace and virtues; and the ultimate end of our sanctification, which is eternal life.”15 The sacraments derive their efficacy from the divine power distributing the merits of Christ’s passion, because God has instituted them so as to produce their given effect by being administered according to a specific form. God, therefore, is the principal agent who causes grace, while the sacramental signs are instrumental agents through which God acts.

In the sacrament of Baptism, the ritual of pouring water over the candidate follows the model that Christ instituted when He instructed His disciples to baptize with precise words: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). The baptismal formula invokes the Trinitarian name, Aquinas says, to proclaim “the principal cause from which it derives its virtue, and this is the Blessed Trinity…”16 Likewise, the threefold instrumental causality present in all the sacraments is duly signified in the act of washing with the proper matter of water. First, the purification rite miraculously recalls the Paschal mystery of Christ by making the merits of the historical event of His passion present as an efficient cause at a different point in time. Second, the washing with water pertains to the present formal cause of the sacrament inasmuch as it signifies the effects of grace and virtues bestowed on the recipient, because “by reason of its moistness it cleanses; and hence it fittingly signifies and causes the cleaning from sins…”17 Third, it signifies the inheritance of eternal life, since Holy Baptism “is a regeneration unto spiritual life,” which befits water as being the source of all life, especially at its generation.18 Therefore, cleansing with water signifies the spiritual rebirth by which we are made fit for eternal beatitude, the final cause of the sacrament.

2.The Rite of the Sacrament
In order to understand the transformation brought about by Baptism, one may look to the steps of the baptismal rite as recounted by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem. In a lecture for the newly baptized, he explains that the first action of the rite is the renunciation of the devil and his works. First, the catechumens turn to the west and say, “I renounce you, Satan … Meaning,” Cyril says, “I fear your might no longer; for Christ hath overthrown it … that I might not forever be subject to bondage.”19 While man was in a state of Original Sin, the devil, who had tricked the first man, held everyone under his tyranny; but Christ paid the ransom price to the Father by the satisfactory offering of His own death, “that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14). Yet, since one would not truly be set free from slavery, if, after being redeemed, he stubbornly remained with his slave master, so each person could not partake of the fruits of Christ’s redemption without first renouncing Satan. Likewise, the catechumen must also declare that he renounces all of Satan’s works, “just as one who escaped a tyrant has surely escaped his weapons also.”20 These works are acts of sin, which, by transgressing the divine law, separate one from God, and put him in the service of the “father of lies.” Therefore, it is necessary to break allegiance with the devil before one can receive God’s grace.

The next act before receiving the Sacrament of Baptism, Saint Cyril says, is to profess one’s belief in the Catholic faith: “each of you was asked, whether he believed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and ye made that saving confession…”21 The profession of faith follows after one has renounced Satan, because he then becomes able to bind himself to God, who alone can truly redeem him. The act of faith is the first motion by which one turns to God; prior to any intellectual assent is a choice of the will to reject the converse of faith. Hence Aquinas says, “the act of believing has firm adherence to one alternative,” despite the lack of certain knowledge about it.22 To have the virtue of faith, properly speaking, is to yield one’s intellect and will in obedience to God, who reveals the articles of faith, “since by divine authority the understanding of the believer is convinced to assent to what it does not see.”23 Therefore, this grace of faith is necessary for one to know the purpose and necessity of Baptism, and the confession of faith is an essential precursor to receiving the sacrament of faith.

Finally, the catechumen is immersed in the baptismal pool, thereby entering sacramentally into the central mystery of human redemption: the saving death and resurrection of Christ. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem claims that the baptismal candidate imitates Christ’s crucifixion first in being immersed fully into the water three times, “covertly pointing by a figure at the three-days burial of Christ.”24 Yet, the threefold immersion itself is not merely a symbol, but, because it forms part of the sacramental sign, it brings about the saving effects of Christ’s actions that it signifies. The imitation actually becomes a means of participation, as Saint Cyril says so well, “upon Christ death came in reality, for His soul was truly separated from His body … but in your case, only the likeness of death and sufferings, whereas of salvation, not the likeness, but the reality.”25 Therefore, the baptized experience for themselves the acts and the fruits of the Paschal mystery without actually enduring the same physical suffering as Christ did on Calvary.

3. The Effects of the Sacrament
The first manner of being conformed to Christ’s own death is the spiritual death that occurs in the soul of a baptized person. Aquinas in his commentary, On the Letter to the Romans, claims: “in the body, one dies before he is buried, but in the spiritual order, the burial of baptism causes the death of sin, because the Sacraments of the new law bring about what they signify.”26 So strong is the identity of Christ with the baptized that he really dies to sin as Christ died to take away sins; Christ’s death, in fact, becomes his death. The sacrifice of the Son before the Father, which in principle remitted every sin, Original and actual, is hereby applied to the individual recipient, so that “the guilt and stain of sin are entirely removed in baptism…”27 Thus the baptized one receives the merits of the satisfaction of Christ, and, according to Aquinas, “is freed from the debt of all punishment due to him for his sins, just as if he himself had offered sufficient satisfaction for all his sins.”28 Since it is truly an act of dying, baptism can occur just once, and its effects are final: “just as original sin is not renewed, so neither is baptism repeated…”29 Baptism, therefore, affects as a sacramental sign of Christ’s passion a spiritual crucifixion, in which the recipient allows his old sinful nature to be immolated totally and transformed through the merits of the dying Christ.

Coinciding with this death is a spiritual rebirth, as Saint Paul attests, saying, “We were buried, therefore, with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we, too, might walk in the newness of life” (Rom 6:4). The burial of baptism, he later says, is a dying to what is itself deadly, since “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Positively expressed, this utter separation from deadly sin is a turning towards what gives life. Through this sacramental death, God raises the baptismal candidate to a new supernatural life of grace. Saint Thomas calls this elevation a resurrection of the soul; he identifies this resurrection with the justification of the sinner, in which “two things,” he says, “concur, namely, the remission of sins, and the newness of life through grace.”30 As the former was caused in an exemplary way by the death of Christ, so His resurrection grants new life to the baptized, restoring it to the integrity in grace enjoyed by the first man and woman before Original Sin. Since no such grace was present in the person’s soul beforehand, this bestowal of a new, supernatural, vital principle is recognized as a spiritual birth in the waters of the baptismal font. Hence Saint Cyril says, “And at the self-same moment, ye died and were born; and that Water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother.”31 This new birth, by which the first-fruits of resurrected life are given to the baptized, makes one fit to enter eternal life by establishing him in personal communion with God.

4. Witnessing to Faith
Since we have examined the grace of baptism, through which one is ordered to attaining eternal life, now we must examine martyrdom, which is the highest exercise of that grace. The word martyrdom derives from the Greek word marturia, which means “confirmation or attestation on the basis of personal knowledge or belief, testimony.”32 Observing this etymological connection, Aquinas would say, “a martyr is so called as being a witness to the Christian faith, which teaches us to despise things visible for the sake of things invisible…”33 Christian martyrdom, then, is a sort of visible testimony or sign of the unseen realities professed in the Catholic faith. Such a testimony is not given chiefly in words, but it is expressed in the act of dying itself, by which one demonstrates that he prefers the hidden things of faith to those of the known world. Death, and not merely any kind of suffering, is required for a genuine martyrdom, because, according to Aquinas, “so long as a man retains the life of the body he does not show, by deed, that he despises all things relating to the body.”34 Hence, at death, one surrenders the greatest good of this life—namely, that life itself—and when it is done for the sake of upholding one’s faith, it is the greatest possible act of showing deference to Christ.

In order to be a true martyr, it is necessary that a Christian be killed in odium fidei, in hatred of the faith. This testimony is primarily given to the enemies of the faith, who seek to snuff out the light of the Gospel by making its adherents deny its truth. According to Aquinas, “martyrdom consists essentially in standing firmly to truth and justice against the assaults of persecution,” in which the persecution itself becomes an occasion for bearing witness.35 In that moment, one must choose between obeying the demands of the persecutors, and the commandments of God, even if he is threatened with death. Choosing death rather than apostasy confirms that such a professed Christian firmly holds to the belief that his soul will be rendered up to God for judgment, and that his soul is consequently more important than the mortal body. Accordingly, Origen, in his Exhortation to Martyrdom, writes “it profits nothing to gain the whole material universe at the price of our own destruction or loss,” that is, of the more precious immaterial soul.36

5. The World’s Hatred for the Martyrs
Hatred for the truth of the faith is enkindled often by some evil habit, or idea, that distorts one’s ability to perceive the goodness of what Christians believe. In the Gospel of John, after commanding His disciples to love one another, Jesus prophesies to them that the world will hate them: “because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore, the world hates you” (John 15:19). Those who love worldly things denounced by the faith are spurred by this love to despise whoever challenges it; thus, it is not that the enemies of the faith hate Christians simply, but “it follows,” says Saint Thomas, “that the world rather hated God in them than hated them.”37 Christians have been made participants in the life of the Trinity through baptism, and it is by this grace that they remain faithful to their savior. The world, since it hates this fidelity, hates Him who bestows this grace. The persecution of Christians, therefore, does not result from a clash over mere personal opinions, but from a fight to establish God’s rightful authority and preeminence on earth. For what is in dispute is the truth revealed by Him, to which every human soul must submit in obedience. Indeed, the persecution of Christian disciples is a furtherance of the cross, when the Son of God was rejected most brazenly. Christ Himself wills to suffer in His persecuted disciples, since “the disciples,” explains Saint Thomas, “were persecuted for the same reason that Christ was,” that is, the proclamation of the Gospel.38 The world’s hatred for Christian revelation, therefore, really offends Christ, inasmuch as He took on the unjust agony and murder of His disciples in His own Passion, just as he bore the sins of the world.

Yet, martyrdom is not a passive resignation to victimhood; instead, it is, in the words of the Church Fathers, a war waged against the enemies of the faith. As Origen reminded Christians in prison, “The world, therefore, all the angels on the right, and on the left, all men, both those on the side of God and the others—all will hear us fighting the fight for Christianity.”39 Clearly, the submission to martyrdom is a challenge to other men who deny the true faith; the holy martyrs, by withstanding patiently the wrath of the ungodly, prove their enemies’ efforts futile, eventually convincing them to stop their campaign of persecution. Saint Cyprian himself witnessed such a heroic reversal of events, saying, “The tortured stood their ground more resolutely than their torturers; and their limbs, battered and butchered as they were, vanquished the instruments of torment as they battered and butchered them.”40 On the one hand, the repeated slaughter of other human beings prompts a natural disgust from those who have undertaken it; on the other hand, the steadfast courage and faith of the Christians weakens whatever beliefs the persecutors may have in their own gods or their own strength. Thus, many persecutions, even in the earliest days of the Church, have subsided gradually, and tolerance for the Christian faith has often been won thereafter.

Martyrdom also provides an interior challenge for the martyr, in which his own fidelity to the truth is at stake. Knowing that he must render an account to God, who “searches our hearts and our minds,” a denial of the faith would constitute an unspeakable crime, allying him with the persecutors; on the other hand, remaining steadfast unto death would appease the supreme Judge, for even “to have Him alone as witness,” says Saint Cyprian of Carthage, “is enough to earn the crown with Him.”41 While the interior struggle of faith is an expected aspect of ordinary Christian affairs, the occasion of persecution makes this struggle public, and the decision between life and death becomes immediately and unmistakably present. Especially in the case of prolonged physical torture, true spiritual strength is tested and perfected; as Saint Cyprian exhorted his readers, “No blandishments should seduce the unsullied steadfastness of our faith, nor threats terrify, nor tortures and torments overwhelm … the divine protection has greater power to raise us up than earthly anguish can avail to cast us down.”42 In martyrdom, therefore, the first and principal battlefield is in the human hearts of the martyrs.

This spiritual struggle has not only visible, but invisible enemies, wherefore Saint Thomas More calls this fight a “hand-to-hand combat with the prince of this world, the devil, and his cruel underlings.”43 Inciting the world’s hatred for his own gain, the devil, inasmuch as “he is a liar and the father of lies,” desires to uproot the knowledge of Christian truth, so as to ruin redeemed souls (John 8:44). It is not so much their physical lives that he desires to destroy, but their spiritual well-being; for he hopes to mire them in the twofold sins of apostasy and idolatry, in order that they might forsake their baptismal vows, and renounce God instead of him. Thus, he would destroy God’s presence in them, because, like the human persecutors who act out his wishes, God is the true object of his hatred. Those who apostatize, according to Origen, revert to worshiping demons under the disguise of idols; yet, those who persevere in receiving a martyr’s death remain free, because while the enemies “have slain the body, they cannot, even if they wished it, slay the soul.”44 The martyrs, however, do not resist successfully on their own strength; even as the Crucified One suffers with them, so in His risen glory He conquers the fiends of darkness through them. Saint Cyprian makes this notion quite clear, saying, “Christ exulted to be there, among such servants of His; He rejoiced to fight to victory in their midst, guarding their faith…”45 Thus, the martyrs participate in the very war between heaven and hell, gaining with Christ a share in His victory, an imperishable crown.

The act of martyrdom likewise strengthens its recipients, that they might overcome their natural weaknesses. Even when his soul is in a state of grace, the will of a baptized person, since he is a wayfarer, and not yet confirmed in his final end, remains subject to change. Thus, constant training is required in this life so to foster spiritual growth and become ready to defend oneself against the enemies of the soul. Saint Thomas Aquinas says that the spiritual discipline of martyrdom primarily concerns the virtue of fortitude, since “it belongs to fortitude to strengthen man in the good of virtue, especially against dangers, and chiefly against dangers of death, and most of all against those that occur in battle.”46 The primary act of fortitude is endurance, which allows the martyr to withstand physical death, and any other bodily injury. Aquinas then distinguishes between “the good wherein the brave man is strengthened, and this is the end of fortitude” and “the firmness itself, whereby a man does not yield to the contraries that hinder him from achieving that good, and in this consists the essence of fortitude.”47 That former good in which man is strengthened is faith, which, as a theological virtue, orders one through grace to his last end, namely, God. The act of fortitude, meanwhile, assists one in attaining the ultimate goal of supernatural faith. In other words, faith is that to which the martyr gives testimony, while fortitude allows him to testify at the cost of his life. Therefore, martyrdom, while taking away one’s earthly life, nevertheless makes him stronger in his spirit, wherein the virtues of faith and fortitude lie.

How Martyrdom Mystically Completes the Spiritual Death of Baptism
1. The Renunciation of Sin
Martyrdom allows the grace that the baptized person has received to penetrate him as much as possible in this earthly life. Having renounced Satan, and all his pomps and works, at baptism, one who prepares to face martyrdom, receives the opportunity to separate himself utterly from these things, once and for all. The occasion of martyrdom, as was explained above, is a declaration of war on the part of the devil, who wants to destroy the Church; its acceptance on the part of the martyr is an entering into that war. The Christian, by taking his baptismal vows, and remaining faithful to them, has already vanquished the devil thus far, as Tertullian says: “You had already, in pitched battle outside, utterly overcome him…”48  Now, it only remains for the martyrs to resist his wily power to the very end, even though the evil one will try all the more to tempt and trap them once the final contest is underway. Yet, ironically, the devil’s efforts actually help those who persevere in the contest: Saint Gregory of Nyssa compares the contest of martyrdom to a race for the crown of faith, as the devil actually pushes the martyr to run the race more swiftly so as to outrun his pursuer. Thus “being chased by evil becomes the cause of attaining to the good, since separation from the wicked one is made the occasion for drawing near to the Good … the Lord Himself…” who is the final prize for the race.49 Once earthly life ends, the martyrs are beyond the realm of the prince of this world, and have finished the race, safely at rest in the bosom of the Father.

Likewise, martyrdom is an act of dying to sin. Quite often, according to Gregory, men become enamored with the pleasures and desires of the body while it retains its present corruptible flesh. Though we must hold that pleasure, even in the body, is a genuine good that can be sought within reason, bodily pleasures can be loved beyond the point of excess, corrupting one’s soul by a carnal habit of mind that prevents him from seeking the higher pleasures of heavenly beatitude. “For,” Gregory says, “it is not easy, in fact, perhaps quite impossible, to prefer the invisible Good to the visible pleasant things of this life … unless the Lord Himself helps him to attain to this Good…”50 God has already given such heavenly aid through the grace of baptism; for, having received the gift of faith in the sacrament, the baptized man knows his true final good, which he may attain by persisting in good works. Even after baptism, however, there is always the possibility of falling back into sinful habits and actions, while the flesh and the spirit struggle for dominance; yet the torture of martyrdom, if one has to face it, can be the occasion of detaching one permanently from fleeting carnal pleasures, since the agony of death brings the flesh to its final corruption.

Martyrdom as Suffering Love
Suffering itself can be redemptive as a means of sanctification: because Jesus achieved salvation for all through His own death, He has hallowed suffering in such a way that the fruits of sanctification are bound up with it. Thus He says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Commenting on this verse, Saint Thomas Aquinas says, “Martyrs imitate it in a special way, bodily, but spiritual men imitate it spiritually, dying spiritually for Christ,” as everyone is bidden to die in this way.51 One takes up his own cross to follow Christ by willingly accepting whatever afflictions may come because he professes the name of the Son of God, even to the point of dying for Him. This spiritual death is undergone first in baptism, in which all suffer, at least by imitating Christ’s suffering by the immersion in water. In martyrdom, however, this imitation is manifested outwardly in a physical death for Christ, by which the martyr demonstrates that he has died internally to the world. As Saint Ignatius of Antioch, in a letter written on his way to a martyr’s death, said succinctly, “Permit me to be an imitator of my suffering God.” 52 Dying a real death for Christ, a martyr is connected to His act of salvation on the cross by imitating it to the fullest extent possible, thereby drawing as from a fountain all the riches of redeeming grace offered first in baptism.

Although, however, the act of dying in confession of the faith is the most evident trait in martyrdom, yet it is more akin to the material cause of martyrdom. Rather, in the same way that Christ became a sacrificial offering on Golgotha by willing that His death be offered up as such, so someone becomes formally a martyr only if he offers himself willingly to God. Saint Thomas confirms this truth, saying, “The merit of martyrdom is not after death, but in the voluntary endurance of death, namely in the fact that a person willingly suffers being put to death.”53 There is also a telling passage in the account of the martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, when the two young women, before they are finally cut down by the sword, embrace in mutual love: “but they first kissed one another, that they might consummate their martyrdom with the kiss of peace.”54 Here, the author is suggesting that the physical death of the martyrs is the completion in act of what they have already fully intended to do, out of love for God, and one another; both their intention, and the chosen object, are necessary for the full account of martyrdom.

Hence, love is the key to what they will their death to be: since the theological virtue of charity directs the movements in the will of a baptized Christian towards God as his final end, it is only with charity that one is able to offer himself to God, just as Christ’s offering on the cross was accepted for His loving obedience to the Father. While fortitude is the virtue displayed by martyrdom directly, it also manifests charity, which, Aquinas says, “inclines one to the act of martyrdom, as its first and chief motive cause, being the virtue commanding it, whereas fortitude inclines thereto as being its proper motive cause, being the virtue that elicits it.”55 As the virtue of charity perfects and forms faith, so it also perfects and forms the cardinal virtue of fortitude, which is subservient to faith. Hence, while faith, which is the more direct end of martyrdom, causes this type of death to be formally an act of faith in God, so charity make its form perfect as a loving act of faith. Otherwise, no true martyrdom would occur: such an act would be a mere semblance of martyrdom, because the apparent martyr would not cheifly as Christ’s witness, but out of vainglory or some other vice. Rather, “martyrdom is an act of virtue,” according to Saint Thomas.56 Here, he is clearly following the scriptural testimony of Saint Paul, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3).

Martyrdom fulfills the primary commandment of charity by loving God with one’s entire being. In this life, there are many good things that compete for our attention; hence human love is naturally divided amongst these many things. The Christian, however, through charity recognizes that God alone is His sovereign and highest good; in the words of Gregory, “what we hope is nothing else but the Lord Himself … He is the portion and the giver of the portion, He makes rich and is Himself the riches.”57 Hence a Christian must not only renounce sinful things, but, if he is so called, he ought to relinquish even genuine goods that would hinder him from approaching God. Thus, Saint Thomas recognized martyrdom as “the most perfect of human acts in respect of its genus, as being the sign of the greatest charity,”58 because a greater love is exhibited by how much one is willing to lose to gain the object of love. Therefore, when one surrenders all for God’s sake, he makes God the supreme and sole object of his charitable act.

This highest display of charity can be called a self-sacrificial offering to God. As Saint Therese of Lisieux exclaims, “Love has chosen me as a holocaust … in order that Love be fully satisfied, it is necessary that It lower Itself to nothingness and transform this nothingness into fire.”59 This self-surrender is manifested most visibly in martyrdom, when one is physically dismembered and consumed by torture and death for the love of God. Saint Ignatius of Antioch recognized his own impending death in this way: after expressing his desire to be totally consumed by the beasts that he would face in the arena, he asks his readers, “Petition Christ on my behalf that through these instruments, I may prove God’s sacrifice.”60 Every martyr thus unites his own self-offering in death with that of Christ so as to be an acceptable victim to the Father. In this way, he completes the spiritual crucifixion of baptism by allowing his old human nature to be literally destroyed and immolated in order that God may be glorified; as He was immersed fully in God’s love by being immersed in the waters of his rebirth, so he is immersed in love again by being overwhelmed in suffering.

Along with loving God above all things, martyrdom demonstrates the greatest love of neighbor, as Christ Himself expresses when He says, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus, by alluding to His own sacrifice on the cross, whereby He laid down His life for His human brethren, calls His disciples to make the same sort of witness. By making Himself the supreme example of fraternal love, “he wants,” says Aquinas, “to teach and lead them to help their neighbor, and to help them to become strong enough to endure sufferings from those who will persecute them.”61 He also reminds them that the beatitude of our neighbor, who is a living man with an immortal soul like oneself, is greater than the good of one’s own mortal body; thus “[f]or our neighbor, we should expose our body and our physical life for his salvation.”62 By doing so, one can benefit others who witness their martyrdom by giving them an example of pure love for God, as Christ gave the highest example, and also make them more aware of the great importance of the faith, for which they willingly die.

A martyr ought not to exclude from his fraternal love those who hate the faith, especially those who are actively persecuting him. Saint Thomas says that Christ commands us to love our enemies because, while we ought to hate their sinfulness, they “are not, however, contrary to us, as men and capable of happiness: and it is as such that we are bound to love them.”63 Thus, one ought to face any authorities, crowds, and executioners with patience and holy love, praying openly that they might come to regret their murderous sin, and be converted to the Gospel. Christ also gave an example of this kind of love to those who crucified him, Aquinas says, because He “did not lay down his life for his enemies so that they would remain his enemies, but to make them his friends.”64 As He made His tragic rejection at their hands the source of salvation for the whole world, so through His martyrs, He constantly portrays to the world the ugliness of its own sin, as well as the triumph of godliness. By offering themselves as victims, the martyrs, as Saint Cyprian exclaims, win the battle for truth when their torturers lose heart because they become sickened at the onslaught, while the martyrs stay resolute through God’s grace. “There flowed,” he says, “blood such as to quench the blaze of persecution, to quiet, with its glorious flood, the flames and fires of hell.”65 Thus, by witnessing a sign of Christ’s own passion and divine love in the death of the martyrs, the persecutors themselves may be converted to the faith that they abhor.

Just as a martyr completes, in a certain way, the spiritual death of baptism, so he also completes his rebirth into eternal life, the ultimate fruit of Christ’s resurrection. Before death, there is an instability in the heart of man: he is always capable of changing, of turning away from, or moving towards God. As Aquinas reminds us, “Now, so long as a man retains the life of the body, he does not show by deed that he despises all things relating to the body.66 Therefore, he argues, death is necessary for martyrdom, since otherwise the act remains incomplete. Once a man dies, he is either confirmed in the true goodness, or completely excluded from it, depending on the state of his soul at the last moment. The martyrs, therefore, dying in the greatest act of charity possible, enter immediately into eternal life. The sacramental grace that was first given in baptism is magnified in the light of God’s glory; having once been joined to Him at the font by grace that could be lost, they are now united eternally in Heaven. Hence, Cyprian says, “Precious is this death which has purchased deathlessness at the price of one’s own blood, which has received a crown from God for the supreme act of valor.”67 Thus, every martyr is born to the life of the resurrection, a birth begun at baptism, and fully realized in the world to come.

Physical martyrdom is a special vocation from God, a loving invitation to be conformed most deeply to His own mysterious life. A martyr can, indeed, answer “yes” to Jesus’ question: “Are you able to drink the chalice that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38). While he was mystically united to Him with joy at baptism, the martyr is also drawn powerfully into Christ’s suffering. Thus, in every age, God provides living witnesses to the crucifixion of His Son, so long ago on Calvary; in an imperfect and broken world, God continues to respond to its rebellion and moral ills with the image of the cross. Therefore, the source of true salvation is once again made manifest, as a murdered soul rises to Heaven in the odor of sanctity. Faced with the brutal evil of the world, the martyrs are able to renounce it, once and for all, and, upon departing, they leave their place of exile a little more hallowed. The old maxim that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church holds true: not only can each martyr advance to the highest possible degree of personal holiness, but, by their prayers and supreme courage in the face of certain death, they also strengthen others in the Church to prepare themselves for the same call, and may even draw enemies and outsiders to the faith. Ultimately, their holy deaths point towards the fact that true life and happiness are found beyond earth, and so instill hope in all who take notice and understand. They truly keep the striking words of Jesus: “whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it” (Luke 9:24). Now that they have persevered in the midst of this present darkness, they are finally ready to inherit, in their entirety, the promises of baptism.

  1. “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume IX: Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus, Rev. W. Sanday, D.D., LL.D. ed. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994) p. 79.
  2. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, Frederick William Danker, ed., (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 165.
  3. Aquinas, ST III Q1a4.
  4. Ibid., Q48a2 (translation mine).
  5. Ibid., ad1.
  6. Ibid., a1.
  7. Ibid., II-II Q85a3ad3.
  8. Ibid., ad2.
  9. Ibid., III Q47a2.
  10. Aquinas, St. Thomas, The Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, p. 138.
  11. Aquinas, ST III Q46a3 (trans. mine).
  12. Ibid., Q53a1.
  13. Ibid., (trans. mine).
  14. Ibid., Q60a2.
  15. Ibid., a3.
  16. Ibid., Q66a5.
  17. Ibid., Q66a3.
  18. Ibid.
  19. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “Mystagogical Catechesis I and II,” from St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s lectures on the Christian sacraments, F.L. Corss ed., (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1951) p. 55.
  20. Ibid., sect. 5.
  21. Ibid., p. 60.
  22. Aquinas, ST II-II Q2a1.
  23. Ibid., Q4a1.
  24. Ibid., p. 60.
  25. Ibid., p. 62-3.
  26. Aquinas, Saint Thomas, Commentary on the Epistle of Blessed Paul to the Romans, Fr. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P., trans.  (Lander, Wyoming: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2013) sect. 475.
  27. Ibid., sect. 480.
  28. Aquinas, ST III Q69a2.
  29. Ibid., Q66a9.
  30. Ibid., Q56a2, ad2 (trans. mine).
  31. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, p. 61.
  32. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, p. 618.
  33. Aquinas, ST II-II Q124a4.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid., Q124a1.
  36. Origen, “Exhortation to Martyrdom,” Ancient Christian Writers, Vol. 19, John J. O’Meara, trans. (New York, N.Y., Newman Press, 1954), p. 153.
  37. Ibid., sect. 2043.
  38. Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, sect. 2042.
  39. Origen, p. 158.
  40. Ibid.
  41. St. Cyprian of Carthage, “Letter 10,” from The Letters of St. Crypian: Volume I in Ancient Christian Writers, Vol. 43, G.W. Clarke, trans. (New York, N.Y., Newman Press, 1984), p. 75.
  42. St. Cyprian, p. 72.
  43. St. Thomas More, p. 13.
  44. Origen, p. 176.
  45. St. Cyprian, p. 73.
  46. Aquinas, ST II-II Q 124a2.
  47. Ibid., ad1.
  48. Tertullian, p. 693.
  49. St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Homily on the Eighth Beatitude,” Ancient Christian Writers, Vol. 18, Hilda C. Graef, trans. (New York, N.Y., Newman Press, 1954), p. 168.
  50. Ibid., p. 170.
  51. Aquinas, St. Thomas, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 13-28, Jeremy Holmes, trans. (Lander, Wyoming: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2013) sect.1408.
  52. St. Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Romans,” Ancient Christian Writers, Vol. 1, James A. Kleist, S.J., Ph.D., trans. (New York, New York: Newman Press, 1946), p. 83.
  53. ST II-II, Q124a4ad4.
  54. “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas” from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume XIV: Tertullian, A. Cleveland Coxe, D.D. ed. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994) p. 705.
  55. Ibid., a1.
  56. ST II-II, Q124a2ad2.
  57. St. Gregory of Nyssa, p. 174.
  58. Aquinas, Commentary on John, sect 2007.
  59. St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of A Soul, John Clarke, O.C.D., trans., (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996), p. 195.
  60. St. Ignatius of Antioch, p. 82.
  61. Aquinas, Commentary on John, sect 2007.
  62. Ibid., sect. 2009.
  63. Aquinas, ST II-II Q25a8.
  64. Aquinas, Commentary on John, sect 2007.
  65. St. Cyprian, p. 72.
  66. Aquinas, ST II-II Q124a4.
  67. St. Cyprian, p. 73.
Tyler J. Worthy About Tyler J. Worthy

Tyler Worthy is a lifelong resident of New Hampshire. He received his B.A. in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and his Master's degree in Sacred Theology at the International Theological Institute in Austria. He currently teaches History and Apologetics at Holy Family Academy in Manchester, New Hampshire. This essay, “The Imperishable Crown,” is a condensed version of my Master's Thesis, and I am indebted to my thesis adviser, Dr. Timothy Kelly, for his help in seeing this project to completion.