A deuterocanonical text, 2 Maccabees takes us back some 2,100 years to one of the most noteworthy examples of martyrdom in Jewish history: the Maccabean revolt against Greek and Syrian invaders. The theme of martyrdom plays a prominent role in the Abrahamic faiths, the significance in each varying according to differences in history, scripture, and doctrine.
Martyrdom and the Covenant
The Jewish martyr dies in the name of moral righteousness and faithfulness to Yahweh-the True God. The parameters of these ideals are defined by God’s Law-the commandments revealed in the Torah. Whatever pain or torment he faces on earth is but a mere bump on the road in his journey back.
The brothers who are martyred in the second book of Maccabees make reference to the fact that they “die for [the sake of] His laws” (2 Maccabees 7:9). One of the brothers, as well as his mother, recognizes that they, like their tormentors, are guilty of having transgressed God’s Law (7:17-19, 31-35). They are distinguished from their tormentors in that they are dying “for the covenant of God” (7:36). Their willingness to die for Him is the ultimate act of witness to the Jewish God. In this act, the Jewish martyr overcomes “the world”; he does not fear suffering or death, unlike the men of this world (7:12). He knows that his life proceeds from “Heaven”, and that when he dies, he will ultimately be returning home.
A Faithful Witness
The ready acceptance of death affirms the veracity of the God of the martyrs, and those who witness their martyrdom are often moved by what they see. The Christian martyr witnesses to God's Law, the fulfillment of which is found in the sacrifice of His Son (Matthew 5:17). Jesus accepts suffering and death for the sake of the sinfulness of humanity (though this punishment was unmerited). While the suffering of the Jewish martyr atones for his own sins, the Christian martyr participates in the Cross-the “ultimate martyrdom”-and thus atones for the sins of all of humanity. Christ’s willingness to receive unmerited suffering opened the door for His followers to continue His work of redemption through the shedding of their own mortal blood.
In Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II claims that the Christian martyr witnesses to ethical and anthropological truths. John Paul II considers the importance of martyrdom in contemporary society in which the nature of humanity and morality are arbitrary realities subjected to the views of individuals. Martyrdom is the ultimate “stumbling block” for such a society: if nothing is Absolute, then there is nothing “worth dying for.” If I’m given the agency to define the truth, then I can easily alter it to fit what is most convenient for me in the present moment. The truth of the human person as created in the imago Dei is proclaimed by the act of martyrdom.
Thus, Christ is the origin of all life; in him we discover the true nature of humanity and the norms according to which we should live. Without Christ, life is not worth living. Martyrdom speaks these truths, communicating that Christ is worth following “to the ends of the earth”, or more specifically, until the end of their own lives. Were they to reject him for the sake of preserving their own earthly existence, life would become meaningless, empty, a sham.
Ignatius of Antioch echoed this point in his Epistle to the Romans: “Let me arrive at the pure light; once there I will be truly a man. Let me imitate the passion of my God” [emphasis added]. He presents martyrdom as the climax of human freedom. Ignatius perceives his life to be completely contingent upon the reality of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection; these events are the ultimate expression of his love for humanity.
The Sacramental Echo in Martyrdom
Recalling the eucharistic aspect of the Crucifixion, the Martyr yearns to take part in this “heavenly” feast, to eat the bread and wine that far surpasses those which would be present at any earthly meal, through the act of martyrdom.
In his lecture “Eucharist, Communion And Solidarity,” Cardinal Ratzinger describes the act of martyrdom as the “ultimate Eucharist,” the full realization of the eucharistic sacrifice. He emphasizes the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist over the commemorative; the fulcrum of the Mass is the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, more so than the commemoration of the Last Supper. Through the sacrifice of His own life is born new Life: the Church. When one receives communion, she not only remembers Christ, but she “takes on Christ.” She gives up her own life for the sake of becoming one with Him and finds her new identity in Him. The reception of the Eucharist is a small act of martyrdom. Martyrdom itself is the full realization of what is being accomplished in the eucharistic sacrifice.
Origen recognized the relationship between martyrdom and baptism, writing that baptism is the beginning of a process that martyrdom completes. Baptism initiates a person’s life in Christ, just as Jesus’ baptism marks the starting point of His ministry. His ministry is completed in the Crucifixion-the offering of his blood. If martyrdom is a participation in the Crucifixion, then it fully accomplishes what is initiated by the water of baptism. Martyrdom, then, is baptism by blood.
Polycarp’s martyrdom is described as a reenactment of the Crucifixion. The events leading up to his martyrdom recall several familiar images: his betrayal, trial, plea for his enemies to be forgiven, and the use of nails for torture. But this is not a mere reenactment. The same Spirit that shares Its essence with the Crucified descended upon Polycarp as he endured this torment. His martyrdom models the great sign that Christ crucified became for those who witnessed the event. His willingness, even eagerness, to receive such pain moved those who were present, just as the centurion and other bystanders were moved by Christ on the Cross.
The blood of the Christian martyr flows in the same vein as the blood of the Jewish martyr, and could be said to spread to the rest of “the body.” Now mixed with divine blood, the Christian martyr fully accomplishes the moral and anthropological witness that was initiated by her Jewish ancestors. The blood of the Jewish martyr atones for his own sins and witnesses to God’s Laws, whereas the blood of the Christian martyr atones for the sins of humanity and witnesses to the presence of God Himself. In the words of Origen, the Christian martyr is “withdrawn from this world” because she “does not sin anymore.” In the glory of her martyrdom, she “receives...the crown of virtue,” thus uniting her to the royal bloodline of the Chosen People of Israel.