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White martyrdom

How we can ‘lay down our lives for our friends’ every day
 

Lent gives us an opportunity to renew the spirit of martyrdom. We often think of martyrs as giving the ultimate sacrifice. And so they do – “No greater love is there than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) While we may never be asked to undergo torture and death for the sake of our Christian faith, we can still be martyrs.

When the early church persecutions waned in the fourth century, some Christians began to find other ways to live out the spirit of martyrdom. They called it “white martyrdom” – in contrast to bloody martyrdom – and they embraced the ascetical practices of fasting, praying and almsgiving, as well as more rigorous and unusual forms of penance.

Some lived on pillars and stayed until their deaths. Their austerity was in contrast to the decadence of the culture surrounding them. Most of us have a hard time imagining or even understanding this kind of practice.

St Teresa of Avila dreamed of being a martyr for Jesus. At age 7, she left home with her brother Rodrigo with the intention of going to Moorish territory to be beheaded for Christ. Her uncle stopped her before she made it too far. Instead, she cared for her 10 brothers and sisters. Then she joined a religious order and took care of her religious sisters. She was a martyr for Jesus each day as she sacrificed out of her love for God and those she served.

I have seen countless martyrs today who love in similar ways: single parents who work hard to support their children and pour out their love for them, while patiently suffering from the loneliness such a life can have; caregivers who pour themselves out daily. This too is white martyrdom. I even heard of a woman who took a janitorial job and gave all the money to her church to support their outreach to the poor. Awesome! The martyr gives witness to God’s love. This Lent, we turn to our Lord Jesus, who is the source of all true martyrdom. We ask him to help us grow sacrificial love for others so we too can be martyrs.

 

Spiritual Exercise: meditation on the last seven words of Jesus

One kind of white martyrdom is to forgive those who have hurt us, like Jesus did on the cross. Martyrdom is a witness to Jesus’ love – a love that forgives all things and endures all things. To begin the exercise, find a quiet place and put yourself before Christ crucified. It is a hard place to be, but imagine yourself there with Mary beside you and listen to Jesus’ last words to us.

First Word: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

Jesus, innocent Lamb of God; you would have every reason to be outraged. The religious leaders who were supposed to uphold justice accused and condemned you. Those you came to save did not try to save you. Those you loved rejected you. The crowd shouted, “Crucify him, crucify him.” How many times have I shouted the same thing when I was quick to anger, or wrong in my own judgment of others? Jesus, the very first words from your lips on the cross were those of forgiveness. We all have put you on the cross. I am truly sorry for hurting you in my brothers and sisters. Help me to forgive those who have hurt me in any way, whether they meant to or not. May I pray with you, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Second Word: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Jesus, my true and only king; even in your darkest hour you were burning with the brightest hope for us. How can I not trust you? My sin weighs on me. Death is certain. If I got what I deserved, it would certainly never be heaven. Jesus, my entrance into heaven depends on your grace. Renew my trust. Renew my faith. Help me to accept the salvation and forgiveness you offer me from the cross.

Third Word: “Woman, behold your son – behold, your mother.” (John 19:26-27)

Jesus, beloved son of Mary; you said you would not leave us orphans. You sent us the Holy Spirit. You also gave us Mary, your own mother. She is now our mother and cares for each of us as she cared for you. I pray I may receive her into my heart and love her as you did.

Fourth Word: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

Jesus, bearer of the world’s suffering and sorrow; many would think you despaired when they heard these words come from your lips. Yet you were praying Psalm 22, and teaching us, even in your dying moments.  “All who see me scoff at me. They wag their heads and mock, ‘He relied on the Lord, let the Lord deliver him, let him rescue him if he loves him.’”

Fifth Word: “I thirst.” (John 19:28)

Jesus, eternal fountain of goodness; your love for souls knew no limit. There was nothing you would not sacrifice to save us. Your thirst was for each of us. Help me, Lord, to recognize that the emptiness inside me is my thirst for you. Make me thirsty for every word from your lips, and for every drop of your goodness.

Sixth Word: “It is finished.” (John 19:30)

Jesus, you began your passion at the Last Supper, but finished it on the cross. You drank and shared with us all the third cup of the Passover, the cup of blessing. It is the blood of the new covenant, shed for the forgiveness of our sins. We drink the cup of blessing, and proclaim your death that saves us. Its power helps us die to sin and rise with you. You are the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. You offered yourself as the perfect sacrifice. In you, our Passover from death to life is fulfilled. The new covenant is established. The Passover is finished. Help me, Lord, to enter more deeply into your dying, so that I may rise with you.

7th Word: “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

Jesus, we have such a difficult time trusting you. What are we afraid of? Even from our birth, our parents held us in their loving hands. We have put ourselves in the hands of many others throughout our lives: parents, relatives, brothers and sisters, spouses, neighbors, teachers, doctors, lawyers, police, government leaders, banks, businesses, clerics, counselors and many others. Perhaps we find it hard because we have experienced betrayal and broken trust. Heal us, Jesus. Help us to have the trust you had in the Father. May we pray as you prayed in your dying moments: “In you O Lord, I take refuge, let me never be put to shame ... you heard the sound of my pleading when I cried out to you. Love the Lord, all you his faithful ones! Take courage and be stouthearted, all you who hope in the Lord.” (cf  Ps 31)