Witnesses

imagesToday is the day that the Episcopal Church commemorates the martyrdom of Constance and her companions.  Constance was the Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Memphis, TN, an order founded in conjunction with that city’s Cathedral and a parochial girl’s school.  The Church, however, commemorates her life not for her academic or liturgical pursuits, but for her response to tragedy.

In 1878, Memphis was ravaged by Yellow Fever, the third such outbreak in ten years.  St. Mary’s Cathedral was located at the epicenter of the epidemic, and while tens of thousands of people fled the city to escape the disease, Constance and her companions remained behind to care for the sick and give comfort to the dying.  All but two of the workers succumbed to Yellow Fever and died.  They are now remembered as “the Martyrs of Memphis” and have memorials dedicated to them at Elmwood Cemetery and St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The gospel lesson appointed for the commemoration of Constance and her companions is John 12:24-28, a passage that is appointed for the feast days of several other martyrs.  The words of this passage are familiar: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  When read in the context of martyrdom, the interpretation of this verse seems obvious: if you are faced with the possibility of dying for your faith, you should take it, because the reward will be eternal life.  This is, however, a rather simplistic and probably erroneous way to read the words of Jesus in John’s gospel.  For John, “eternal life” refers not primarily to “life in heaven” or even “life after death,” but rather to “the eternal kind of life,” a life shaped by an awareness of eternity.  Jesus is saying that if we cling to the notion that our life, that our happiness, that our comfort is the most important thing in the world, than we will lose our ability to focus on the larger realities of life.  If, on the other hand, we realize that we are called to give of ourselves, to “lose” our lives for others, then we can live a life that is shaped by an awareness of eternity.

fever-elmwood-marker_smallThe word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness,” and it occurs to me that this is precisely what Constance and her companions did.  Even as a community was ravaged by disease, these martyrs stood by the beds of those who were suffering and bore witness to their humanity.  These martyrs stood in a makeshift hospital and bore witness to the fact that God was present in that place.  These martyrs stood by the beds of the dying and bore witness to the fact that they were loved.

And in this sense, we can all be martyrs.  As our brothers and sisters in poverty struggle to make ends meet, we can bear witness to their humanity.  As war and disease  ravage parts of this world, we can bear witness to the presence of God among us.  As we come face to face with those who have been rejected by society, we can bear witness to the fact that they are loved.  When we bear witness to the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, we are empowered to live an eternal kind of life as we lose ourselves in service to others.

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Witness

_66534685_66534683While the major story in ecclesiastical news over the past week has been the selection and installation of Pope Francis as the Bishop of Rome, Anglicans like me have been anticipating the enthronement of Justin Welby as the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The ceremony ended a few minutes ago and included some of the best that our Communion has to offer: the choir sang Britten’s glorious Te Deum in C, the gospel procession featured African dancers chanting about God’s renewing action in the world, and the congregation prayed the wonderful General Thanksgiving that refers to Jesus Christ as “the means of grace and the hope of glory.”  It was, in other words, a thoroughly Anglican experience.

At the same time, the enthronement spoke to all who call themselves Christians.  In his sermon, Archbishop Justin reminded the congregation that there continue to be people in this world who are martyred for their Christian faith.  After the service, a commentator remarked that there were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than there had been in all of previous Christian history.  For those of us who have any contact with the Church in places like Sudan or China, we know that being a Christian in certain parts of the world can be a risky proposition.  We also might think that the Archbishop’s mention of martyrdom is not particularly applicable to those of us who live in free societies that value religious toleration.  It’s important to remember, however, that the word “martyr” comes from the Greek for “witness” or “testimony.”  Martyrdom is not just about dying for one’s faith (though this can be an important element of it); martyrdom is about making the world aware of God’s deep love, to which the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ testify.  By highlighting the importance of martyrdom, Archbishop Justin reminded us of the importance of bearing witness to our Christian faith and testifying to what God has done in our lives and in the life of the world.

In some ways, Archbishop Justin is taking the helm of the Anglican Communion at one of the most turbulent times in its history.  The church is deeply divided over issues as diverse as episcopal authority and human sexuality.  Meanwhile, people are increasingly less likely to identify themselves as Anglicans or even Christians, as the number of people with no religious affiliation grows significantly.  For all of the pomp of the enthronement ceremony, the worldly prestige of the Archbishop of Canterbury has eroded in the face of a secularizing society.  Nevertheless, I got the sense that Archbishop Justin as a deep and abiding hope for the Church, because he understands that bearing witness to God’s great love does not require worldly power.  The Archbishop alluded to Paul’s observation that God’s power is made perfect in human weakness.  We have only to look at the example of Jesus Christ to know that this is true: God’s new creation was not inaugurated with a conquering army, but with a man who had been stripped naked, abandoned by his friends, and hung on a cross to die.  At the weakest moment in his life, Jesus Christ bore witness to God’s great love for all of humanity.  During the season of Lent, we too are called to bear witness to God’s great love out of our own vulnerability.  We begin Lent acknowledging our unworthiness and being assured of God’s forgiveness.  And we do not spend the season trying to make ourselves more worthy of God’s love; rather, we engage in disciplines to become more aware that we have received the abundance of God’s grace in spite of our weakness.  When we do this, we bear witness to a God who makes his love known to us not through worldly power, but through weakness.