Today 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.
The 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.