Today, the Church celebrates the First Holy Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church. These men and women were martyred en masse by Emperor Nero in Rome in the year 64 A.D., in his effort to shift the blame for the great fire of Rome from himself to the Christian community.
While the names of these proto-martyrs of the Church are lost to history, their deaths inspired many to convert to Christianity, proving once again the truth of Tertullian’s statement that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
In the Roman Canon, or Eucharistic Prayer I, we often hear two lists of names proclaimed: Linus, Cletus, Clement, . . . John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, . . . . These saints were also martyrs—men and women who witnessed to Christ by shedding their blood for love of him. The saints of the Roman Canon, like the First Holy Martyrs, recall for us the reality that the Christian life is meant to be one of sacrifice in imitation of Jesus, especially his ultimate sacrifice on the altar of the Cross. These saints also remind us that the Christian reality of sacrifice is not an abstract, purely intellectual exercise. It involves the body. For the First Holy Martyrs, and for many of the saints of the Roman Canon, it meant that their bodies were burned, crucified, devoured by wild beasts.
What does sacrifice mean for us? In today's society, personal sacrifice is often seen as something that must be avoided at all costs. And yet, we see over and over again examples of everyday witnesses to love and holiness, especially in those women and men who are called to put themselves at risk for the well-being of others. We may not be called upon to let our bodies be burned, we may not be asked to put our lives on the line in our daily work, but we are commanded by Christ to lay down our lives for others in love (see John 15:12–17).
How can we live out the teachings of St. Paul and “offer [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1)? Such sacrifices need not be newsworthy, or even noticeable to the person standing next to us; as St. Thérèse of Lisieux taught in her Little Way, we can embrace and offer everything that happens throughout our day for love of Jesus, making sacrifices of love out of minor inconveniences as well as monumental sufferings.
What are the sacrifices that we can offer, today, in our own circumstances, out of our love for Christ, for our brothers and sisters, for even our enemies?
Holy Martyrs and all holy men and women, pray for us. Give us the strength to witness to Christ by taking up our crosses and laying down our lives for love of him who gave his life for us.
Learn more about the saints of the Roman Canon in this Saturdays with the Saints presentation by Dr. Timothy O’Malley.
Featured image: Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer; PD-Old.