The Call to Martyrdom
by Sarah Phillips
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24
St Maximilian Kolbe once wrote, “Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”
Maximilian Kolbe has long been one of my favorite Christian heroes. A wild-child-turned-convert, he was a Polish priest during the dark days of World War II. He dedicated his life to boldly proclaiming Christ, traveling as far as Japan in spite of knowing very little Japanese. Ultimately, he found himself at Auschwitz, ministering to fellow prisoners. He died after offering his life in place of another prisoner who had a wife and children. That prisoner – a “nobody” by the world’s standards -- went on to be reunited with his many children after the war. Kolbe’s life is one of many amazing examples of Christians imitating Christ to the point of quite literally following Him to the Cross.
Palm Sunday marks the solemn beginning of Holy Week. For our Palm Sunday service, our two pastors and deacon wear red robes – red being the liturgical color of martyrdom. The color is all too appropriate.
Often, when we think of martyrdom we think of dramatic and bloody deaths like the early Christians endured in the Coliseum or the horrors Kolbe faced in that concentration camp. These “red martyrdoms,” while inspirational, seem reserved for a select few in far away countries.
Yet, in reflecting on Christ’s sufferings this year, I’ve been pondering our own call as Christians to “take up our crosses” and follow in Christ’s footsteps. In many ways, martyrdom isn’t reserved for a few Christians in far away countries. There is a second kind of martyrdom to which all Christians are called, sometimes referred to as “white martyrdom.”
White martyrdom is the subtle, but profoundly important “death to self” believers must embrace on a daily basis. It is a call to surrender all to the Lord, to be willing to sacrifice personal pleasures or temporary desires for a greater good. “White martyrdom” is the housewife who shelves her master’s degree to stay home with her little ones. It’s the husband who does household chores after a long day of work to give his wife a much-needed time to herself. It’s the college student who stays chaste in the face of temptation, only to be “rewarded” by the ridicule of his buddies. It’s the colleague who puts in extra hours, but never gets extra credit. White martyrdom is the stuff that builds character, the stuff that strengthens “spiritual muscles” – and its rewards may or may not come in this lifetime. Yet God does not fail to treasure each and every thing we do for Him - no matter how hidden or small.
Kolbe’s death illustrates an important connection between white and red martyrdom. He was known for personal integrity, for living a life that daily revealed love for his Savior in every little action – long before he was faced with time at Auschwitz. Believers like Kolbe understand that life cannot be compartmentalized. We cannot act saintly one hour, devilishly the next, and say at the end of the day, “Well, on average I am a pretty good person.”
No doubt, a life of small, daily moments of “choosing Christ,” of constant conversion and submission to the Lord, paved the way for Kolbe and countless other heroes of the faith to choose Christ when it mattered most.
Of course, a life of “white martyrdom” may not sound very appealing to you. I’ve always marveled at my friends who thought christianity to be a crutch – I think my pre-Christian days were easier! But the longer I walk the Christian walk, the more I realize how true glory cannot be separated from some measure of suffering – how Easter cannot be divorced from Good Friday.
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