As Christians approach Holy Week and the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter, I’m struck by this paradox: The memory of the victims of persecution and martyrdom endures, while the memory and even the names of their persecutors are not remembered.
Who remembers anything about the Roman magistrates who condemned the early Christian martyrs to die by the sword or in the arena? These seemingly powerful and invincible figures were able to inflict imprisonment, suffering and death at will, but their hatred and malice produced nothing that lasted. Rather, the memory of the martyrs, seemingly powerless and defeated in the face of violence and death, endures and is everlasting.
Why is this the case? From the Christian perspective, it is bound up in the paradox of the Cross. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “we proclaim Christ crucified” (1Cor 1:23), a stumbling block and foolishness to many but to those who are called, it is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The Cross is the central mystery of the Christian faith, and it is the mystery and the paradox of the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus that Christians around the world celebrate during this season of Lent and Easter. It is a mystery that sadly, persecuted Christians in our own time live out each day.
Here is a case in point. This Tuesday, March 24, is the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot to death while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel in El Salvador in 1980. He was an outspoken defender of human rights and a tireless advocate for the poor and downtrodden in El Salvador. His opponents, seeking to retain their power and privilege through repression and massacre, thought that by killing Romero they could silence his voice. They were mistaken! They killed a saint, whose witness to the power of love, compassion, justice and truth is bound up in the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, which is more powerful than hatred, violence and even death itself.
That was three decades ago. Unfortunately, persecution and violent attacks on ordinary Christians and their pastors have only intensified, especially in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Just a month ago, we were all horrified to witness another brutal act of violence when 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded near Sirte in Libya by agents of the so-called Islamic State.
Professing aloud their faith in Jesus Christ and no doubt imitating his example by praying for their persecutors, these innocent young construction workers — who had come to Libya in search of work to support their poverty-stricken families in Egypt — called on Christ as they were put to death by their persecutors. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt has declared these 20 Christian men and their companion, (a young man from Chad who became a Christian because of the steadfast faith of his fellow prisoners), to be martyrs and saints.
In Pope Francis’ message of condolence to the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawdros II, he said:
“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out. I read about the execution of those 21 or 22 Coptic Christians. Their only words were: ‘Jesus, help me!’ They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christians. You, my brother, in your words referred to what is happening in the land of Jesus. The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard!”
Similarly, the US Catholic Bishops noted:
“Upon learning of the death of 21 Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIL terrorists, Pope Francis called their murder a ‘testimony which cries out to be heard.’ On behalf of America’s Catholic Bishops, we pause to listen and invite people of all faiths to join us in prayer for those facing the stark reality of religious persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere. The testimony of those 21 brave and courageous martyrs does not stand alone as thousands of families — Christian and other religions — find themselves fleeing from horrific violence.
We urge all people of goodwill to work toward protections of the marginalized and persecuted. In union with the local Churches and the Holy See, we call upon our nation to: work with the international community to intervene and protect the rights of religious minorities and civilians within the framework of international and humanitarian law; address political and economic exclusion that are exploited by extremists; and increase humanitarian and development assistance.”
Lent is a season to meditate upon the Cross and unite ourselves even more closely with Christ’s suffering. Let us use this season to unite with our suffering brothers and sisters and pray for them and with them in a special way. With hope, let us pray for the day when we can all share in the joy and lasting peace of Christ’s resurrection.