A martyr is someone who undergoes death for any great cause, and this cause usually has to do with religious convictions, loyalty to the teachings of one's Church, or to correct some glaring injustice. This is very far removed from the person who dies in the pursuit of some personal gain, such as trying to get wealthy by robbing a bank. There has always been a sacredness attached to the blood of the martyr, because blood is so central to life that, to pour this out for another is an act of courage, love, and loyalty of the highest degree. Sacrifice has always been associated with an offering made to God. This extends to all beliefs, whatever the god. Because we speak of God as being Love in essence, the sacrifice is in response to his love, or to bring ourselves under the graciousness of that love, if it is felt that we have alienated ourselves from it. Even the blood of a lamb that was sacrificed to God was sufficient to protect the houses of the Israelites from the angel of death and destruction. When they sacrificed a lamb or a bull to their God, these people were sometimes sprinkled with the blood as a token of their belonging, and as a sign of their adherence to the Covenant which God had made with them.
A sacrifice involves the slaughter or destruction of something, which is offered to God as a token of thanksgiving, repentance, or reparation. This was one of the core ways the Hebrews had of worshipping God. This sacrifice ranged from a lamb to a bull or bullock. The animal was killed, the blood was poured out in a ritual, and the carcass was then totally burned, as the smoke ascended like prayer before their God. A genuine sacrifice meant the total offering of all that the animal represented. For example, God accused the people of 'committing rapine in the holocaust', which meant that, while the flesh was burning, some of them were tempted, and they sliced off portions of the animal to eat. This desecrated the whole concept of a 'whole-burned-offering', something that was considered sacred and sacrosanct. Such offerings played a large part in their prayer of repentance and surrender to God. The animal being sacrificed was in lieu of themselves, and, like any ritual, the external procedures were but an attempt to illustrate what should be going on in the heart. I'm sure someone (with little else to do!) has already counted the number of times the word sacrifice is used in the Old Testament alone. I would venture to say that it is more frequent than the word God, or Yahweh, as the Hebrews called God.
As I said the idea of blood being poured out was at the core of sacrifice. This was an emptying, a total giving, complete surrender, and the word normally used was 'libation'. When we come to consider the whole question of the death of Jesus, it is very important that we situate it within this wider context of sacrifice and libation. Right at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, John the Baptist called him the Lamb of God. Not only would his blood be poured out for the forgiveness of sin, but for the sin of the world. We pray 'Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.' His was a sacrifice to end all sacrifices. It could be renewed, of course, it could be offered again and again, and that is what we call Eucharist or Mass. This does not mean that Jesus dies again every time I offer Mass. 'Jesus Christ, having died once for sin, now reigns in glory at the right hand of the Father.' Every time a Mass is offered, the prayer, the yes of Jesus, that was offered on Calvary, is offered yet again, except that, this time, I now can offer my yes to Jesus with his yes to the Father. In that way, the Mass becomes a 'perpetual sacrifice', that can be renewed and offered 'from east to west' for all time. 'By his blood we are saved.... by his blood we are forgiven.... by his blood we are washed clean'. This is the recurring theme in the New Testament letters, especially from Paul. The headlong struggle Jesus had with the religious leaders of his day can raise its nasty head here again. Because of the blood of Jesus, salvation is a gratuitous free gift. Paul sums it up in the following words from Romans 3 'But now God has shown us a different way of being right in his sight...We are made right in God's sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we can all be saved in the same way, no matter who we are, or what we have been like. For all have sinned, all fall short of God's glorious standard. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Jesus Christ, who has freed us by taking away our sins. For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins, and to satisfy God's anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us.' Another translation speaks of 'Christ's blood and our faith' as being the formula for salvation. There is nothing automatic at all in this. The first part is what Jesus has done, and the second part, also important, is whether we believe and accept that or not.
I said earlier that a martyr is someone who dies for a good cause. Jesus became a martyr for us, and the good cause is our salvation. Prophets often tended to end up as martyrs, because of the antagonism their words provoke. All of Jesus' life led him inexorably to martyrdom. It was not a question of giving till it hurt, but of giving till it's gone. It was total love, it was total giving. The very ground on which we walk has been blessed by the blood of the martyrs that soaked into it. Out of the death of martyrs came whole new life, something that has been witnessed to again and again throughout history. Because of this total outpouring of Jesus, many special souls, such as Therese of Liseux, had a very strong desire for martyrdom. They felt that nothing less would satisfy their burning desire to give themselves to someone who had given himself so totally to them. All of this is sheer stupidity and waste, in the eyes of the world. And yet, we must ask, is it? The hero-worshipping of martyrs has not always been based on religious grounds alone. Every nation has had its martyrs, even if history shows their zeal to be subversive or misguided. While Jesus extols the merits of fasting, there have been those who have used hunger strikes as a weapon of resistance and defiance. In the Christian tradition, the martyrs were always considered as saints, even before they are officially canonised. Indeed, in the catechism of my schooldays, martyrdom was deemed as being fully effective in the forgiveness of all sins, and of all debts outstanding to God. I'm not sure that this would be readily acceptable today, because the very willingness to lay down one's life for a just cause must surely betoken an already special relationship with God.
In considering the death of Jesus, it is important for us to remember that this was God who chose to die for us, so that he could lead us into a whole new possibility of living. This was the Red Sea once again, except, this time, it it is made red by the blood of God incarnate. This is the Way into life, and nobody can come to God except through this sacrifice of Jesus. His blood washes sin away, it pays the price for redeeming the slave, it overcomes all the bondages represented by inhabiting the human body. When the human body of Jesus was emptied of everything, both blood and water, it was then restored to the fullness of divinity, and was placed beyond the reach of all earthly destruction and decay. On a human level, the death of Jesus was a disaster, while, with the eyes and with logic of God, it was eternally triumphant. His death was a sin offering in the complete and total meaning of that word. 'By his wounds we are healed', Paul tells us. The death of Jesus is 'the one and eternal sacrifice offered for sin'. As the blood of the lamb protected the homes of the Hebrews, so the blood of Jesus opened the gates of heaven for God's people. It is significant that, just as he died, the graves were opened, the dead arose and appeared to many, and the veil of the Temple was rent in two. For the first time ever, it is possible for us to enter into the Holy of Holies. When the leaders met to discuss what to do about Jesus, to silence him, the High priest spoke some prophetic words 'Is it not right that one man should die for the people, rather than the whole nation be destroyed?' 'This prophecy that Jesus should die for the entire nation came from Caiaphus in his position as high priest. He didn't think of it himself; he was inspired to say it. It was a prediction that Jesus' death would not be for Israel only, but for the gathering together of all the children of God scattered all around the world.' While John tells us that the words of Caiaphus were prophetic, he probably underestimated the powerful prophetic nature of his own words, just quoted.
To become a follower of Jesus is to set out on the path of dying, and of rising to new life. Dying for Christians is what happens during their life-time. Love for others means dying to self. Death is like a pile of sand at the end of life, that the Christian can take and sprinkle, a few grains at a time, along the journey of life. If I wait till the end of my life to die, it could well be too late. This daily dying to self, whether it be my opinions, my possessions, or my comforts, is what Jesus calls his cross. This is a word that is not too well understood. Losing a job, suffering a stroke, or having a child born with a mental or physical handicap is often referred to as 'a great cross'. While not wishing to be insensitive, I have to say that this is not true. Such things happen to pagans as well, whereas the cross is uniquely Christian. Such things can be seen as a blessing, or they can be seen as a curse. The cross, on the other hand, is always redemptive, is always a blessing, is always life-giving. Jesus said that, to be a disciple of his, we have to take up our cross every day and follow him. The cross consists of every act and of every word that results directly from my decision to follow Jesus, and to obey him. If I am a Christian, I have to forgive you, to help you, and to love you. Generally speaking, it is not a heavy cross, being made up of splinters, as it were, rather than any great oppressing burden. 'My yoke is easy, and my burden is light'. Jesus' commitment to martyrdom was sealed when he entered the Jordan waters, with the sins of the world on his shoulders. The Christian begins the journey with a ceremony involving water. That waters returns, one drop at a time, every time the Christian offers the sacrifice of Jesus in Eucharist. The chalice represents the death of Jesus. 'Father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass from me...' Before offering the chalice of Jesus' death to the Father, the priests put in a drop of water to represent the daily-dyings that are part and parcel of Christian living. In the spirituality of the Fathers of the Church, martyrdom covered more than actually dying. There was martyrdom of desire, such as was the longing of Therese of Liseux, and there was what was called the 'white martyrdom of the celibate virginal life', when everything that was most vital and central to one's existence as a person was sacrificed for the service of God, and the building up of his kingdom. 'Leave everything, and follow me' is the stark invitation of Jesus. In doing so, I am following a martyred leader, and my life as a Christian must always include and contain a certain element of martyrdom in it. Most of us will never have to make the supreme sacrifice for the Gospel, but, because we are marked with the blood of the Lamb, we take on the vocation of dying, so that we can be born into eternal life.