The Greatest of Saints

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10)

The Russian Orthodox monastery near my home was founded by monks who managed to escape to the United States during the Russian Civil War. The walls of the monastery’s baptistry are covered in life-sized frescoes of Russian bishops and abbots. They were the teachers and friends of those who escaped, martyred by the Red Army for their faithfulness to Christ. The original monks would have remembered their voices and their mannerisms. They were dear friends, but great saints as well, demonstrations to their age of the saving power of the Lamb.

Judging from the color of the paint, inscriptions identifying the figures on the frescoes had been added a generation later. Those who knew the old heroes were dying out, and the community wanted to make certain that, as Sirach says, their “names [might] live to all generations.”

Our feast of All Saints is a relic of a similar age. First celebrated in Rome in the tumultuous days of the seventh century, it commemorated the early martyrs of that city. Their names and dates of death had long been forgotten, eras of persecution not being favorable to thorough record-keeping.

But they were known to God, and their witness, with its insistent challenge, must always be remembered. “We have died for the faith,” the feast says to us, “and you must be sure to keep it.”

It’s a shame that we forget the martyrs so easily. Many of them, to be sure, were among the least in society: slaves, women, the poor, like those Sirach says “have perished as if they had never existed.” Power isn’t a prerequisite for martyrdom, or learning or accomplishment — just complete steadfastness to Christ, a willingness to give up everything for the sake of gospel.

The world doesn’t know what to make of the martyrs, and yet from the beginning, they have been seen as the greatest of saints (indeed the only, for many centuries). In John’s vision they wear the white robes and carry the palms of victory, their own blood mingled with the life-giving flood from the Lamb. The last of the beatitudes isn’t an afterthought, but the very summit of life in the Kingdom of God.

For the blessed life is defined by the One who was “poor in spirit,” and “pure in heart.” And without its bitter but glorious end, his life lacks its true meaning. The martyrs of every age show us the deepest meaning of communion with him: fellowship in his suffering and glorious Body.

Look It Up

Read Psalm 1. Is the blessedness described here the same as in the Beatitudes?

Think About It

Is there a martyr who witnessed to Christ in a situation like yours? What can you learn from that martyr’s testimony?



Online Archives