St Agatha’s Sparkbrook, Birmingham
Patronal Festival, 4 February 2017
Gospel: St Luke 9.23—26
• Source: Wikimedia Commons (for a larger image see: http://www.wikiwand.com/de/Virgo_inter_virgines and follow the link to Meister der Lucialegende.)
About 550 years ago an altar panel was being painted in Bruges which you can see today in Brussels. In a garden, Jesus sits on the Virgin Mary’s lap, surrounded by twelve very fashionably dressed ladies. They are all virgins, and (with the exception of Mary herself) all are martyrs of the early church: Margaret, Dorothy, Cecilia, Agnes, Agatha, Catherine, Barbara, Ursula, Lucy, Apollonia. These women endured hideous ordeals to preserve their bodies faithful to Christ. Two were boiled, another mangled on a spike-wheel, another was burned. As you know, in Agatha’s case, her breasts were torn off with pincers. For others teeth or eyes were wrenched out; another was butchered with thousands of other virgins in a spectacular mass martyrdom. These were heroines of the early church; and they have stayed heroines of the church ever since.
The kneeling presence in the front of the painting of the woman in the gospel with a jar of precious ointment to anoint Jesus is a reminder that he too (the child sitting on the Virgin’s lap) is a martyr. This is not just the Virgin Queen among virgins, but the Martyr King among martyrs. Jesus’s body, like these women’s bodies, was shattered and broken and destroyed by human sin and violence. It had to be so. Without being broken, his body could not be shared, and give new life to others.
In today’s gospel we meet Jesus immediately following a tense conversation with his disciples. He had asked them what the crowds were calling him. When Peter said that the disciples thought he was the Messiah he immediately ordered them to tell no one, because they would not understand that the messiah had to suffer before he could enter into glory, and they may try to stop it. And indeed they themselves, his followers, must be the same. Try to protect and preserve your life and you will lose it; give up control of your life for the Lord’s sake and you will save it.
Those words remind us of one of Jesus’s shortest parables. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.’ The seed, once dead, buried and broken open will germinate and rise and grow into a new plant that will multiply the seeds in the ear. Jesus understood, those women martyrs whom we celebrate today understood, the necessity of self-sacrifice for life to be transmitted to others. Real death happens in the sterile lives of those who jealously guard and defend their lives. Real life, says Jesus, is giving your life over to God, and to others.
18 months or so ago, I had the extraordinary privilege of seeing the such faith on full view during a five-day visit to north-eastern Iraq, just a few kilometres from the limit of the ISIS-held zone. There the various churches (which all grew out of the early church of Antioch) have welcomed thousands upon thousands of displaced families fleeing the inhuman brutality of IS, a small part of the now estimated 3m displaced in and from Syria and Iraq. Many of them are Christians—Catholic and Orthodox—fleeing the cities and towns of their ancient heartlands. But not only so: Yazidi and Shia Muslim too. Running for their lives, escaping their deaths; abandoning their pasts, looking to God for their futures. Not all have succeeded. Many bishops, priests and monastics, and lay people from many different professions and skills, have been abducted, or given their lives to the violence that confronted them. Scores of churches have been destroyed. They are the church of martyrs.
And what of the churches that received them, who are housing and protecting and providing for them, and helping them face the future? among whom the refugees now want to stay rather than return to their homes. They are profoundly challenged and stretched. But of course in the process they are being extraordinarily deepened – both by the testimony and need of their displaced brothers and sisters; and by the memory of those who gave their lives up, faithful to Jesus Christ.
All of them know the truth—which echoes so strongly the parable of Jesus we’ve just heard—that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’ (Tertullian). It is both miraculous and very attractive.
What does all this mean for us? What do we learn from the martyrs?
It would be a major and damaging mistake to think that the death of a martyr is some sort of proof or winning blow. The point of a martyr’s self-offering is not winning or proving anything. The key to such self-giving is that it is an act of freedom, a celebration – the same kind of celebration as the cross: God’s total presence at the moment of extreme human need, a celebration of the new creation Christ invites us to live. It’s no surprise that the records of the martyrs of the early Church (such as our sisters in the Bruges painting) are so often couched in terms of the Eucharist. A Christian martyr is an image of the sacramental Body of Christ, the supreme gift of life, the unparalleled sign of ‘death to self’, the ‘grain of wheat’ of Jesus’s parable, the act that ‘produces much fruit’.
There is no doubt that the Church everywhere is facing challenging times. In different ways, in different contexts, the credibility and sustainability of Christian faith and hope are being tested. In some ways that’s not surprising since the sustainability of creation itself is facing deep challenges, and the Church is bound to feel deeply any challenge to God’s image, whether in the human being or in the created world.
But there are also many signs around of the Church’s fearfulness, its defensiveness and anxiety in the face of pressures and hostilities. The message of the martyrs to such a church, the message we hear so frequently in the Scriptures, is ‘Fear not! Do not be afraid.’ God has made Christ, as we heard in our second reading, to be our ‘wisdom and strength and holiness and freedom.’
Beloved do not be defensive, or anxious, or self-protective in your faith: the Lord is here, with us. Trust him. Even were we to encounter the same fear and hate that drove Jesus to the cross; even were we to encounter the same fear and hate that killed Agatha and her sisters, God never stops prompting us to trust him. That trust, and the freedom that flows from it, is what enables us to grow and go on attracting our fellow men and women into love, and into life, and into unity in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.