The English Martyrs
The martyrs teach us to fix our gaze on the cross, for it is there that we learn how to love.
Reading: Acts 7:54-60
The following homily was preached to the student brothers at compline. You can listen here or read below:
What do the martyrs teach us? Today we celebrate the English Martyrs, those heroic men and women who gave their life for the faith in this country in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is stating the obvious to note how different their circumstances were to our own. Why then do we celebrate them today, and what do they teach us?
St John of the Cross once wrote: “in the evening of life, we will be judged by love alone.” The fact that we are celebrating this feast means that these martyrs now enjoy their eternal reward. Judged by love alone, they passed the test with flying colours. So if they teach us about love, how are we to love?
Christ summarises the teaching of the Old Testament on love as the following: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
This tells us who we are to love, but it doesn’t tell us the how.
Christ’s teaching on love is not reducible to a summary of the Old Law. His teaching takes on a far more radical shape: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you”. As I have loved you. This is to give up life itself, for this is what Christ himself did. That point is made very clear when Jesus goes to say “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Christ laid down his life for each one of us, and that is how he calls each one of us to love too.
A love that imitates Christ until death is exactly what we read about St Stephen in the first reading. The story even echoes the events of the cross. Stephen, like Christ, was taken outside of the city to be killed. He too, like Christ, forgave his oppressors, and he too cried out to God with the same words: “receive my spirit”.
A death that echoes that of Christ on the cross can also be seen with many of the English Martyrs that we celebrate today. John Kemple, a secular priest, said to his executioner, who happened to be a friend of his, “My good Anthony, do what you have to do. I forgive you with all my heart…”. Margaret Clitherowe accepted her burden with the same words as Christ prayed in the garden. She said, before she was crushed to death, “I will accept willingly everything that God wills”.
This is why we celebrate the martyrs: they fix our gaze on the cross. It is there we learn how to love.
Christ’s instruction to imitate him is of course not just reserved for the moment of our death. His instruction to “love one another even as I have loved you” ought to direct our every action. We cannot wait until the possibility of a heroic martyr’s death to begin loving as we ought to love. For the vast majority of us that moment will likely never come. But the opportunity to love as Christ has loved us is already here.
The whole of Jesus’ earthly mission looked forward to the cross. The love he displayed there was the perfection and completion of his ministry of teaching and healing. The cross is the final lesson: by his wounds, we are healed.
So too in the lives of the martyrs their death was not an isolated incident, of Christ-like, cruciform love. St Stephen was a man ‘full of faith and the Holy Spirit’, who proclaimed words of truth in the midst of a hostile Council. Margaret Clitherowe hid priests and continued to do so even after it was made illegal. She decided not to plead in her trial, thereby hastening her execution, so as to save her children from testifying and likely torture. Her imitation of the cross began long before she breathed her last. How appropriate that she died on 25th March 1586, Good Friday that year.
This is what the martyrs teach us: our imitation of the cross begins now. Every single moment, every single decision, is an opportunity to love as Jesus loved us.
To love like Jesus on the cross is to prefer nothing but the good of our neighbour. It is to forgive those who have most deeply wronged us. It is to speaks words of comfort from a place of hurt. It is to gather together those who are lost. It is to seek to do the Father’s will above all things.
For a very few the imitation of Christ’s love on the cross is literal, for most the circumstances are less dramatic, but for all the demand is the same: love one another as I have loved you. A cruciform-shaped love ought to structure our whole life, from its broadest shape to its most insignificant detail – now, and at the hour of our death.