To Whose Greater Glory?
How must a Christian brag? St Edmund Campion gives his witness.
Reading: Luke 9:23-26
The following homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. You can listen here or read below:
Take the coach from Oxford to London, and as you approach Marble Arch, you may notice a little traffic island on your left with three trees thereon – or you may not. It’s not that remarkable, after all; to all appearances, it offers nothing worth making a statement about. Yet it was here that the Tyburn Tree stood; here the mission of Edmund Campion, as with many other martyrs, came to its culmination, as foreshadowed by these words of his: ‘The expense is reckoned; the enterprise is begun. This work is of God: it cannot be withstood. So the Faith was planted: so it must be restored.’ These words Campion issues to his persecutors in his pursuit, a challenge popularly known as ‘Campion’s Brag’. But does the Lord not castigate those who brag? ‘To the boastful, I say, ‘Do not boast … Do not speak with insolent pride.’’ (Ps 75:4-5(74:5-6)) In what way, then, can we brag?
In the Gospel passage, Christ speaks in the language of profit-and-loss: ‘those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?’ (Lk 9:24-25) A double paradox is at play here: not only can we win the crown of life by surrendering it, but also that our self-giving has been given meaning by God. We must marvel at the mystery, like as the Psalmist, who ponders, ‘No man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life’ (Ps 49:7(48:8)); ‘for he knows of what we are made, he remembers that we are dust’ (Ps 102(103):14). Yet Christ exhorts us not to be ashamed of him. Surely it must be the other way round! What value does God find in humanity, that he would gladly receive our offering of ourselves? And would this leave us much, if anything, to boast about? And how can we, as Christians in England and Wales, dare to boast, since a recent census has revealed that Christianity is now claimed by fewer than half of all people that here do dwell?
The answer lies precisely in who we are. ‘We are his people, the sheep of his flock’ (Ps 100(99):3). We have no basis for boasting, but what God has given: himself. And the perfect statement of his self-giving is Christ on the Cross, a ‘faithful witness in the skies’ (Ps 89:37(88:38)). Looking to the Cross, we see him looking upon us assembling in his Name – looking upon himself, ‘lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his’ (Hopkins SJ). He sees the Temple of his Body being built, peoples coming from afar, generations yet unborn, rendering him glorious praise (Jn 2:21, 1 Cor 6:19, Ps 22(21):30-31). The results of the recent census concerning religiosity is yet another reminder that this Mystical Body is incomplete – just as we are – but we know that his power is made perfect in our weakness (Col 1:24, 2 Cor 12:9).
As the faith was planted at the tree of the Cross, so must it be restored by our taking up the Cross. Living the life of the Cross, we take up anew the work of witnessing to Christ; in our union with the sufferings of Christ through present wayfaring, we are ‘always carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies’ (2 Cor 4:10). The Cross is the instrument with which Christ will complete his work in us, and so may we pray with St Paul: ‘May I never boast of anything except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Gal 6:14).
Campion took up this cry with the Cross: his bearing witness to Christ, his martyrdom, is his response to the mystery of love beyond all telling. The pseudo-Dionysius tells us that goodness diffuses, spreads itself about, pours itself out: so does the life of charity culminate in pouring oneself out. Campion could only issue his Brag having first resolved to follow Christ in humbling himself even unto death (Phil 2:8). His words, ‘The enterprise is begun … it cannot be withstood’ almost ironically foreshadow the manner of his death, the spectre of which did not deter him from his ministry of ‘preaching the Gospel, ministering the Sacraments and reforming sinners’. For even as his persecutors pressed on him from every side, he saw them for who they were, children of God, called to become partakers in the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4). He was not interested in merely winning them over, but in winning them for the Kingdom of Heaven. And so Campion’s Brag is no brazen bluster, but a witness-statement to the love of Christ: ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 Jn 3:6). Far from being ashamed of Christ, Campion encouraged his enemies to enter into dialogue with him, but, recognising the implausibility of their doing so genuinely, prayed that they ‘may at last be friends in heaven’.
As the drama of his last days unfolded, he remained true to his witness to Christ, and how poetically was he conformed to Christ in his manner of death. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. He was dragged to a place of execution outside the city. This holy priest, just as he elevated Host and Chalice at Mass, would soon be lifted high above the earth, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. He mounted the wood of the scaffold as an innocent victim.
As we cast our eyes to Christmas, let us remember why Christ ‘has come into the world: to bear witness to the truth’ (Jn 18:37); to be a martyr, and thereby give meaning to martyrdom. Campion and the noble army of martyrs can justly brag of having conquered their Accuser ‘by the Blood of the Lamb and the word of their witness, for they loved not their lives even unto death’ (Apoc 12:11).
Therefore, it is fitting that we celebrate the Sacred Mysteries in communion with these whose memory we venerate, for they bear witness alongside us to the Truth hidden on the altar: to us, who can give him no more than ourselves, Christ has given no less than himself.