The Making of a Martyr
Practitioners of the new Christian faith faced their greatest opposition between the years 33 and 313. In 313 the Emperor Constantine converted and legalized Christianity, and life became less risky for Christians. Before that Christians suffered massive persecution. Those that converted from Judaism inevitably experienced tension as they sought to carve out a distinctive life of faith.
There were thousands of Christian martyrs during the persecution. In some cases, death was inevitable, because Christianity refuted the legitimacy of the Roman Empire's deities — including the emperor, who considered himself divine. Civil law forbade the practice of the Christian faith or even assembling for the propagation of that belief. The treatment of the Christians, ranging from merely dismissive to outrageous cruelty, depended on the whim of the emperor.
Christians often met in secret. Many were caught, forced to admit their belief, and then executed. But not all confessed their faith. This type of compromise raised many issues. Were those who said whatever authorities wanted to hear — and therefore did not die — still true Christians? Or did they have to begin all over again in the faith with a fresh baptism — assuming the first did not take — and hope for more courage the next time around?
Few are called to martyrdom in the ultimate sense. None are supposed to seek it. All Christians, however, are called to follow in the footsteps of Christ, and for some, this difficult journey culminates in martyrdom. Others are called to die in smaller ways every day of their lives, to surrender to love and to offer their lives for others in daily concrete ways. Both callings are rooted in Christ, who did not desire death but willingly surrendered to it for the sake of the world. His pain was real, as was the pain of the martyrs. And yet he, like so many after him, must have been sustained by a sense of ultimate hope and larger purpose, realizing that death is the door to life.
Not unlike the pagans, Christians brought food and other items to the graves of their loved ones or friends. For Christians, the idea was to be joyous, as indeed the Christian faith was in the first few centuries. The Roman Catholic Church returned to the joy surrounding death in the years after Vatican II. Funerals were no longer conducted with the celebrant in black vestments and the service accompanied by dirge-like music — the “Dies Irae,” for example, a hymn that starts: “Day of wrath, O day of mourning.” Today, most Christian funerals emphasize the movement into God's light. Presentday funerals also tend to celebrate the life of the deceased. White, not black, is the operative color used in these services. In these churches, the clergy wears white vestments to symbolize the hope of the Resurrection, although those who attend the funeral are still likely to wear black.
Interestingly, civil authorities did not interfere with early Christian graves, having a respect for death that apparently crossed religious lines. In time shrines and basilicas were built over some of those martyrs' tombs. These houses of worship remain today.
The following stories do contain some legendary aspects, but the stories remain largely true. It is inevitable that certain fantastic elements have entered in, as these stories have been told and retold for nearly two thousand years. Still, the stories retain a heartbreaking, genuine quality that continues to challenge and inspire.