, ,


Today is St Stephen’s day, when the Church celebrates its first martyr. If we want some idea of how early Christians approached this subject, we can do not better than to read the account sent to the Smyrneans of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Polycarp was, it is said ordained by St John himself, and he served as Bishop of Smyrna (a town north east of Ephesus) for many years, being seized by enemies of the faith when he wa well into his eighties.

Polycarp was warned about his imminent seizure, but chose to stay rather than run. There was no wish on the part of the authorities to kill this saintly old man, and he was offered the chance to live, if he would abjure Christianity:

“Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile the Christ,” Polycarp said, “Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

But on his persisting again and saying, “Swear by the genius of Caesar,” he answered, “If you suppose vainly that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you say, and feign that you are ignorant who I am, hear you plainly: I am a Christian. But if you would learn the doctrine of Christianity, assign a day and give me a hearing.

So it was that the old man was led into the arena where they burned him.  We can get some insight into the frame of mind of these early Christians if we look at the early part of the letter:

Blessed therefore and noble are all the martyrdoms which have taken place according to the will of God (for it behoveth us to be very scrupulous and to assign to God the power over all things).

For who could fail to admire their nobleness and patient endurance and loyalty to the Master? seeing that when they were so torn by lashes that the mechanism of their flesh was visible even as far as the inward veins and arteries, they endured patiently, so that the very bystanders had pity and wept; while they themselves reached such a pitch of bravery that none of them uttered a cry or a groan, thus showing to us all that at that hour the martyrs of Christ being tortured were absent from the flesh, or rather that the Lord was standing by and conversing with them.

As we observe the martyrdom of Christians in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East, we can only lobby our governments to do more to help, and we can pray for such Christians. Noble though Polycarp’s example was, it would be a better world if there were not so many being forced down his route.