The church’s praise of the martyrs causes an uneasy tension for the honest Christian. Most, on principle, can honor their courage from afar, but how can one begin to consider emulation? How does one rejoice in the beatitude, “blessed are the persecuted” in anything more than by mere cognitive assent? For cognitive assent is never sufficient means for courage. The Christian virtues must be embodied to be executed, and they must be delighted in to be embodied.
The question remains, how does one delight in the idea of potential martyrdom (a notion any Christian should at least seriously contemplate)?
The early church had crucial insight. The opening section of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (Chapter 2) tells of countless deaths under persecution leading to the death of Polycarp:
And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?—who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them.
How could they endure such torments? The next line tells us:
But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them. And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched, and looked forward with the eyes of their heart to those good things which are laid up for such as endure; things “which ear hath not heard, nor eye seen, neither have entered into the heart of man,” but were revealed by the Lord to them, inasmuch as they were no longer men, but had already become angels.
They looked not to their torments, but to their Lord. The key to the martyrs’ courage is not in their suffering, but in the grace bestowed to them. So it was also with the first recorded martyr, Stephen (Acts 7). Right before his death “he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). As he was being stoned, he cried, “Lord Jesus, recieve my spirit” (Acts. 7:59).
The opposite was said of Christ than of the martyrs. The cry of dereliction reveals a forsaken Savior.
The martyrs understood this trade-off; Christ was forsaken so that we never would be.