Saturday, May 2, 2009

Chronicle of Martyrs, 1

Chronologically, John the Baptist was the first martyr of Christianity, but naturally, and according to the Summary of the Martyrs of the First Century (Martyrs' Mirror pp 67):

To Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we have accorded the first place among the martyrs of the new covenant; not in the order of time, for herein John was before, and preceded with his death; but on account of the worthiness of the person, because He is the head of all the holy martyrs, through whom they all must be saved.

The story of Christ's life is told over two pages, broken by a large, dark image (one of many copper etchings in the book by Jan Luyken) of the crucifixion, three soldiers laying him out on the cross, one with a raised hammer about to drive a nail through Christ's ankles. The expression on Christ's face is of distracted misery, eyes averted to the voluptuous clouds overhead.

The book repeatedly notes the time of events of the crucifixion: "Thereupon He bowed His head and expired, having suffered excurciatingly six hours on the cross, from nine o'clock in the morning till three int he afternoon." This quote is followed with the lengthy footnote:

That the Lord lived six hours, yea, more than six hours on the cross, before He gave up the ghost, appears from the account of Mark, Chap. 15; for in verse 25 it says: "And it was the third hour, and they cricified him." That is according to our reckoning, nine o'clock in the morning. Then in verse 33, we are told that when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour; which according to our reckoning, was twelve o'clock noon. Then in verse 34, we read: "And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani, that is, My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" which, according to our way of reckonign time, is three o'clock in the afternoon. Again in verse 37, we read: "And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost;" which as it appears, happened after the expiration of the ninth hour, so that the Lord live don the cross from nine o'clock in the morning until three o'clock in the afternoon, that is fully six hours, and not before then did He give up the ghost, as has been show from the account of Mark.

There are a number of things from this entry on Christ, to be followed by hundreds of pages of detailed accounts of so many deaths, that strike me. It is emphasized that he was without a home, forced, with his family, to move continually until Herod's death to escape Herod's curse, then afterwards, to escape further execution and to spread the word of his faith. "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nexts; but the Son of man hath not wher eto lay his head" (Luke 9:58). "He was considered an enthusiast and vagrant, because He had no permanent place of abode" MM 68.

As well, two paragraphs are spent on showing how Pilate was forced to order Christ's crucifixion by the Jews:

Finally, when Pilate saw that the Jews were not to be moved, and fearing that they might accuse him before Caesar, he went and sat down (at about eight o'clock in the morning, according to our reckoning) in the judgment seat, in the place called Lithostratos, and in Hebrew Gabbatha, a paved elevation in Jerusalem; and there, though quite against his conscience, pronounced the sentence of death upon Christ."

I recall from my days of bible school that the fact that Christ chooses his path, to not denounce his heritage as the son of God, is significant. The Anabaptists themselves believe in the "second baptistm," a choice of faith that must be made as an adult and that is not valid in infant baptism. In the telling of Christ's death, too, his choice of when to die is deliberate. "Then, having fulfilled all, He commended His soul into His Father's hands, saying, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46). It is a defiance against helplessness in the hands of torturers to die when ready. "Thereupon He bowed His head and expired."

It is the preparation for and acceptance of death that most propells my interest in the Martyrs' Mirror accounts. As we'll see, martyrs goad their torturers to kill them, as though salvation may alone be achieved with two steps: proclaiming adherence to faith and suffering death.

I recently finished reading Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island, a book about the formation of a religion in the late 21st century based on eternal life through technology, the creation, with the DNA of believers of a race of neohumans who live indefinitely. The two characteristics of this faith that Houellebecq mines to great effect are the written documentation of life, the compilation of life stories, and the choice of death.

Next up in our tour of Martyrs' Mirror, the death by beheading of John the Baptist in A.D. 32.