You Are a Witness to Christ
by Rev. Steven B. Oetien
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, "All that you see here - the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down."
Then they asked him, "Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen"? He answered, "See that you not be deceived, for many will come in may name, saying, "I am he,' and 'The time has come.' Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified, for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.
"Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives."
Our Lord tells of earthquakes, famines, plagues, "awesome sights and mighty sounds" coming from the sky. But before any of that happens, he says, there will be persecution of his disciples, who will be dragged before kings and governors because of his name. The persecution that he warns of will not simply be a tragic, unfortunate consequence for his disciples. It will have a purpose. Jesus explains that purpose in one line: "I will lead to your giving testimony."
The word used for "giving testimony" here is "martyrion" in Greek, from which we get the English word "martyr." This is what it means to be a martyr for Christ - one who gives his or her life in witness to Christ. Public persecution has its difficulties even if t doesn't result in dearth. It's intimidating to imagine being dragged out in public with one's reputation on the life, facing the judgment of others, one's name being dragged through the mud. It's certainly a fearful thing. But Our Lord tells us that it will be a time for us to give testimony for him, and he will give us wisdom in speaking.
Bearing witness to Christ in the face of the hardship of such public humiliation also bears great fruit for the church. When people see the willingness of Christians to make great sacrifices for the sake of Christ, it can leave a big impact. When the Roman Empire was persecuting the church in the first few centuries of Christianity, they were trying to stop her growth and destroy her. If we torture the Christians and execute them in cruel and public ways, they thought, then surely that will dissuade others from wanting to join this movement. But the bold faith of the early Christians proved just the opposite. They gave testimony to Christ by giving their lives, and Christianity grew faster than before. And so, Tertullian said that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."
Any suffering we endure is an opportunity to bear witness to Christ. And it need not be this kind of public suffering we see in the martyrs. Any suffering can be used to bear witness to Christ. St. Ambrose of Milan one said, "As there are many kinds of persecution, so there are many kinds of martyrdom. Every day you are a witness to Christ." Public persecution is not the only form of suffering. There are also hidden sufferings we endure, and facing temptation is one of these. St. Ambrose understood that every moment of temptation is like being dragged before kings and governors. It is an opportunity to bear witness to Christ. He explained, "There are as many kings as there are sins and vices; it is before these kings that we are led and before these we stand. These kings have their thrones in many hearts. But if anyone acknowledges Christ, he immediately makes a prisoner of this kind of king and casts him down from the throne of his own heart. How shall the devil maintain his throne in one who builds a throne for Christ in his heart?"
What are the kings and governors we are dragged in front of? St. Ambrose gives a few examples: "You were tempted by the spirit of lust, but feared the coming judgment of Christ and did not want your purity of mind and body to be defiled; you are a martyr for Christ. You were tempted by the spirit of avarice to seize the property of a child and violate the rights of a defenseless widow, but remembered God's law and saw your duty to give help, not act unjustly: you are a witness to Christ . . . You were tempted by the spirit of pride but saw the poor and the needy and looked with loving compassion on them, and loved humility rather than arrogance: you are a witness to Christ."
We could add our own examples to this list. You were tempted by gossip, greedy for social capital among your friends as you speak ill and tear down the reputation of someone else. But you controlled you tongue and only spoke good: you are a witness to Christ. You were tempted by pride when someone provoked you, wanting to lash out in anger and retaliation. But calling to mind the passion of Christ, you responded with meekness and humility: you are a witness to Christ.