Saturday, February 5th, 2022

‘Venti et mare obedient’: a Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

What sort of man is this, that even the wind and sea obey (Matthew 8, 27)? 

Last week, you’ll recall I ended by saying that we would consider more fundamentally the question of the nature of martyrdom. There is no way I can do it justice, and it is a foolish, terrifying question to ask. But I asked it; and now I am under the obligation to give an answer. 

Fortunately, today is the feast of St Martina, another young Roman virgin-martyr. Her death came during the persecution of Alexander Severus in the first quarter of the third century. She prays for us in our weakness.  

One way to begin to answer the question—the question in what way martyrdom can be considered good—is to say something about sin. We do well to bear in mind, firstly, that the martyr is tempted to commit sin. Sometimes it is a question of sin against one of the moral virtues: the martyr dies to preserve her chastity or because he refuses to bear false witness. Some of the martyrs have been killed in the act of performing the works of mercy. St Paul was speaking about the matter in today’s epistle: “The love of neighbor worketh no evil. Love, therefore, is the fulfilling of the law.” And as king Solomon wrote, “for love is strong as death.”[1]    

Then there is the temptation to sin against the faith itself; or, put differently, the temptation to sin against the first commandment of the Decalogue. Of course, this is what we behold in the Roman virgin-martyrs we celebrate during the winter. The choice becomes decisive and dramatic: renounce the Catholic faith, or lose one’s life.—But even that is to put the matter too simply; the pathos of the situation runs deep. Such was the case in Rome of the third century and in Japan of the sixteenth; one thinks, too, of the Maccabean martyrs. In all these cases, the act which was forced upon the martyrs often consisted of little more than some kind of sham gesture of worship or sacrilege: a pinch of incense, a little step upon a holy image, a mouthful of pork. 

Nevertheless, no matter how seemingly small the gesture, the quality of the act is the same: such acts would constitute sins against the Faith itself. When the Church speaks of her murdered sons and daughters, she sees that such crimes were often committed in odium fidei—a terrifying thing to contemplate. But so it is. At every scene of martyrdom, there are two irreconcilable voices. One speaks, if you like, in the words of our offertory antiphon: 

The right hand of the Lord hath wrought strength, the right hand of the Lord hath exalted me: I shall not die, but live, and shall declare the works of the Lord.  

That is the voice of the martyr and of the Church. But there is also another voice, which whispers around the hearts of the persecutors: non serviam, it says. It is the voice of the ancient enemy, echoing and echoing down the ages.

So that is one answer to our original question. The grace of martyrdom is good, because it is the grace to surrender natural life in the face of temptation to sin.

All this can appear cruelty to the skeptic or to those of us with weak faith. Why should God really ever demand that we give up our lives for him? Surely he would forgive anyone who sinned under the threat of death! Surely the good God is rich in mercy. But I also suspect that these thoughts do not occur to the martyrs; or at least they do not dwell on them. 

I end, rather, with this. That I wonder if the martyrs are, at bottom, admirers. I wonder if they do not share something of that stupefied wonder which the apostles showed in that little skip upon the waves. “What sort of man is this, that even the wind and sea obey?” The martyrs are surrounded by threatening storms; but they loved the one who calmed the wind and sea with a command. What sort of man is this, indeed? So the martyrs ask. In asking they wonder; and in wondering, they stand firm.


[1] Song of Songs 8, 6.   

{Art Credit: Snow Storm (1842), J M W Turner; The Tate}


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