Reflecting on Lent: Mortality and Martyrdom

Coptic Christian martyrs

by Ken Howard

I still cannot speak of this without a misting of my eyes and a twisting of sorrow in my heart…

I woke up yesterday to the news of 21 Coptic Christians executed for the “crime” of being “people of the cross” – brutally murdered in the name of “God” by men who pretend to be brave and heroic while covering their faces in a way that can only be described as cowardly. And as I looked at the picture of those 21 men, forced to kneel at the feet of their soon-to-be executioners, I realized that if ever I am tempted to think that we as Christians face persecution in this country, my mind’s eye will return to this picture. Indeed, nothing I have ever experienced can hold a candle to this. This is the real deal.

As I looked at the faces of the 21 kneeling men, I also realized that I these were the faces of people who would soon be martyrs. “Martyr” – which literally means “witness” in the original Greek of the Bible – is not a term we use much in church these days. So I had never really wrestled with that meaning…until yesterday. But now it made a deep kind of sense. And oddly enough, that sense was made plain by the “verdict” given by the video’s narrator. They were being beheaded, we were told, because they “carried the vision of the cross in their heads.” Other than that, they were regular people. They were husbands, fathers, sons, simple fisherman, doing a day’s work to provide for their families. Except for the fact that they lived in a part of the world where simply being a follower of Jesus Christ was actually dangerous, they could be us…and we could be them. We share in the crime for which they were martyred: the crime of being a witness – the crime of carrying the vision of the cross – the vision of the cross of Jesus – in our heads.

Which brings me to the subject of Lent. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. Christians – little Christ-followers – around the world will participate in the sacrament of the Imposition of Ashes, in which the ashes remaining from the palms of last year’s Palm Sunday will be applied to our foreheads in the shape of a cross. These ashes are not a sign of fasting – as some think – but a sign of our mortality.

Ashes

These ashes we wear say to all that see us, “I know that I am mortal.” And the crosses that they form on the outside of our heads say, “Guilty as charged…I hold the vision of the cross in my head.” It says to the world, “You may take my life, but you cannot separate my spirit from God.”

Remember you are dust

These ashes remind those of us who wear them that God created us from dust and blew life into us. They remind us that without God’s breath within us, our bodies return to the dust from which we were created, yet the unique spirit that God breathed into each of us – the unique spirit that IS us – returns to be with God. And these ashes also remind us that life is a fragile thing that must be nurtured, a priceless gift from God that must be treasured, and a taste of participation in Christ that must be savored.

It is part of our tradition to choose a Lenten discipline: a thing we will do during the 40 days of Lent to focus our minds on mortality, the fleeting preciousness of life, and the vision of the cross that we carry in our heads.

What will my Lenten discipline be?

For each of the 40 days of Lent I will give thanks for lives of the 21 who lost them because they carried the vision of the cross, and who by their deaths have returned to the One who created them, the One who redeemed them, the One who kept them in life. And because Jesus asks it of me, I will strive not to hate those who took their lives, but rather that they experience the love we know in Jesus Christ in such a way as to turn their hearts away from evil and towards a heart-rending repentance for what they have done, as Christ has done with Saul of Tarsus and so many others who have persecuted and killed his followers.

And I will meditate on these words from Richard Hooker, widely acknowledged as one of the founders of the Anglican Church:

Dangerous it were for the feeble mind of man
to wander too far into the doings of the Almighty.
Our highest knowledge of him is that we know him not,
our safest eloquence concerning him is our silence.
Therefore our words should be wary and few.

Wishing you a holy Lent,
Ken Signature

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