"He that loseth his life for My sake shall find it".
Matt. x. 39.
THE quality which St. Stephen displayed in eminence was courage, and courage is essentially the martyr's virtue. But it was not by his death only that this courage was manifested. The mere physical courage which faces death without a shudder is not rare; it is found in thousands of the most ordinary men. Take a common ploughboy from the hillside and train him as a soldier, and so strong are the influences upon him of the discipline of his life, the presence of his comrades, the eye of his officer, that he will advance unflinching upon the batteries that vomit their cross-fire upon him, though he well knows that not his will be the glory of victory, and that where he falls there will he lie, unknown and unnoticed, on the crimson sod. Far loftier is the courage which knows no other training than the instincts of a manly heart; and above all the courage which holds out in utter loneliness. Almost any man will confront peril with a multitude; scarcely one in a thousand will stand alone against a multitude when they are bent on wrong. Thousands, again, will risk all for a hoary prejudice : only the true martyr souls have the battle-brunt which will abide to the death by a new or a forgotten truth. And this was the courage of St. Stephen. Though only a Hellenist among Hebrews—only a deacon among Apostles—he had seen deeper into Christianity than any of his brethren. He saw, with perfect clearness, two great principles which dawned but slowly and dimly upon their minds. One was that the Law of Moses as a system was doomed to pass away—fading even as the glory faded from his once-illuminated face: the other was that Christianity was to be a free revelation not to Jews only, but to all the world;—that henceforth all mankind was to be a brotherhood, with equal privileges, in the great family of God;—that in Christ Jesus there was to be neither Greek nor Jew, neither barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ all and in all. And since it had been given him to see these truths, and their infinite importance, he was ready even to die for them. It did not damp his ardour to stand utterly alone amid the raging controversies of hostile synagogues. His was no mere flaring enthusiasm which smouldered at the breath of danger. He did not even quail when he found himself face to face with the stern menace of the Jewish Sanhedrim. They bent on him their fierce frowns; they glared on him with angry eyes; but still his face was as the face of an angel, and his upward gaze saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And so he delivered his glowing testimony, uttered his bold rebuke; and, not flinching when they seized him to drag him to his doom — even when he lay in anguish under the heaped stones, he struggled to his knees, and praying for his murderers, " Lord, lay not this sin to their charge," he fell asleep.
So died Christ's earliest martyr; nor was it long before others followed him. James the son of Zebedee was slain with the sword. James, the Lord's brother, was hurled down from the Temple's summit. One by one the Apostles passed to their unrecorded dooms. Thirty years after the death of Christ, Rome was burnt down, and being falsely accused of the crime, the Christians were tied to the stake in the gardens of Nero's Golden House, and while he drove about among the multitude in the guise of a charioteer, the flames were lit, and the ghastly darkness illuminated by living torches, of which each was a martyr in his shirt of flame. St. Peter, it is said, died in the amphitheatre. St. Paul was. perhaps, beheaded on the Appian Way. Slowly, through the cities of Asia, a prisoner chained in turns to ten rough and cruel soldiers, whom he compared to ten leopards, the aged Ignatius journeyed on, to be thrown to the wild beasts before the assembled multitudes of Rome. To St. Polycarp at Smyrna, as the flames arched over him, the Spirit of God was as a moist whistling wind amid the fire. " The Christians to the lions," became a common cry of the Pagan mob. Old men like Pothinus, young maidens like Blandina, mere boys like St. Pan-crasius, cheerfully, nay, triumphantly, bore torture rather than deny their Lord. St. Perpetua was young, and delicate, and a mother. " Have mercy on thy babe," they said to her: " have pity on the white hairs of thy father and the infancy of thy child." "I will not." "Art thou then a Christian?" they said, and she answered, " Yes ; " and " since my father would have led me away, Hilarianus ordered him to be driven off. . . . Then sentence was pronounced, and we were condemned to the wild beasts; and with hearts full of joy returned to our prison." " Condemned to the wild beasts, and with hearts full of Joy returned to our prison!" Is it not strange? as though the mention of joy were to a Christian the most natural thing in the world in connection with an imprisonment of terrible cruelty and a death of nameless horror. "Whence," it has well been asked, "came this tremendous spirit, scaring, nay, offending, the fastidious criticism of our delicate days ?" What was it that inspired St. Ignatius to say, " Now I begin to be a disciple. Whether it is fire, or the cross, or the assault of wild beasts, or the wrenching of my bones, the crunching of my limbs, the crushing of my whole body, let the tortures of the devil all assail me, if I do but gain Christ Jesus " ? Why does Tertullian so boldly write, " Call us Sarmenticii and Semaxii, names derived from the faggots wherewith we are burned, and the stakes to which we are tied,—these are our robe of victory, our triumphal chariot"? You must not think that the martyrs had any spell which secured them an immunity from pain. " They shrank from suffering like other men, but such natural shrinking was incommensurable with apostasy." No intensity of torture could affect a mental conviction, and so adequate a support and consolation to them in death was the sovereign thought in which they lived; so perfect the holy beauty of the maiden as she knelt to await the tiger's leap ; so peaceful the sleep of the young boy beside his wooden cross, as the morn dawned grey on the grim circle where he was to meet his end; so radiant was the old man's countenance as he lifted heavenward his trembling hands out of the flame—that often and often would the bystanders have taken their places, and far more gladly have shared their martyrdom than have sat in guilty glory beside the tyrants who sentenced them to death.
One good thing which the martyrs did for all the world was this,—they changed the cross of Christ from an emblem of horror and infamy to the proudest of all symbols, to be woven in gold on the banners of armies and set in gems on the crowns of kings. And another grand thing they did was to set the loftiest of all examples ; to bear witness to the most necessary of all truths—that there is in life something better than ease and comfort, more delightful than pleasure, "more golden than gold," that the life is more than meat, and the body than raiment; and that man's life consisteth not in the abundance of things which he possesseth. Such men, as has well been said, " create an epidemic of nobleness." Men become better and greater from gazing at their example; more ready to do and dare; more willing to lift their eyes out of the mire of selfishness and the dust of anxiety and toil; more brave to try whether they too cannot " scale the toppling crags of duty," and hold converse with these their loftier brethren upon the "Shining tablelands To which our God Himself is moon and sun".
Through the darknesses and disappointments of life, amid the wars and miseries of history, these high examples glide ever before us like a pillar of fire. And this their power of example by death becomes a power of influence in life.
I could add much more on this subject, but I must not weary you. What I have tried to make you see is that there is some good to the world in the results of martyrdom, in the example of martyrdom; that the martyrs have been, in fact, the salt of the earth. Have been—nay, they are ! For martyrdom is not one, but manifold; it is often a battle-field where no clash of earthly combatants is heard; it is often a theatre no wider than a single nameless home. Sometimes it is passive endurance ; sometimes it is active opposition; sometimes it is the decided warfare against a tyranny; sometimes it is the stout declaration of a truth :—but it is always a firm belief in the eternal distinctions between right and wrong; an evidence of conviction that there are worse evils in life than pain, and poverty, and persecutions; and higher blessings than pleasure, and success, and wealth; worse evils by far than those which the world dreads, and higher blessings by far than those for which it toils. To have the spirit of a martyr—and he who has it will be, in the highest sense, a martyr—is to be true at all costs to the best and highest things you know.
Let us learn practically this one lesson. If the hour of martyrdom, of witness, comes to you, will you be ready for it? It may come in very humble, in very unexpected ways. Young man, who art assailed by evil passions or evil temptations, when those passions are running riot in your heart, or when your companions are trying to make you walk in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of the scornful, will not you bear testimony that it is better to bear ridicule than to be a blasphemer; better to face craving than to be a drunkard; better to surfer anything than to pollute or injure a soul for which Christ died ? Oh the applications are a thousandfold ! Only be true to your God; be true to your Saviour; be true to yourselves; be true to the highest that you know, and you, too, each in your turn, each in your measure, shall have the high honour of helping forward by your example the cause of God, the cause of good—you, too, shall be Christ's witnesses—you, too, shall join the glorious army, and even if you be never called upon to taste the martyr's agony, yet, without resisting unto blood, through the mercy and merit of your Lord and Saviour your hands shall wave the martyr's palm-branch, and your brows shall bear the martyr's crown.
Saintly Workers, p. 8.