“The story is, that Leontius, the son of Aglaion, coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.”
The macabre and terrifying held the fascination of Leontius, despite knowing deep down that he was feasting his eyes on something morally dubious. In the early Church, it was not uncommon for contemporaries of the early Christians to find it unsettling that this group would worship a corpse hanging on a Cross and the remains of slain followers of this defeated and tortured man.
In our own times, I have come across secular friends who find the Catholic veneration of relics macabre or merely eccentric. Being intrigued by the deceased seems to be a universal and the moral unease at the face of the remains of the dead equally so, while the act of venerating the dead seems to confound our secular peers.
Martyrs are those who have given their lives in witness to the faith. They have made the ultimate sacrifice for Christ, who in turn made the sacrifice for them and their sins. In the face of persecution and torment, these saints have not bowed down to the will of anything less than God Himself.
States with immense power, governments with anti-Catholic agendas, and individuals with anger towards Christians have not unsettled the resolve of those we proudly give this name. In the early Church it was indeed only martyrs who were considered saints without any doubt, and still today they hold a special place in Catholic worship, imagery and imagination. The blood of the martyrs, as an old saying goes, is the seed of the Church. It is the root and foundation of our faith.
It is precisely when we look to the blood that was shed for Christ that our fascination is justified. Unlike Leontius in Plato’s Republic, we are not looking at dead bodies for the sake of satisfying curiosity as we would scratch an itch. We look to the martyrs for the story they convey. In standing up for their faith, they embody the virtues we ought to seek to manifest in our own lives: courage, faith, determination, an unyielding commitment to truth, justice, honour, and, ultimately, love. Love is what motivates martyrs to fulfil their calling, for if they lacked the love of God, their lives would be taken in vain.
We look to martyrs as heroes, and conquerors of fear, and the secret to their courage is fear and love of God alone. As Christ Himself put it, encouraging those who would follow Him through the centuries, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew10:28)”.
Whilst the unbelieving might look at the sacrifice of our spiritual heroes with horror, we know that the true danger lies in failing to grasp the virtues testified in their death.
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