‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves;so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.’ (10:16)
Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Ia, patron saint of our town, a holy woman who came from far away, bore witness to the light of Christ, and shed her blood on our shores for the sake of the gospel. The legends surrounding her life, provenance, and the manner of death are very vague, but fortunately the most important aspects of her memory are still preserved in the titles that accompany her name – virgin and martyr.
Examined properly virginity and martyrdom may appear very strange and remote to non-believers and contemporary society alike; perhaps they may even seem laughable. In fact, I suspect that your average person may be pretty uncomfortable in talking about them; virginity implies thinking, at least in some measure, about sex, and martyrdom involves talking about death – two subjects with which society struggles to grapple given our increasingly individualistic, self-serving culture. Yet, both virginity and martyrdom, far from being outdated things, are still very relevant concepts for many Christians today as they trace the most demanding blueprints of Christian living. We only have to think about the plight of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East to understand this.
So let us consider Christians martyrdom with the help of our gospel reading, as only very recently the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a sermon, ‘Martyrdom is a concept that needs rescuing’ (Rescuing martyrdom - 29/12/2014). Why is that?
Martyrdom needs reviving in the way we talk about discipleship for two reasons; primarily because of the powerful sign it represents for the Church and for the world, but also because the possibility of becoming a martyr is something open to all Christians. In our gospel reading today Jesus tells us just this; martyrdom is something that every one of his disciples could be confronted by, however unlikely it may seem at present. Jesus says, ‘I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ . These words come as part of a great missionary discourse containing both instructions and warnings for the disciples. Unfortunately, we have become so accustomed these words that we fail to grasp the full force of what Jesus is saying.
Let us read this verse slowly, ‘I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’.
First, Jesus says ‘I am sending you out’. He is sending Christians as his witnesses in the world to bring his light to others – this is our common vocation. The Greek word for “witness” is where we get the word for martyr form in English. So the “martyr” was originally thought of simply as one who witnesses to Christ, but through the centuries the Church eventually came to reserve this title only for those who have witnessed in the ultimate way by forfeiting their lives in order to remain true to the faith.
Secondly, Jesus instructs to live ‘like sheep in the midst of wolves’. The sheep are us, the pious and believing Christians; the wolves are members of the wider society, but the crucial words here are “in the midst”. Jesus sends us like a small number of sheep in the midst of a pack of wolves. As counterintuitive as it may sound, Jesus does not send us to live nearby the wolves, at a safe distance, or to be with one tamed wolf. It is something perhaps difficult to grasp in a nominally Christianised Britain but, in sending us Jesus warns us that we may find ourselves heavily outnumbered and in a deeply hostile territory. Yet, in all our tribulations we are sent to shine the light of faith on and for others through our different way of life – sheep, after all, do not behave like wolves.
Lastly, Jesus commands to ‘be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. Again, here the crucial words are “wise” and “innocent”, representing two sides of the same coin. Jesus does not instruct us to be poisonous as serpents, nor does he suggest that in order to be wise about worldly things we ought to forfeit our innocence – to “have lived” as they say. Being ‘wise as serpents’ means being alert, not naïve; it means being alert of the possible dangers that surround us – including being aware of those who would do anything to discredit the Church by pointing out our personal failures and sins.
The command to be wise and innocent also forms the difference between Christian martyrdom and the type of death exalted by religious extremists. The wise and innocent disciples will never go out of their way looking for death, and they would never ever harm others in order to witness to Christ. The Christian martyrs are not Japanese kamikazes or suicide bombers. In fact, much the opposite, the martyrs absorb the violence done to them because of hatred for the faith in love so that God may use their Christ-like passion to convert the world.
The Christ-like death of martyrs has a converting effect on others; as one early Church writer said, ‘…the more you kill the more we are. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ (Tertullian, Apologeticum). Therefore, martyrdom is an inherent part of discipleship. As Archbishop Justin said, it means to ‘bear witness to the light of Christ at the moment of greatest darkness; when the sword falls, the gun fires, [and] the flames rise’.
All this we see in our glorious patron Sain Ia even though we do not know much about her. So let us pray that should this moment of greatest darkness arrive for anyone of us, for me or you, we will have the courage, like her, to shine the light of Christ, in this most self-giving way.
Let us pray,
O glorious Saint Ia, virgin and martyr, who, being subjected to bitter torments, did not lose your faith nor your constancy in confessing Jesus Christ; obtain for us an active and solid faith, that we may alway be courageous followers of Jesus, and fervent Christians in word and in deed. Amen.