Have you ever wondered how in the world the early Christians endured such suffering at the hands of their persecutors — and with joy?
What was their secret?
THE SITUATION TODAY
The prospect of martyrdom has recently become much more real across the globe for all Christians. For our brothers and sisters in the Eastern world this is not such a new prospect, but for us Westerners, we have had what one may call a bit of a “wake up call.”
Canada is no exception. In light of the recent violence in Ottawa and ISIS’ direct acknowledgement of our “home and native land” in its malicious addresses through the media we cannot help but ponder on the future of our “cozy” Western World and what lies ahead for us.
Before I go any further, let me make the caveat that I am not seeking to inspire a sort of paranoia or “doomsday” attitude here, but I am advocating that we make every effort to see the world as it really is and what it has the potential to become. We cannot afford to ignore or deny the realities of the day — for that is insanity; and insanity is the wrecking ball of society.
LOOKING BACK THEN
Current events, however, are not the focus of this post. Rather, I would like to draw your thoughts back to the early days of the Church.
For the first few hundred years of Christianity the reality was that it was not “safe” to be a Christian — especially one who evangelized. And yet these early Christian witness did evangelize, because they understood the Church was missionary by its very nature at all times and in all places — and at all costs. Evangelization was a supreme duty, a “non-negotiable” task for those who were able, even though it would place their lives directly in harm’s way.
The first Christians would spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ with passion and ardor with hearts inflamed for Jesus. For many, the ultimate consequence of their missionary activity was death. The cost of carrying out the Church’s mission was getting stoned, boiled, frozen and burned to death. Others were fed to lions or other wild beasts, or sent to their peril before the secular crowds at the hands of professional gladiators. Can you imagine?
Yet, something beautiful arose from this chaos: conversion. Eyewitnesses of these Christian executions would watch in awe and disbelief as the fearless disciples of Christ would suffer with smiles on their faces until their lives finally gave out. The sheer magnificence of these heroic deaths for the sake of Christ would inspire several new conversions; and these new converts, too, would go on to give their own lives for the same eternal cause. As Tertullian wrote:
“the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Apologeticus, Chapter 50).
Few other statements written by man stir the heart, mind and conscience of the Christian more than these by the early Church father, Tertullian.
THE BIG QUESTION
All of this begs the question: How did the early Christians do it?
Now quite obviously it was by the power of the Holy Spirit that they remained courageous and holy in the face of persecution but how did they access this divine strength?
Prayer, yes. But what kind of prayer?
The answer is the Mass, the greatest Christian prayer of all; and more specifically, the Sacrament of the Eucharist, instituted at the Last Supper, and made accessible to Christians through the Holy Mass.
Christians believed unanimously until the turn of the first millennium, that Jesus was present both physically and spiritually in what “appeared” to be bread and wine. Never in the early Church was it taught that Holy Communion was a mere symbolic act of remembrance. All faithful Christians in the early Church believed that Jesus was really and truly present, both physically and spiritually under the form of bread and wine, and it was upon the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist that the entire Christian life hinged — just as the Catholic life does today (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1324).
The Eucharist, therefore, was the secret to the early Christian martyrs’ heroic courage and holiness. As you’ll see, this is evident from the following samples of early Christian writings:
Ignatius of Antioch (A Disciple of John the Apostle)
“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7:3 [A.D. 110]).
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).
“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]).
“If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?” (Against Heresies 4:33–32 [A.D. 189]).
“He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him?” (ibid., 5:2).
Clement of Alexandria
“’Eat my flesh,’ [Jesus] says, ‘and drink my blood.’ The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutrients, he delivers over his flesh and pours out his blood, and nothing is lacking for the growth of his children” (The Instructor of Children 1:6:43:3 [A.D. 191]).
“[T]here is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe whilst it is in the flesh, so true is it that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen to the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service. The flesh, indeed, is washed [in baptism], in order that the soul may be cleansed . . . the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands [in confirmation], that the soul also may be illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds [in the Eucharist] on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may be filled with God” (The Resurrection of the Dead 8 [A.D. 210]).
“‘And she [Wisdom] has furnished her table’ [Prov. 9:2] . . . refers to his [Christ’s] honored and undefiled body and blood, which day by day are administered and offered sacrificially at the spiritual divine table, as a memorial of that first and ever-memorable table of the spiritual divine supper [i.e., the Last Supper]” (Fragment from Commentary on Proverbs [A.D. 217]).
“Formerly there was baptism in an obscure way . . . now, however, in full view, there is regeneration in water and in the Holy Spirit. Formerly, in an obscure way, there was manna for food; now, however, in full view, there is the true food, the flesh of the Word of God, as he himself says: ‘My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink’ [John 6:55]” (Homilies on Numbers 7:2 [A.D. 248]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“He [Paul] threatens, moreover, the stubborn and forward, and denounces them, saying, ‘Whosoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]. All these warnings being scorned and contemned—[lapsed Christians will often take Communion] before their sin is expiated, before confession has been made of their crime, before their conscience has been purged by sacrifice and by the hand of the priest, before the offense of an angry and threatening Lord has been appeased, [and so] violence is done to his body and blood; and they sin now against their Lord more with their hand and mouth than when they denied their Lord” (The Lapsed 15–16 [A.D. 251]).
***For a biblical defense of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, click here.