Today's feast of the First Holy Martyrs of the Church of Rome is a very important feast in the Church calendar. It follows the celebration of the martyrdoms of Sts. Peter and Paul, by one day. And it includes all of those who gave their lives in the middle of the first century for the Christian faith, including James and Peter and Paul, the first of the Apostles to do so.
These deaths are significant because they give life to the faith which they confessed. If all the early Christians did was say "I believe in God the Father, Son and Spirit living in me and the Church" but did not act as though they believed it, especially when things got difficult, and the opposition was knocking at the door, then the faith would be worthless. The foundation stones of the Church are red with the blood of martyrs: as Jesus gave everything for us, including his last drop of blood, some were blessed with the opportunity to do the same for him, literally!
The actual martyrs that we celebrate today were killed in the first persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. Nero was a psychotic kind of person, and no doubt set fire to the city of Rome one hot summer evening just for the sport of it. When the fire got out of control and raged for seven days burning most of Rome to the ground he blamed the Christians for it and began rounding them up for the slaughter. He used a deplorable variety of barbaric methods to carry out his plan (even his own soldiers thought he was going a bit overboard in the ferocity with which he struck out against these Christians: but with the powerful help of the Holy Spirit, the Christians did not shrink back from their fate, but actually embraced it quite courageously. When one can unite ones sufferings with that of Christ Crucified, anything is possible, any amount of pain and even death can be endured – because the promise of a share in his resurrection is sure and certain.
As St. Paul tells us in the first reading today: if God is for us who can be against us? Who can possibly separate us from the love of God? As Jesus conquered the world, so can we!
Nero has long come and gone, but in the gospel passage Jesus himself warns us that the true disciple will face all kinds of turmoil in any society in which he lives – the Church is still being persecuted today in many ways – but that this disciple must stay true to the real teachings of the true teachers and prophets sent by God – and not to listen to the false ones who are quite obviously self-gratifying and the seekers of an easier, softer way. There is no easier, softer way: there is only the way of the Cross; and the one who perseveres to the end will be saved!
Thank you Holy Martyrs of the Church of Rome for carrying your outstanding witness to discipleship to its ultimate limit which was rewarded with a crown of glory! Pray for us that we might be strong as well!
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.