+ Today we celebrate the great feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. The deaths of Saints Peter and Paul, which we celebrated yesterday, were part of the relentless persecution of the Emperor Nero. Clearly a psychopath, Nero burned down two thirds of the city of Rome, in the already scorching heat of summer, reportedly laughed while it burned and then blamed the Christians for this deed. This gave him public leave to exterminate mercilessly large quantities of Christians in a sordid variety of ways.
God, however, brought great victory from such a dastardly deed: for it was from the blood of the martyrs that the roots and shoots of the early Church began to take root and spread. These great many men and women were gifted with the opportunity to follow Christ to the point of shedding blood: and their reward was very great in heaven, as promised; and a fragrant crown of the glory of God himself was bestowed on them to last forever!
The first reading today tells us that if God is for us – and he is at all times, in every circumstance of our life, most especially when we are persecuted – then it matters not who is against us. We, by the grace of God, will always be victorious. In the gospel passage Jesus relates that he who perseveres to the end will be saved – he who uses the graces that God gives and refuses to be sidetracked by difficulties of any kind, will see the fruits of his labor.
May our hope remain a reserved place in the Kingdom of heaven – with the First Martyrs of Rome – and all subsequent martyrs of both the red and white variety. We all can unite our sufferings and crosses to that of Christ and emerge unscathed, renewed and victorious!
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.