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"They Went to Their Deaths Singing:" The Martyrs and the Joyful Death
In the 3rd century AD, the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered St. Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome, executed in a particularly cruel way. Such was the emperor’s rage that Lawrence was to be burned alive on a grill. Yet Lawrence showed not the least fear; instead, at one point during his martyrdom, he is said to have turned to his executioners and joked: “You can turn me over now; I’m done on this side.” In a similar vein, St. Thomas More was weakened from long imprisonment and sentenced to hanging. He asked for help ascending the scaffold, but assured his executioner that coming down would not be so much trouble. He even moved his beard out of the way so it should not be cut, lightly remarking that at least it “hath not committed treason.” How could they and countless other saints have gone to their deaths with joy and humor, singing hymns?
In the Little Office of Saint Joseph, the hymn for Compline proclaims, “Jesus, Mary, hung above thee / on that sad, yet happy day /, when, with their fond arms around thee, / passed thy gentle soul away.” The entire hymn is a lovely piece of poetry, tracing Saint Joseph’s role from his betrothal to the Virgin Mary, the Flight into Egypt, and his eventual death. The reference to his death as a “sad, yet happy day,” stands out, and might even puzzle. To the modern world without hope, death seems like the greatest of all disasters. What does it mean to call that day “sad, yet happy”?
Yet that language is neither exception nor accident, for Christian history is filled with stories of martyrs who went to their own deaths, joyfully, often singing hymns, sometimes even telling jokes (as in the famous case of St. Lawrence). Their joy at their own deaths testifies to the clarity of the Christian hope, a joy in the face of death that has long puzzled the world.
In the early Church, the famous Roman physician Galen marveled at the Early Christians’ courage in the face of death: “[T]he contempt for death is apparent to us everyday.” Romans wondered at the courage of Christians in the Colosseum, many of whom faced their martyrdom singing. The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicity speaks of Saints Perpetua and Felicity being brought to the arena to face the wild beasts; it tells us, “if they trembled at all, it was for joy and not fear.” When brought to the arena, Perpetua immediately began singing a hymn, later deliberately taking the time to pin up her hair even during her tortures lest her unkempt hair be interpreted as a sign of her grief.
1,800 years later, thousands of priests and laymen, and hundreds of nuns, were martyred during the Spanish Civil War by Republic and communist forces. A newspaper article reflecting on the events, only 25 years later, remarked on the stunning courage with which those martyrs met their deaths. At one nunnery, when the militia appeared to execute the nuns, they went to their deaths singing the hymns of the day, astonishing the militiamen with the calm way in which they met their deaths. Msgr. Iribarren wrote of 74 priests and religious at Lerida in 1936 who were put to death together: “[T]hey were not crestfallen, with eyes distorted by fear. Instead they went to their deaths singing hymns—the ‘Ave Maris Stella’ and the ‘Magnificat’—in the most solemn vespers of their lives.” Recently, Pope Francis has fast tracked the canonization process for a group of 16 Carmelite martyrs, killed during the French Revolution, who went to their deaths singing Laudate Dominum as they mounted the scaffold.
How did they and countless others do so, going to their deaths in song, in jest, and with utter unconcern for their coming fate? St. John Chrysostom explained Saint Paul’s joy this way: “For Love of Christ, Paul bore every burden … The most important thing of all to him, however, was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ. Enjoying this love, he considered himself happier than anyone else.” Joy came from the love of God, and, it might be added, Saint Paul’s absolute faith in the Resurrection.
Eusebius wrote of certain pagans who were executing Christian martyrs. They recognized that the joy of the Christians at their own death—“they despised terrors, going readily and with joy to death”—was due to the Christians’ hope in the Resurrection. For this reason, they attempted to burn the bodies of the Christians, throwing them in the river trying to take away this hope. They tried in vain.
For the martyrs knew with St. Paul that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might,Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38). Thomas Aquinas taught that true joy proceeds from the love of God, and if death itself cannot separate the Christian from the love of God, then death can be met with joy. In each case, the Christian met his death with joy because he believed something that the pagan, whether ancient or modern, did not. He believed that if he died with Christ, so would he live with Him. This hope, the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, gave the martyrs the ability to meet their deaths with joy.