[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times July 24, 2008]
“You do not know what you are asking.” Jesus answered. “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” James and John
replied, “We can.” Mt 20:22
I missed the sign on the door. “Enter at your own risk. Wake time: Never!” Still, in my second year of parenting teenaged sons, I was not taken entirely unaware when my Sunday morning foray into my youngest son’s room was met with a churlish, “What time is it?” Ten a.m. and we’re leaving for Mass in just under an hour. Things got a little frosty after that.
Barnacle Boy’s face is an open book, and without a word (since he was not speaking to me) he let me know all the way to the church he was not pleased. He plopped down in the front pew and gave God the silent treatment as well. Not a note, not a word passed his lips.
I refrained from commenting, though I (silently) beseeched the Spirit for fortitude. As we reach the point in the creed, “by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary,” I noticed movement to my right. As I bow, so does my wordless son. It’s as if he can’t help himself. The Boy mutely sits, stands and kneels with the rest of us.
The look the Boy shot me during the sign of peace was not conciliatory, but he did voluntarily go to Communion. As the last note of the recessional rang out, he snagged my car keys and headed for the door. It would be another hour before he gave over torturing me and apologized.
My parish frequently sings the Litany of the Saints, and each time we reach Felicity and Perpetua, I wonder if I could die for the faith as these mothers did. Could I drink this cup if presented to me? In Matthew’s Gospel, James and John are certain. I’m not — at least not until Chris put me to the test. It would have been easier to let him sleep.
Martyr comes from the Greek root martys — or witness. While we associate it with death for the faith, its original sense is that of testifying publicly, or of a spectator at a trial. In the Acts of the Apostles, the word is used not only to describe Stephen’s death at the hands of the mob, but to refer to those who watched his death.
While I may never know if I could follow the martyrs to my own death, I learned from the Boy that I could join their company in modest ways.
Perpetua and her companions’ behavior was such that their prison warden became a Christian. My son bows, stands and kneels because this community and I have been martyrs for him, our faith made visible in our movements.
Like those who watched Stephen die, faithful to the end, I was a witness to the Boy's struggle with faith, and God’s ultimate victory. He may be angry with me, he may be caught in a battle between God and his pride, but he goes forward to meet Christ in the Eucharist, and says, “Amen.” I am humbled; we are both martyrs.
In recalling the early martyrs for the second century Church at Corinth, St. Clement enjoins them to “go straight to the glorious venerable norm which is our tradition.” Martyrdom is what we do — some face lions, others, tired teens.
He may not have been thinking of mothers or teens in the 21st century, but I take hope in his words and hope that my weekly martyrdoms and theirs will be as Clement hoped: “acceptable in the sight of Him who made us.”
Father, you sanctified the Church of Rome with the blood of its first martyrs. May we find strength from their courage and rejoice in their triumph.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.