By Father Glenn J. Comandini, STD
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke speaks about an angel liberating St. Peter from prison in Jerusalem. Peter’s release is something good. It convinced this disciple that the Lord was indeed at work in his life but the angel’s intervention creates a question which sticks out like a hawk in a chicken coop. Why didn’t the angel save our first Pope from his second imprisonment in Rome?
Peter, like Paul, would eventually suffer a martyr’s death. Both Peter and Paul would die in Rome — the former was crucified upside down while the latter was beheaded. One might surmise that God saved Peter in Israel because the apostle still had work to do. His mission or vocation was not yet fulfilled; yet, at the time of his execution, there was still much to be done. The Kingdom of God, established by Jesus, was not built in a day. It’s still not complete. The Lord did not send another angel to save Peter and Paul again, if for no other reason, to reward the apostles for their faithfulness even in the face of death.
Martyrdom is a mystery of faith. Obviously, those who are crowned with the title of martyr believed so much in their convictions that they were actually willing to die for their faith. Moreover, and this is the gray area of theology surfacing: these witnesses succumbed to their execution believing that God wanted them to die. Imagine, God wanting someone to die — and not just a simple go to bed and die in your sleep death but a brutal, painful, bloody death of martyrdom. Is God a sadist? Is he masochistic? Or, do we, perhaps, have the wrong image of God? Since when do we pretend to know what God is thinking? How dare we speculate about God’s motives, about the way he distributes grace or renders justice? Just because we cannot understand something does not mean that something is “absurd,” that it has no meaning or value.
Those who witnessed the death of Peter and Paul insisted that their life was absurd and so too would their death be. But what these on-lookers failed to understand was God’s response to the tragic demise of the martyrs. We know from the Old Testament
that there is no expiation for sins without blood. Peter and Paul shed their blood, and the pain which they endured is at the heart of the mystery of vicarious suffering. Just as Jesus’ sacrifice of expiation made satisfaction for our sins, so we believe that the acceptance of his self-oblation was communicated through the Father’s commandment for Jesus to rise. Similarly, the same God who witnessed the death of his Apostles, Peter and Paul — gave meaning to their suffering, their blood, their deaths by raising these martyrs to new life — exalting them above all other humans, to the realm of glory. This is why we venerate the martyrs of our faith. Their witness, their courage, their sacrifice of expiation for the on-going redemption of the world warrants veneration. The mystery of martyrdom may seem absurd to some, but redeemed by the blood of Christ, we give thanks to the King of Martyrs, who touches us still, through the much-appreciated intercession of the great Saints Peter and Paul.