Cult of the Martyrs

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The cult of the Christian martyrs was one of the most important features in the Christian life of North Africa during the time of Augustine.

Augustine preached many times on the feast day of martyrs. He brought his own distinctive message to these occasions.

Much of the preaching (sermons) of Augustine on the feasts of the martyrs still exists.

They indicate both the interest of his people in this topic and his concern about possible abuses that could arise.

It was by then a few generations since Christians had been executed for their Faith, and becoming a martyr had been accorded great admiration.

It was a powerful teaching tool for the church, and in preaching a way of encouraging people to stand by their Faith.

Appealing to that desire to imitate the martyrs, Augustine suggested ways in which the opportunity for a public witness – the Greek word, martyr, means “witness” – to Christ was still available to the people in his church in Hippo.

He drew examples from the lives of the martyrs to bring out parallels in contemporary Christian living.

Augustine asserted that the lives of the martyrs served as spectacles for the Christians, ones in which they could hope to emulate the performers.

While every movement of passion offered the Christian the opportunity to engage and overcome the devil, certain public temptations provided a chance to testify as the martyrs had done.

Like Cyprian who challenged the prayers addressed to false gods, contemporary Catholics could criticize the false martyrdoms of the Donatists and perhaps suffer the consequences.

When, for example, pagans mocked Christian converts by describing the church as an assembly of old ladies, Augustine said that the more senior Christians should come to their defence rather than being relieved that the words were not being directed at them.

Or when a pagan friend offered an amulet or magic charm against illness, the true Christian should proclaim a willingness to die rather than to retain life and health through recourse to demons.

Finally, he reminded his hearers that each of the martyrs had struggled silently against fear and temptation within before their final public triumph.

That same battle and victory could be faced each day by every Christian.

To strengthen his flock, Augustine observed that some martyrs came from social classes from whom heroic action possibly was not ordinarily anticipated: country people without education, women and young people.These latter martyrs could serve as models for persons in the care of Augustine who thought that martyrs from noble families were impossible Christian role models for themselves.
In this way, there were Christian deeds within the countless band of martyrs that were achievable by any Christian then in Hippo.

Augustine also asserted that the divine assistance by which the martyrs had triumphed was itself available to every Christian.

As the leader of the church in Hippo, Augustine could afford neither to discount nor to overlook the effect of the cult of martyrs on the local people.

It was heavily impregnated throughout North African Catholic belief and customs.

For the people in Hippo, the fiesta of a martyr was a big occasion. They were a social rather than a religious event.

They had become a social way of celebration during the warm summer nights.

As a happy escape from drab routine, they involved singing, drinking and even rhythmic dancing.

The festive mood was intended to recapture the joy (laetitia, in Latin) of the martyr in being released from torture and death by entering into heaven.

The laetitia – with its noise and alcoholic levity – of such a festival allowed the people to have a small sense of experiencing the joy of the martyrs.

To the Christian still struggling against temptation and evil, a martyr was a hero, a Christian success story.

The celebration of the martyrs offered a borrowed touch of joy to the dull existence of the average Christian.

But the concern of Augustine was a spiritual one. He feared that this reaching for this laetitia of the martyr did not in any constructive way translate in any helpful way into the coping with the daily Christian life of the local participants.

He feared, therefore, that the festival could be merely a nostalgia trip, or a brief escape from daily life supported by alcohol.

Even in his earliest years when writing as a priest before he became a bishop, Augustine was determined to remove the purely “fiesta” aspects from the laetitia – the wine, the songs, and the dancing.

Augustine tried to make the feasts of the martyrs less dramatic because he wished his people to keep in mind the daily drama of the workings of God in their own hearts.

He wanted them to focus on the frequent, less dramatic, but no less spectacular, triumphs of God’s grace in the present and in their own lives.

He feared martyrs being perceived as so far “above” others as not to be role models.

He did not wish the lives of the martyrs to be accepted as so exceptional that they were not relevant to the daily life of the average Christian.

In this way, Augustine – who in the Church is called the doctor_gratiae (“Professor of Grace”) – insisted that the grace of God was always present, and, so, that any Christian, at any time, could be a “martyr” who witnessed Christ in his or her own way.

He said, “God has many martyrs in secret. We would not wish for a return to the pain which our ancestors suffered at the hands of the authorities.” God’s grace was everywhere and for every person.

As the leader of the church in Hippo, Augustine could afford neither to discount nor to overlook the effect of the cult of martyrs on the local people.

It was heavily impregnated throughout North African Catholic belief and customs.

For his people in Hippo, the fiesta of a martyr was a big occasion.

They were a social rather than a religious event. They were a time of celebration during the warm summer nights.

As a happy escape from drab routine, they involved singing, drinking and even rhythmic dancing.

Augustine tried to make the feasts of the martyrs less dramatic because he wished his people to keep in mind the daily working of God in their own hearts.

He wanted them to focus on the frequent, less dramatic, but no less spectacular, triumphs of the grace of God in the present time and in their own lives.

He feared martyrs being perceived as so far “above” others as not to be role models.

He did not wish the lives of the martyrs to be accepted as so exceptional that they were not relevant to the daily life of the average Christian.

In this way, Augustine – the “Professor of Grace” or Doctor Gratiae of the Church – insisted that the grace (in Latin, gratia) of God was always present, and, so, that any Christian, at any time, could be a “martyr” who witnessed Christ in his or her own way.

He said, “God has many martyrs in secret. We would not wish for a return to the pain which our ancestors suffered at the hands of the authorities.”

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