Exciting Holiness gives us this hagiography of Justin, Martyr at Rome, whose feast day is today.
Justin was born of a pagan family at the beginning of the second century in Palestine. As a young man he explored many different philosophies before at the age of thirty embracing Christianity. He continued to wear the distinctive dress of a professional philosopher, and taught Christianity as a philosophy first at Ephesus, and later at Rome. He became an outstanding apologist for the Christian faith, and is honoured as the first Christian thinker to enter into serious dialogue with the other intellectual disciplines of his day, including Judaism. Justin always sought to reconcile the claims of faith and reason. It was at Rome in about 165 that he and some of his disciples were denounced as Christians, and beheaded. The authentic record of their martyrdom based on an official court report has survived. Traditionally, Justin is often surnamed ‘Martyr’ because of his two-fold witness to Christ, through his apologetic writings and his manner of death.
After hearing this at Mass this morning, I wanted to explore something of the message of Justin Martyr, one of the greatest early witnesses to the Faith of Christ. Brutally murdered in 165 AD because he was unwilling to offer worship to the emperor and gods of Rome, having spent his life articulating the faith of Christ as a philosopher in the public square. For Justin, fidelity to Christ was more important than his own life – he found in Christ the wisdom and power of God.
‘For those who are called… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ (From 1 Corinthians).
Saint Justin was a man of prodigious intellectual gifts and he placed all this to the service of the Church’s mission. The Church, faced with the opposition of the Roman state in the second century, had to struggle to survive. Professing the Christian faith was considered to be treason, punishable by death. As well as this, Christians were cultural outsiders – the elites of Roman culture had their own gods and values, and to most of the Romans, Christian faith just seemed odd, if not completely unintelligible. Justin, empowered by divine grace, made it his mission to make the case for Christian faith. He presents reasoned arguments to the what and why of Christian belief and the practices of the Church.
This made Saint Justin a very dangerous man to those invested in the Roman system of power and privilege. For those who opposed the Church, there was no god but Caesar and no way of life other than the Roman way, a way of life that supremely valued wealth, pleasure, power and honours above anything else.
We might not feel that the Church is dangerously subversive, but for Justin, the Church was considered to be a threat, and was dealt with as such by those in power. Christians were persecuted. Their property was seized. Their institutions were closed. Their worship was ridiculed. Bishops and priests were arrested. And men and women like Justin, who presented Christian beliefs as credible, and the Christian way of life as worthwhile, were considered public enemies. The Church’s way of life required risk and sacrifices, and because people like Justin, were willing to take the risk and make the sacrifices, the Church not only survived, it flourished and grew. As Tertullian recognised at this time, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
Central to Justin’s witness was that the Church was a public reality, not a private club. The Church existed to engage and create public culture. The purpose of the Church was to be seen and heard, as it had a message and a mission that was for everyone, not just for a privileged few. This is not simply evangelism (in the sense of calling people to worship Christ, although that is a necessary part of it) but the Church proclaiming to the culture an alternative way of living – a way of living which is not centred around wealth, privilege or power. Justin’s witness that the Church was a public reality grated on those who believed that Roman power was absolute and could have no rivals. For Justin and the Church’s opponents of the Church, the Roman way was the only way.
However, in this culture, Saint Justin believed that Jesus Christ is the Way, and he would rather die than deny his faith in Jesus Christ, and for this reason, above all, the Church remembers him and recalls his courage. The Church suffers persecution in every age of her life. We have the privilege of practicing our faith in relative freedom, but many Christians struggle and many Christians will, like Saint Justin, suffer and die in our age because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
On this day that the Church calls us to remember Saint Justin, I hope we can also remember and pray for the many Christians who today will suffer and die for the faith they profess and the way of life they practice.
For them, and for all the Church, we pray:
God our Redeemer,
who through the folly of the cross taught your martyr Justin
the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ:
remove from us every kind of error
that we, like him, may be firmly grounded in the faith,
and make your name known to all peoples;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Pray for us St. Justin, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ!