After the church celebrates the life and ministry of Peter and Paul, we commemorate the rest of the apostles. In the vesperal hymns last night I was struck by the focus on their martyrdom:
The Spirit-proclaiming disciples of the Savior, having become through faithfulness instruments of the Spirit, and being scattered to the ends of the earth, sowed in steadfastness of opinion the solemn warning, and from their divine husbandry blossomed forth unto grace the army of martyrs, who inscribed the signs of the noble passions by sundry kinds of tortures, scourgings, and fire. Verily, as favored ones, they plead for our souls.
Another hymn mentions fire and lances, swords, arrows, and writhing members. And yes, we actually sing lines about broken limbs and puncture wounds in church.
Why? The price of the apostles’ devotion is too high to forget. The church cherishes the memory of all its martyrs — and especially on this day the witness of the apostles.
Peter was crucified upside down in Rome. Paul was beheaded by Nero.
James, son of Zebedee, was the first of the apostles to be martyred, his death alone recorded in the New Testament. “Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12.1-2).
James, the son of Alphaeus, traveled as far north as Edessa but moved south into Egypt and was crucified in the city of Ostrachina.
Simon the Zealot, after ministering in Africa, was crucified in Abkhazia, Georgia.
Philip and Bartholomew (also called Nathaniel) ministered together in Hieropolis, Anatolia, where they were both crucified upside down. Philip died, while Bartholomew was pulled down from the cross alive. Bartholomew recovered and continued his ministry. He was eventually skinned alive and crucified in Armenia.
Thomas ministered throughout the Middle East, traveled south to Ethiopia, and then as far east as India, where he was imprisoned, tortured, and impaled by spears.
After writing his gospel and ministering in Palestine, Matthew also traveled to Ethiopia, where he was burned alive by a local ruler.
Matthias was stoned and beheaded, though some traditions suggest he was crucified. And finally Jude (also called Thaddeus) was not only crucified but shot with arrows while hanging on his cross.
Only John, of all the apostles, died an old man in peace.
The price was worth the prize. “All this,” goes the hymn, “they bore magnanimously (or: with great souls) when they foresaw their approaching end, the unwithering crowns, and the glory of Christ, whom as favored ones, they implore for our souls.”