You are my witnesses, the Lord tells Israel. You will be my witnesses, Jesus tells the apostles before His ascension. All Christians are witnesses, “martyrs” in the original sense of the word.
All Christians are also called to be “martyrs” in the more developed sense: We are all called to witness to Jesus by your life and words, no matter what the cost, no matter what the threat or danger.
Few of us will suffer martyrdom in this developed sense. Few of us will be in physical danger because of our witness. It’s unlikely that any of us will die a martyr’s death.
But each of us has been baptized into the true witness, Jesus. Every Christian is called to follow Him, and the path is the path that leads to the cross. Every disciple is called to a life that may in the end lead to a literal cross.
We may face this prospect in our vocation: Are you ready to lose your vocational life for the sake of Jesus – lose a promotion, lose some income, perhaps lose your job because you have taken a courageous stand for Jesus?
You may face martyrdom in your family: Perhaps you will pay by being cast out of your family, losing your inheritance.
Talk of martyrdom makes little sense in America. We think we have created a political system that eliminates the prospect of persecution and martyrdom, that permits everyone to believe and worship exactly as they please, that has outgrown the possibility of martyrdom. It’s not true. Liberal democracies can be as intolerant as totalitarian regimes.
This sounds grim, perhaps. But in fact it’s a great privilege. Jesus was the priest of His own sacrifice. Jesus offered Himself as a soothing aroma to His Father. And by the Spirit He joins us to His own sacrifice, to His own priesthood.
We are called to be priests as Jesus was, not priests who offer another on our behalf, but priests who draw near to God, in Christ, through our own self-offering.
But there is more. God created Adam and placed him in the garden east in Eden. He told him to serve the garden as a priest, and left and implicit promise that he would one day ascend to kingship, one day ascend to the high place of the land to be enthroned alongside his Father, the Creator.
In Revelation, martyrs are the ones who have finally fulfilled this Adamic vocation. Martyrs are the truly human humans, glorified humans, royal humans, humans brought to full maturity by following the path of the cross, the path of Jesus, the path of the True Man.