Giussani on St. Stephen: Martyrdom as Affection for Christ

Giussani on St. Stephen: Martyrdom as Affection for Christ December 26, 2019

Fr. Luigi Giussani dedicates the second section of his book Is it Possible to Live This Way? Vol. 3 to the value of sacrifice, which he claims is a “necessary condition for men to reach their destiny.” If all persons are destined to happiness, and happiness is fully realized when the person affirms Christ as the ultimate meaning of her life, then this path implies that she sacrifice her own will for the sake of Christ. Christ sets the example for this “necessary condition” while dying on the Cross, which in turn makes sacrifice “the keystone of all life.” 

Giussani emphasizes that sacrifice has no value in itself; sacrifices should not be made for the sake of making sacrifices. Rather, sacrifice “becomes a moral value” insofar as it is a “response to Christ’s death” and that it is done with the recognition that “the only way to reach destiny…is to mount the cross of Christ: participating in Christ’s death.” 

The Christian ideal of sacrifice is markedly relational. It is Christ who “moves” the person to follow his example of self-sacrifice, being “moved by the desire for man’s destiny,” as demonstrated on the Cross. This distinguishes the saint from the “moral hero” who sacrifices for others in the name of duty, or out of blind obedience to a particular moral code. The witness of martyrs exemplify the essence of Giussani’s understanding of morality as “adherence to the Presence of Christ” in a radical and perfect way. It is love, desire, and affection which moves her to recognize that His “love is better than life itself” (Psalm 138). 

Charity, the force which propels the martyr, implies a “gift of self, moved” by the desire to be one with Christ. In the fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, Christ reminds his disciples that those who “remain in Him,” those who follow his lived example or his “trajectory of motion,” are given the command to “love one another, just as I have loved you. ” He goes on to establish the ultimate point in the trajectory of this loving gift of self. “No one has greater love than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13). This gift’s trajectory of motion, which “moves” from the person to Christ and subsequently to others, ends in death, or the total renunciation of one’s life. Martyrdom is the “greatest,” fullest, and most complete expression of love for Christ and for humanity.

Giussani applies this understanding of charity to the phenomenon of martyrdom in a homily on the Feast of Saint Stephen. “A true martyr, that is a witness to Jesus Christ—like Stephen—is one who makes an effort to travel [through life] with love.” Giussani hones in on the dimension of sacrifice that is a necessary condition of love for the other. Without this sacrifice, of which martyrdom serves as the supreme example, “arises [an] abhorrence for anything that bears a cost…In this mentality, every sick person is merely tolerated, every poor person is a wretch; whoever weeps is miserable; every weak and powerless creature is worthy of scorn; a meek soul is a disgrace; and every individual with a low social standing is a failure.” 

Due to Original Sin, the person naturally refuses to “exit” himself, in the name of preserving his ego: “Man is attached to his earthly life with a formidable instinct. The grief and suffering that come his way, he makes a great effort to diminish: with a deep-seated instinct of egoism, that tries to unload onto those around him the greatest possible amount of burdens, that tries to subjugate others, that pulls away from the grief and suffering of others as quickly as he can.”

Giussani claims that Stephen’s renunciation of his own life was, more than anything, a means to affirm his “friendship with Christ.” Moved less so by a sense of honor or duty, and more so by affection for a Person, a Presence, Stephen’s martyrdom “indicates to us his impassioned devotion to the Lord Jesus.” 

Giussani contextualizes the act of martyrdom within his formula for Christian morality, indicating that the act itself is the lived manifestation of (or adherence to) a person’s belief in the Person of Christ: “believing is not just trusting His words, but adhering to His Person, feeling His Person always present, mastering every activity of our life, every social relationship, even every form of thought and inner feeling.” 

Giussani’s formula for Christian morality seems to echo, or to affirm, Eusebius’s description of the martyr as “imitator of Christ”: “(The confessors at Lyons)…also were such emulators and imitators of Christ…they neither proclaimed themselves martyrs, nor indeed did they permit us to address them by this name…for the gladly conferred the title of martyr to Christ, the faithful and true martyr.”

The loving “affection” with which Stephen willingly gave his life for Christ witnesses to the paradoxical “joy of the Gospel” of which Pope Francis speaks in Evangelii Gaudium. Eusebius documents many other martyrs who were noted as being full of joy during their martyrdoms. On his way to being martyred, Saint Ignatius of Antioch prayed to “have the joy of the beasts that [were] prepared to devour” him. Bystanders of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp observed him offering a prayer as he was being burned alive, giving God glory for being allowed to partake from the same “cup of Christ.” After being sentenced to decapitation, Saint Justin and his companions “went out glorifying God to the customary place and were beheaded.” Similarly, the martyrs of Scilli in Africa Preconsularis went on their way to martyrdom exclaiming, “Today we are martyrs in heaven: thanks be to God!”

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