Every year, Ash Wednesday rolls around, and every year, this church swells with crowds of people, eager to be marked as we begin the observance of Lent.
Receiving these ashes, of course, serves a number of purposes. First, it proclaims to the world that we are Catholic Christians. It tells others that we are preparing for Easter, embarking on this 40-day journey of fasting and prayer and almsgiving. And, significantly, it announces that the light of Christ burning within us is not as bright as it should be—it has been darkened by dust. We need to bring forth the light, to be ready for the great feast of Easter.
All of this is a vital part of our Lent, as it is ever year.
But this year is different.
Lent is not the same. It can’t be. Our world has shifted. And attention must be paid.
Four days ago, on Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, we witnessed a horror that has plunged much of the world into shock and grief. Twenty-one Coptic Christians were paraded on a beach in orange jumpsuits. They were forced to kneel on the sand. And they were executed by Islamic extremists—their heads sawed off at the neck. The waves of the Mediterranean turned red with their blood.
As they died, many cried out with their final breath, “Jesus, help me” and “my Lord, Jesus.” They died with Christ’s name on their lips.
They died as martyrs.
The video of the massacre stunned the world. Pope Francis put it bluntly: “The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard.” He went on: “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.”
Today, we too will be “confessing Christ,” silently proclaiming Christ’s passion, death and resurrection on our brows.
But let us also proclaim something else: That the deaths of these martyrs will not be in vain.
That we will be worthy disciples of the faith they died for.
That over the next 40 days, we who are dust will strive to become something more—witnesses to what we believe, bearers of the light of faith, beacons of Christ in a terrified and terrorized world.
We must. Those modern martyrs deserve nothing less.
Over the next 40 days, let us pray for these 21 souls—and pray to them. Let us ask them to intercede for us, to pray for us, to help bring peace to our troubled and anguished world, so that the ground that once gave rise to the faith, the sand that the first apostles walked, will cease to be stained with blood.
Each of those martyred souls had a family, a history, a name.
As I said before: Attention must be paid.
So let us take this moment to pray for them. Let us pray for:
+Milad Makeen Zaky
+Abanub Ayad Atiya
+Maged Solaimain Shehata
+Yusuf Shukry Yunan
+Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
+Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
+Somaily Astafanus Kamel
+Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
+Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
+Girgis Milad Sinweet
+Mina Fayez Aziz
+Hany Abdelmesih Salib
+Bishoy Adel Khalaf
+Samuel Alham Wilson
+Ezat Bishri Naseef
+Gaber Munir Adly
+Esam Badir Samir
+Malak Farag Abram
+Sameh Salah Faruq
+And the martyr whose name we do not know, a “Worker from Awr village”
When we leave here this day, we will be marked with ashes. But let us remember others around the world who are also marked – marked for suffering, persecution and death.
Let us bear these ashes into the world as a sign of solidarity, faith and hope for all those whose lives have turned to dust in the inferno of the Middle East.
And let us carry with us something else, too: a prayer in our hearts for all the suffering men, women and children of the land we call Holy.
They face hardships and persecutions we can’t begin to imagine. Their lives are a continual Lent.
Let us pray that, by God’s grace, and the prayers of the holy martyrs, they will know Easter.
As we work this Lent to transform our lives and our hearts, let us pray that our sacrifice and prayer, our alms-giving and fasting, might also help transform our world.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs, pray for us.
Read a prayer for the martyrs here.
Photo via Wikipedia