Tertullian famously said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. It should not surprise us that it is so. When Jesus poured out his precious blood for us upon Golgotha, crying out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” he experienced the depth of dereliction, and in that very emptying, that ultimate humbling, that engagement with nothingness, he was at one with the Father. Recall the moment of creation, when the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters of nothing. Then, by the Word, the Father said, “Yehi 'or,” “Let there be light,” and in the terse and simple Hebrew, changing tenses after the connective, “yehi 'or,” “there was light.”
That the eternal and incorporeal God should have humbled himself, as it were, to create bodily things that pass into and out of being, in time, was a tremendous victory, a communication of his life and his glory. That he then should, in George Herbert's words, “give dust a tongue,” making corporeal man in his image and likeness, was yet another victory. Christian poets have long celebrated it, and have seen that Satan and his minions would recoil from it in disgust. Says Tasso's Satan, as the climax of his grudges against God, “Then man the vile, born of vile mud, He invites / To rise instead to those celestial heights!” So too Lewis's Screwtape hates the humility of flesh, and fairly writhes in disgust to think of the little grunts of pleasure we give when we take off our sodden and uncomfortable clothes, to soak in a hot bath – and to think, moreover, of the joy we will feel when we shuck the scabby husk of sin, to stand nakedly ourselves before the holy angels, and before Christ.
The blood of the martyrs, then, is the seed of the Church, and that is not because people look upon them and are struck with their courage and their joy, though that may well happen. It is because martyrdom is the very form of our becoming like unto Christ. Except a grain of corn fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but when we descend, in obedience, we rise. Every apparent defeat suffered by obedience is in fact a victory, and the greatest and exemplary victory was won upon the morning after the Sabbath, after the victory of the Cross.
I have been thinking lately that there is a corollary we can draw from Tertullian. It is that the sweat of the antimartyr is poison for the Church. The antimartyr is what we are all in danger of becoming, when we forget the devastating and wholly salutary words of the Baptist, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” The antimartyr is not necessarily someone who hates the Church, or who seeks to spread paganism across the land. He is one, as I see it, who testifies to himself – one for whom the Church has become a means for the aggrandizement of himself. As I said, this is a grave danger, and one that writers like me had better be wary of! What keeps us in line is a humble submission to authority – spiritual direction, perhaps, but mostly an attitude of obedience, which means that we will say little but listen much, pondering things like Mary. I could then posit the Inverse Martyr Rule, thus. Every apparent victory attained by disobedience is in fact a defeat. The history of various orders in my church, the Roman Catholic, in the last several decades, could provide plenty of rich examples.