What Tertullian could not have foreseen, some dozen centuries before the fact, was that the Church itself, the Mystical Body of Christ, would be rent in two, and then cleaved again and again, divided like the garments of the One Whom all Christians still preach, and Him crucified.
The internal separations of the Church often left, not martyr’s blood, but bitter recrimination and suppurating uncharity. For a time, God allowed His Church to suffer under its own persecution, too. But this new orgy of Christians tortured—in Syria, in Nigeria, in North Korea, in China, in Iran, in Egypt, in Iraq—returns our attention to the fact of ongoing Christian martyrdom that, in the last few decades in the West, at least, we had grown largely too complacent to see. The Body of Christ, flesh in tatters, still hangs from a near-to-hand tree, the executioners making no distinction among denominations and sects. To profess Christ crucified, dead, and risen is enough.
The blood of the martyrs now not only nourishes the Church ever-resurgent, it also heals the wounds of the past carried forward. But this is not all. We are in constant need of reminding that our struggle is not just with the world (those who persecute Christians) and the flesh (that unwilling mass that craves its own unity over others’ or Christ’s), but also, and principally, with the devil.
As St. Athanasius makes clear in On the Incarnation, “The demons, knowing their weakness, because of this [refutation by Christ of their own weakness and nothingness,] formerly set human beings at war with each other, lest if they ceased from mutual strife, they should turn to battle against the demons. Indeed, those who became disciples of Christ, instead of fighting against each other, stand arrayed against the demons by their lives… and what is most wonderful is that they scorn even death and become martyrs for Christ.”
The devil has divided us and then sent his own followers to lap up the riven spoils, but here, as everywhere, the paradoxical victory of Christ holds fast. We die in Him, and through Him are defeated, not only the demons who hound us, but also our own sins that have separated us, and, finally, the death and sin that confound us still.
We die, but Christ is triumphant in saecula saeculorum. Taken together, then, these two Church Fathers—Tertullian and Athanasius—reveal, kaleidoscopically, glimpses of a larger truth: Christ’s Church must always return to Calvary, where He for Whose sake the martyrs suffer draws into Himself the bloodshed in His Name, overcomes utterly the demons that would scatter the Body asunder, and revivifies, always and everywhere, the broken Church. That the blood of the martyrs may be the seed of the Church made whole again is the blessing that our murdered brothers and sisters in Christ surely pray for now from Heaven. Let us join them, where we cannot follow them yet, in that prayer. ■