Being witness

Today is the Feast of St. Lawrence of Rome, one of the early martyrs of the Church who died during the persecution of the Emperor Valerian in 258 AD. Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome, directly serving the pope. Pope Sixtus II had been martyred just four days before. It is not clear what instigated the Valerian persecutions apart from the Roman Empire was beginning to fray at the seams with revolts in the East and the West. Perhaps the Christians were a convenient scapegoat.

The gospel for today is one that is common to the martyrs: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24). It is an apropos gospel. Some 2,000 years after his death, each year the Christian world remembers Lawrence. I doubt most people think too much about Valerian.

There is fruit in the witness of Lawrence’s life and death from which the Christian community can draw encouragement – and etymologically, martyr’s meaning is not to die for one’s faith or belief, but to give witness. That witness is often the cause of death sentence.

Although we don’t have detailed records or a history that details Lawrence’s life, the oral history was well preserved in the Roman Christian community and spread throughout all of Christendom. Two parts of the story are how he lived and how he died.

He lived in service to the church and the poor of Rome. He was offered the chance to “buy” his pardon from a death sentence by bringing before the prefect of Rome all the valuable sacred vessels and treasures of the Church. Lawrence replied that the Church was indeed rich. “I will show you a valuable part. But give me time to set everything in order and make an inventory.” After three days he gathered a great number of blind, lame, maimed, leprous, orphaned, and widowed persons and put them in rows. When the prefect arrived, Lawrence simply said, “These are the treasure of the Church.”

He died suffused with the love and joy of Christ. His death was to be slowly grilled to death. He is said to have told his torturers: “It is well done. Turn me over!”

Perhaps a key lesson from the life and death of St. Lawrence is to live out the joy of knowing Jesus. There was joy in his service and even in accepting his fate. As we are called to do, St. Lawrence gave us the witness of his journey in faith: “Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor 9:7)

It is a witness that makes an impression. Some 2,000 years later it is one of the most popular names taken in Confirmation.


Image: The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, painting by Jean Baptiste de Champaigne, Wikimedia Commons, PD-US

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