So often when we think of martyrs we think of the heroic, of people who gave the ultimate sacrifice for something in which they believed. Hence the gunmen who killed the journalists at Charlie Hebdo are hailed as “martyrs” by some. Our furnishings here at the church express this “heroic” sense of death: “Death for noble ends makes dying sweet,” says the inscription at the memorial over the rear doors of the church. This “heroic” sense of death can be seen, too, in Christ’s call to his disciples – as we will hear this coming Sunday – who left their nets and dropped everything to follow Jesus. “They so believed in Jesus and his cause,” we might say, “that they were willing to give all and follow him.” And later in the gospels, when we hear Jesus say to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” we might also think that being a Christian is “heroic,” that being a Christian involves a willingness to follow even though our following may lead to our death.
The inclusion of a passage from the Song of Solomon in the readings for today’s saint, St. Agnes, reminds us that martyrdom is not so much about fervor or zeal or higher purposes or ideals, as it is about love.
Perhaps Agnes was willing to be executed not so much out of an adherence to her Christian ideals, not so much because of her zeal for the faith, and not because she knew that Jesus had said something about his followers denying themselves and taking up their cross and following. Maybe Agnes was willing to be executed out of love. Maybe Agnes had heard Jesus not so much “summon” or “call” her – as any charismatic leader might summon or call followers – as she had heard Jesus’ invitation: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Here in the Song there is no talk of ideals or a cause or a higher purpose; there is no stern warning of the possibility of death, nor either the promise of eternal reward for those who do die. Any convincing, charismatic leader can say such things and have people follow. Rather, Jesus says, “Look….
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”
I like to think that Agnes’ “martyrdom,” then, was not so much heroic as it was the result of her willingness to let Jesus love her, and then to love him in return. Martyrdom isn’t about being a hero, it’s about being a lover. Martyrdom isn’t about ideals and truths and greater purposes, it’s about the winter being past, the rains being over and gone, the flowers appearing on the earth, and the vines being in blossom. There – in the midst of life, abundance and beauty – Jesus invites – not so much “summons” or “calls” as any worldly leader might do – but invites. Because he loves us. Because he wants to give us life. Because he wants to be with us – his love, his fair one – and to come away with us.
I think Jesus’ love for her is what Agnes felt as she was waiting to be executed. She wasn’t trying to make a statement or advance a cause or promulgate an ideal; she wasn’t trying to be a hero. She was just in love. With Jesus. And she did what any lover would do.