Support us on Paypal
Contact Us
Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - The Great Army of the Martyrs

Robert Barron - The Great Army of the Martyrs

Robert Barron - The Great Army of the Martyrs

Peace be with you. Friends, all during this Easter season we're reading from the book of Revelation, the marvelous and final book of the Bible. So I'm just going to be following these readings all during the Easter season. Years ago when I was a doctoral student in Paris, I was in a seminar conducted by Fr. Michel Corbin, a great medieval theology scholar, a man that eventually became my doctoral dissertation director. And somehow in that seminar, the issue of imperialism came up, the church being imperialistic and domineering throughout the ages. And Corbin said something, I remember his eyes kind of widened and he had a big smile, and he said, "The only true imperialism is the imperialism of the martyrs".

And that really struck me. It stayed in my mind. Because he was saying, yeah, in a way the Christian Church is imperialistic because we're meant to declare Jesus as Lord of all the nations. But we're not imperialistic in that worldly way, imposing ourselves through domination and through military power or cultural coercion. No, the imperialism that we exercise is that of the martyrs, and Corbin's line came to my mind as I reread this marvelous section now from the seventh chapter of the book of Revelation.

Keep in mind, this book was being written at a time of enormous persecution. In fact, the author identifies himself as a prisoner on this penal island of Patmos. Think of these little Christian communities, sort of gathered in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. They had no military power. They had no cultural influence at that time. They were beleaguered little communities under persecution. And who was the great power of the time? Well, undoubtedly it was Rome. Rome in some ways at the height of its powers at this time. Rome dominating the whole Mediterranean world and going far north and going south into Africa. Roman power dominating.

One of the extraordinary messages in the book of Revelation is, and coming from this little beleaguered community and this fellow writing from a penal colony, Roman power is no longer absolute. There's a greater power. The Roman army is no longer the dominant army. There is a greater army, and it's the one gathered around the Lamb standing as though slain. It's the army that belongs to the crucified and risen Jesus. It's a subversive message, but coming from a totally unexpected place, not from a rival earthly power that's saying, "Hey, we got a bigger army than you, and I'm going to fight you on your own terms". No, it's coming from this completely unlikely source, but declaring that the Christian army is greater.

Think for a minute, everybody, the image that comes to my mind is the opening scene of that great movie "Gladiator", remember, with Russell Crowe. And in the opening scene, you see the Roman army led by the general, by Maximus, and it's coming out against this barbarian army in the German forest. But what the filmmaker allows us to see is the Roman army as this war machine, so well-equipped with the swords and spears, and armored with helmets and body armor, but also with all the machines of war, all the catapults and fiery projectiles. And you see, wow, this Roman army, this well-oiled war machine. You see exactly why it was dominating the world.

And think of how these first Christians, I mean, Peter and Paul come to mind, martyred by Roman power. But John is given now a vision in this chapter seven, which puts all of that into question, that proposes a whole different way of thinking of things. I'm going to read to you from chapter seven, just before what we have in the reading for the liturgy. But listen, "I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the Israelites". Then he goes through the twelve thousand from the various tribes, an army of one hundred and forty-four thousand. It's the new Israel raised up and marked with a kind of tattoo on their foreheads.

Now that's a reference that we're not going to get, but in the ancient world, when you joined the Roman army, you were tattooed. You were literally marked in your flesh. You were marked like a brand that you belonged to the Roman army. In fact, go back to "Gladiator," remember Maximus has this tattoo on his arm. Well, here's John getting a vision not of the Roman army, tattooed with a symbol of Roman power, but this new army that's tattooed, as it were, with the seal, the seal of the Lamb standing as though slain. And then what follows, this is our reading for today, listen, "After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands".

Now the one hundred and forty-four thousand, this great army, but then even beyond them, this enormous multitude that no one could count, and they're from, not just Israel mind you, but from all the nations of the world and speaking different tongues. Who are these people? Well, it's code again. We might miss it, but they didn't miss it in the first century. What are they wearing? White robes and holding palm branches in their hands. Those are both symbols of martyrdom. The palm branch, you can see it in depictions of the saints.

In fact, I'm going to show you something. This pectoral cross that I wear, it has a depiction on one side of St. Peter, the other side of St. Paul. But can you see it? All around this cross are the palm branches, because those two figures, Peter and Paul, were martyred, in fact martyred by Roman power. What's being claimed here, everybody? I know all about the Roman army; the author of this book, everyone in his time, they all knew about the Roman army. They all knew about its power, this great war machine. But now in light of the Lamb standing as though slain, in light of Jesus crucified and now risen from the dead, they know there's a greater army. There's a more powerful army.

And see John, in his vision here, is not just looking around at his present situation. He's looking mystically across the ages. Because in his time everybody was speaking Greek, maybe some were speaking Latin, but here he speaks of this crowd from every race and every tongue. There were Christian martyrs to be sure by this time, but there wasn't exactly an army of them. What's he seeing? He's seeing, as I say, across space and time, across the Christian centuries, all those people from all over the world who would give their lives for Christ, and they are the true victorious army. Go back to Michel Corbin. The only imperialism that's legitimate is the imperialism of the martyrs. It's this army of those who are slain for the sake of the Lamb that constitute real power.

So could we fill in this vision a little bit? Who are these people that John sees mystically? Well, you might think of Peter himself depicted here. You might think of Paul. Think of Peter who was crucified upside down in the circus of Nero. When you go to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and you see that obelisk in the middle of the square, that was in the middle of the circus of Nero. People speculate, if that's where Peter in fact died, that's one of the last things that he would've seen. You might think of Felicity and Perpetua some centuries later, these two women from North Africa thrown to the wild animals because they wouldn't renounce their faith. You might think of Sebastian.

As I record these words, I'm in the middle of confirmation season and I'm dealing with all these teenage kids, and they take names for confirmation every year. The most popular name for the young men is Sebastian, or "Sebastián". Sebastian, a member of the Praetorian guard, a high-ranking Roman soldier who found Christ and then renounced the army and lived a life of nonviolence and paid for it with his life. You might think of Thomas Becket, many centuries later, resisted his friend King Henry II's attempts to manipulate the Church and died at the hands of the king's henchmen. Go to the cathedral in Canterbury and see the very site where he was put to death.

We might think of another Englishman some centuries later, another Thomas, Thomas More, resisted another King Henry, this time the eighth of that name, paid for it with his head. You might think of Paul Miki, the great Japanese Jesuit martyr, who like his Master was crucified, dying rather than deny his faith. We might think of the great Padre Pro during that awful time of persecution in Mexico, when the Church was being stamped out. Padre Pro, after working underground, undercover for a long time, finally discovered. As the bullets fly toward him, he says, "Viva Cristo Rey". And that's the same taunting cry, in a way, that the author of the book of Revelation utters. "Yeah, I know about the Roman army, but there's a greater army". Padre Pro, "I know about the powers of the world, but I'm going to declare to you, Cristo Rey, Christ the true King".

We might think too, as we look at that vision that John gives us, this crowd that no one could number from all over the world and all different tongues. We might think of Franz Jägerstätter, the marvelous Catholic resistor to Hitler who was decapitated for his troubles, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Protestant opponent of Hitler, who died in the waning days of the Third Reich. We might think of one of my great heroes, Maximilian Kolbe, from that same terrible period, the martyr of Auschwitz who gave his life in exchange for a man he barely knew. Kolbe saying simply, "I'm a Catholic priest. Take me in his place".

The list goes on and on. Oh, it's a crowd that nobody could number from all different races and tribes and tongues. John is not just seeing around him. He's seeing mystically across the ages to this great army of martyrs. And of course, "martyr" just means "witness," who are witnessing to Christ. They've spoken Greek, Latin, French, German, English, Japanese, Polish, many other languages besides. Think of Charles Lwanga at the end of the nineteenth century, from the heart of Uganda, who gives his life heroically for the faith.

Yes, indeed, John truly saw where real power lies. And see, everybody, here's the challenge. Here's the challenge. And it's a real challenge coming from this book. Which army do we fight with? Because the successor of the Roman army, well, it's all around us today, it's all the expressions of worldly power. Do we fight with that army, or do we fight with the army of the Lamb standing as though slain? Do we join this great troop from across the ages and speaking a myriad of tongues? Do we join this army of martyrs? Can we say, with Michel Corbin, the only true imperialism is the imperialism of the martyrs? And God bless you.
Are you Human?:*