Imitate the Martyr

“It is the passion of the most blessed martyr Cyprian that has made this day into a feast for us, and the celebration of his triumph that has brought us together in such a spirit of devotion. But the right way to celebrate the festivals of the martyrs should be by imitating their virtues.  It’s easy enough to celebrate in honor of a martyr; the great thing is to imitate the martyr’s faith and patience.  Let us do the first thing in such a way that we commit ourselves to the second.  Let us celebrate the feast, that we prefer rather to imitate the virtues.”*

In this sermon, Augustine of Hippo preached at the church in Carthage where the great martyr, Cyprian, was buried. By the early fifth century (when Augustine was preaching), the observance of Cyprian’s martyrdom in AD 258 had become an established liturgical event. Later in this sermon, Augustine rebukes some people for celebrating the martyr in worldly ways including dancing and excessive drinking. Notice how he explains the proper manner to observe the festival of a martyr: imitate their virtues. According to Augustine, martyrs are not spiritual intercessors but rather patterns of holy living. Later in the sermon he described how to do this:

“So, despise the world, Christians; despise the world, despise it. The martyrs despised it, the apostles despised it, the blessed Cyprian despised it, whose memory we are celebrating today. You all want to be rich, want to be held in honor, want to enjoy good health; the man in whose memory you have come together despised the lot. Why, I want to know, do you have so much love for what the man you honor like this had such contempt–the man whom you wouldn’t be honoring like this if he hadn’t held it all in contempt? Why do I find you to be a lover of these very things whose scorner you venerate? Certainly, if he had loved these things, you wouldn’t be venerating him.”**

Augustine usually brings the focus on the Christian back to love. He preaches here what he taught in other works: our love determines our true identity and thus our actions. Cyprian became a martyr because he rejected the sinful world and loved God more then men. It would be foolish to observe this festival by doing the opposite. To honor Cyprian we must follow Cyprian’s love and actions. How do we despise the world and love rightly? Augustine concluded:

“The way lies open; Christ is the door. For you too the door was opened, when his side was pierced by the lance. Call to mind what flowed out from there, and choose the way you may enter. From the side of the Lord hanging and dying on the cross, after it had been pierced by the lance, water and blood flowed out. In one is to be found your purification, in the other your redemption.”***

*Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 311: On the Birthday of the Martyr Cyprian, in Sermons III/9, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 1994), 71.  [Emphasis added]

**Ibid., 72.


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