|"The Martyrdom of St. Peter"|
Jesus speaks to Peter. From church tradition we receive the outcome of His prediction: Peter was martyred, crucified upside down, and his death strengthened and inspired generations of Christians.
But can we understand this word of Christ in a wider sense?
In my profession I provide nursing care for an ever-aging population. The majority of my patients are over 65 years old, disability is the norm rather than the exception, and deathbed care is not new to me. When I hear these words of Jesus, in my mind's eye I see and hear my patients:
"I used to be able to dress myself! I'm so frustrated!"
"I made a mess, I couldn't control it. I'm so ashamed."
"I wish I wasn't such a bother to you." or "I don't want to bother you nurses."
"I don't want you to turn me/change me/wash me/put me in a chair/lay me down in bed."
"I want to go to _______, but nobody will take me."
"My husband (son/sister/etc) died and I can't attend the funeral because the doctors say I have to stay in the hospital."
"I want to go home."
"I don't want to live in a facility."
"I'm crying because I feel like a baby. I used to feed myself and now others feed me."
I hear statements similar to these from my patients on a daily basis. And while we could talk about the proper responses of personal care and medical staff to these crying hearts, I want to take a step back and discuss the cross laid upon the aging Christian.
When we think of Christian martyrs, we think of men, women and children who were killed because of their confession of Christianity. Death is understood to have occurred. But originally, a martyr was simply someone who bore witness. (Derivation from Greek 'martur')
In the West today, relatively few Christians are killed for their testimony to Jesus. Those that are, are in turn blessed with the joys of heaven and an early release from suffering here (though those who survive them surely mourn). Most Western Christians live to old age and die a "natural" death.
But for a Christian, there is always the call to bear witness and there is no escaping martyrdom.
Our elderly brothers and sisters carry a heavy and often unappreciated cross. Many of them bear disabilities, pain, isolation, weakness and dependency virtually silently, and often far more patiently than we of the younger generation bear even minor wrinkles in our schedules. As their bodies deteriorate, these saints are often marginalized from the life of the Christian congregation. They fall ill, we miss them in church for a few Sundays, we offer their names in the weekly prayer, occasionally we hear an update about how they are doing. But how often does the average parishioner take the time to visit or send a note of encouragement to a home-bound or ailing fellow congregant? (I'm as guilty as the next person. I think, "I'm too busy... maybe next week; they probably have lots of visitors and cards.") As I nurse, I see patients who do have lots of visitors and flowers filling the room. But I see far more people who have next to nobody, who are bored out of their skulls, who are frightened and who crave human conversation, warmth, and understanding on a scale that hard-pressed staff simply do not have the time or energy to give.
With no human presence to turn to for comfort, in weakness and debility, in an unfamiliar and harsh environment, stripped of personal possessions and pride, physically vulnerable and dependent on others for basic needs, these saints cling to Jesus. I have listened to hospitalized men and women tell of Jesus, sometimes eloquently, often simply and matter-of-factly, at times even in the grip of dementia. They bear witness in their suffering, despite their suffering.
Do not think that the trials of aging do not sorely press a Christian. This is a time when the inevitability of death becomes ever more real, and, with the clock slowly ticking away the lonely days, feelings of abandonment become harder push aside. Those aches you thought you had at 40 become magnified as your body becomes more debilitated, you lose mobility, and fewer distractions present themselves.
What is pain, abandonment, emotional distancing and confinement but forms of torture to the human body and soul that were made for wholeness, community, love and freedom?
And to confess Christ in the face of torture is to be a martyr.
Our saints, our fellow redeemed by Jesus' blood -- people you know -- are being martyred now in a hospital or nursing home near you:
They used to dress themselves with whatever clothing they wished, in any style they liked, and walk wherever they wanted to go. But now they stretch out their arms (or have their arms lifted by others) and others dress them. And others take them to places they do not want to be...
... and meanwhile, they hold to Christ. And as their bodies wear out and fade away, even on their deathbeds, they confess Jesus...
...and by this kind of death, they glorify God.
Fellow Christian, we are on Jesus' road. We youngsters have just begun the trek. You know what cross has been laid upon your shoulders now, but the shadow of future you barely begin to feel. But Jesus knows and still he tells you to come. If you go where Jesus leads, you will not escape martyrdom. You will become tired. You will wear out. You will suffer. You will die. But even in weakness, in suffering and in death you will have Him and His peace. And beyond it all, eternal life.
And after saying this he said to him, "Follow me." (John 21:19b, ESV)