And few Protestants have ever heard about it.
That’s unfortunate, because the tradition has deep biblical roots. Jesus tells us that anyone who would follow him must take up their cross daily. We Protestants have a habit of trivializing that call, equating taking up our cross with a variety of first world problems.
But taking up our cross means dying a death daily as we minister the suffering love of Christ to his enemies. We voluntarily die to our dreams, desires, plans, and hopes.
That means something more than self-denial, however. With Christ we are to say, “Yet not My will, but Yours be done.” It is no longer we who live but Christ who lives through us. Notice: A will is being done, and a life is being lived. It’s just no longer constrained by us. It is truly a life without limits.
It is also a very real form of martyrdom: a death that brings new life through witnessing to Christ. You may think it is a lesser form of martyrdom than the more well-known kind (i.e., violent death in an instant), but which is truly harder: To die in an instant, or to die daily? Each is its own challenge.
And there is yet a third form of death in witness to Christ; namely, death to the world. We give up our place in it: our identity, our rights, our possessions. We live only to him. Jean Valjean’s soliloquy in Les Miserables comes to mind:
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
As I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!
So, why three colors for martyrdom? Because there are three distinct martyrdoms. Each is represented by a different color:
- Red represents Christians who are martyred in an instant, in a violent death while showing love for God and their enemies.
- Green represents Christians who obey Jesus’ command to take up their crosses daily, demonstrating the love of God through lives of self-denial.
- White represents Christians who “die to the world” through temporary or long-term periods of spiritual retreat. Today’s discipleship bases, prayer mountains, and retreat centers give us an experience of white martyrdom.
All Christians are called to be martyrs from the moment we are called to be Christians; the identity is simultaneous. All who follow Christ must be ready to be green, white, or even red, as Christ himself permits.