Joey Spencer is a Tutor for the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture, and serves as the Archivist for the Diocese of Tulsa.← Return to Essays
“For the Glory of God is a living Man, and the life of man is to see God. ”
—Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.7
In the fifth chapter of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius quotes from a letter scholars believe to have been written by Saint Irenaeus. It is a letter written to the Churches in Asia and Phrygia regarding the persecutions occurring in the Churches of Lyons and Vienne. Eusebius includes the letter in his narrative so that the struggles of the saints who underwent persecution and martyrdom for Christ might not be forgotten in the history of the Church.
For Eusebius as well as Irenaeus, the gods of the Roman Empire, and those who persecuted the Christians in their name, were linked with, and doing the work of, the diabolical. This cosmic battle of the diabolical against God and his followers is an essential element in understanding Irenaeus’ view of the persecution of the saints of Lyons and Vienne, and serves as well as a crucial element in Irenaeus’ theology of God’s forming His creation into a “living man.” While it is the Holy Spirit who strengthens the martyrs in their tribulations, it is Satan who puts doubt and fear into their hearts, “striving with all his power, that some blasphemy might be uttered by them.” Just as Christ voluntarily gave His life for the salvation of the world, so also do the martyrs go to their death voluntarily for Christ.
In the paschal mystery, Christ’s death is transformative. Through His crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Christ destroys death, so that man might have eternal life in God. The martyrs go to their death knowing that death no longer has its sting, rather it is a part of God’s plan of redemption through which they will truly become vivified. “We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess. We sow a corruptible body in the tomb, but he raises up an incorruptible body, a ‘spiritual body.’” Only through death can we enter into eternal life in the presence of God. Christ turns death into a new beginning rather than the end. Christ told his followers to “take up your cross and follow me, for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:24-25). To lose one’s life in martyrdom was not to be a dead man, but was to gain eternal life in Christ. According to Irenaeus, we must first die in order to truly become “living Men.” The martyrs knew that in dying for Christ, they were entering into eternal life, and to watch the martyrs voluntarily and joyfully go to their death without a fight was baffling to the pagans.
In order to become a “living man,” one has to have the Holy Spirit and one has to die in Christ. To die the death of a martyr was to give oneself over to Christ, so that through the power of the Holy Spirit, one could be transformed into a living man in the hands of God. When asked why he was willing to turn himself over to his persecutors, St. Ignatius of Antioch gives the answer that, “to be near the sword is to be near God; to be in the claws of wild beasts is to be in the hands of God.” Not only did the martyrs go to their death voluntarily, but also confessing Christ so that they might be strength to others.
One of the Christians martyred in Lyons was a slave girl named Blandina. The martyrdom of Saint Blandina is only one story of martyrdom among many which Irenaeus expounds upon. However, Blandina’s story is unique, in that in its telling, Irenaeus gives us an insight into how, for the Christian who sees with the eyes of faith, weakness becomes strength, death becomes life, and in martyrdom the saints participate in the timeless sacrifice of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Blandina’s story in Eusebius is an excellent example of how through the death of martyrdom, the martyr becomes a source of life for other Christians who see the crucifixion of Christ in their example. Through martyrdom, Blandina fully becomes a “living man,” and as such becomes an expression of the glory of God through whom others are strengthened so that they too might become “living men” through dying in Christ. “For the glory of God is a living man, and the life of man is to see God.”
Holding on to worldly freedom, physical health, or material goods never allows one to be free; the threat of having these freedoms or goods taken away will always be a source of control over the individual afraid to lose them. Christ tells us in Matthew 10:28, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Blandina, a slave in the world, did not allow herself to be a slave to the world; rather she chose to give herself to Christ, allowing herself to be used in any way that God saw fit; like clay in the hands of the Creator, she allowed herself to be formed by God. By doing so she was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Blandina’s persecutors were destroying her body, yet they were being defeated; their goal was to bring her to death, yet in her martyrdom they were becoming her source of eternal life. Blandina chose to die to herself so she might live in Christ, suffering her persecution voluntarily and letting Christ work through her.
Among the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, it was Blandina who most perfectly became the icon of Christ for those Christians witnessing her persecution. Blandina, after suffering many tortures, was suspended on a stake and left to be devoured by the wild animals. Hanging on the stake, Blandina, for those who saw with eyes of faith, became an icon of Christ hanging on the cross. “For as they saw her in the contest, with the external eyes, through their sister, they contemplated Him that was crucified for them, to persuade those that believe in Him, that every one who suffers for Christ, will forever enjoy communion with the living God.”
For those Christians who wavered in the face of persecution, the confession of the martyrs became a source of strength for them so that they were able to reclaim their faith and become confessors themselves. Such was the case when the Phrygian Doctor Alexander stood before his persecutors and confessed the faith. In light of his courage, those who had renounced the faith were once again given the strength to proclaim their faith. This infuriated the persecutors. “The mob, however, chagrined that those who had before renounced their faith were again confessing, cried out against Alexander, as if he had been the cause of this.” Being full of the Holy Spirit, the confessor’s preaching of Christ had an effect on those who had also received the Spirit. According to Irenaeus, Christ’s reclamation, through the confessing of the martyrs, of those Christians who had fallen into apostasy was spiritually devastating to the devil. Hearing the confession of Christ for those who had fallen away was efficacious. They wanted the life that they saw present in the lives of the martyrs, even if they had to die the death of martyrdom to truly live.
It is hard not to imagine that Irenaeus’ experience of witnessing and writing about the martyrs in Lyons and Vienne did not have some impact on his theological writings. The martyrdom of Blandina and her fellow Christians present clear practical examples of Irenaeus’ theological thought, particularly in his theology of the glory of God being a “living man.” And if seeing God is the way to becoming a “living man,” then He is clearly present in the lives and deaths of Blandina and the other martyrs of Lyons and Vienne. May the Martyrs of the Church always be a source of strength for those suffering, so that they too may eventually become “living men” through Christ, entering into the fullness of life in the eternal presence of God.
References & Footnotes:
 The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, trans. Christian Frederick Cruse (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 171.  CCC, 1017.  Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, in The Epistles of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, trans. James A. Kleist, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1946), 91.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.7.  Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 176.  Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 178.