Dialogue with a Living Tradition: Patterns in the Age of Martyrs – Part 2, Ch 4 of #FOGAP

fogap_coverIn this straightforward chapter, Johnson first reviews how the cult of the saints emerged from the remembrance of the martyrs in living memory, and then contrasts two paradigms of the communion of saints: the companionship of friends evident in the early church, and the patronage model that emerged as the Christian church was assimilated to the Roman culture that was dominated by patron-client relationships.

She begins by presenting evidence that asceticism functioned as preparation for martyrdom in the early church, and that martyrs were seen as “icons of Christ” and their courage and bold speeches as evidence of anointing by the Holy Spirit. (73) She quotes excerpts from several primary sources on martyrdom (one of which I have previously blogged about, Perpetua & Felicity). Christian martyrs were remembered on the anniversaries of their deaths, which were celebrated at their tombs as their birthday into heaven. Spontaneously and informally, people began to leave written prayers at those tombs: “Vincent, you are in Christ; pray for Phoebe.” Fascinatingly, Mary the mother of Jesus received no public veneration during this period, “since she was not a martyr.” (78)

After the age of persecution, those venerated as saints came to include confessors (those who were not killed, but were tortured for the faith), ascetics, and others who were considered by their community to exemplify Christian values in daily life.

These early Christians were in no way confused about whether they were worshiping the martyrs rather than Christ. She quotes from a primary source rebutting just this accusation from the church of Smyrna, whose bishop Polycarp had been martyred:

For [Christ] we worship as the Son of God. But the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord, and rightly so because of their matchless affection for their own king and teacher. May we too become their comrades and fellow disciples. (80)

This evidences the “companions and friends” model that was operative in the early church. But by the late fifth century, the dominant model had become one of patronage, for sociological, spiritual and theological reasons. Sociologically, Christianity was now the official religion of the Empire, which meant that Christian clergy were increasingly assimilated to the Roman patronage system. Spiritually, the emphasis on asceticism as a superior form of Christian life was eroding the radical equality of all the baptized: some were closer to God than others. Theologically — and I think this is the most interesting point — the fight against Aryanism (which denied the full divinity of Christ) had been fought with such intensity and for so long that Jesus’ full humanity had receded from consciousness. My favorite example of this is the Nicene Creed: it wasn’t until I was in graduate school studying Christology that I noticed the Creed affirms that he is consubstantial with the Father… but does not affirm that he is also consubstantial with humans, which is equally an article of faith.

All this led to a spiritual cosmology that resembled earthly aristocracy, shaped by a patronage system: God was king, surrounded by the highest-status patrons as his courtiers; and his mother, who outranked them all (and was the only woman in this elite circle). No one among the ordinary citizenry went straight to persons who had direct access to the local lord; chains of intermediary patrons were the norm. This also led to an emphasis on saints as those who could provide miraculous help, rather than those whose stories inspired and encouraged us; typically your patron was the person you turned to when you needed practical or financial help, and in return you gave them your loyalty and honored them. I was very interested to read that the turn to miracles as evidence of sainthood for non-martyrs emerged at the same time, on the grounds that there’s no use in having a patron who can’t do things for you! This suggests that a turn to the companions&friends model might allow us to move away from the criterion of miracles, which is intensely problematic for many people today & has already been waived or softened in recent years.

It’s very easy to see how the cult of the saints became shaped this way in such a social and spiritual environment. Yet, it is increasingly alien to the contemporary worldview, at least in the West; and it is certainly a source of scandal to our Protestant sisters and brothers. As Johnson notes, if we can see how something emerged in response to concrete historical circumstances, we can also imagine that it might change in response to different historical circumstances. The “companions and friends” model is both less problematic for believers today, and more deeply rooted in the history of the church.


I was particularly struck by how spontaneously intercessory prayer to the saints began, and how late the veneration of Mary began.

Both paradigms are visible in the liturgy today, but I’d argue that the “compansions and friends” strand is stronger. It is present at the Preface and the Sanctus, when we are invited to “join with all the choirs of angels and saints as we sing this song of praise.” I have always loved this image: I imagine the angels and saints there in the church with us as we all lift up our voices to sing “Holy, holy, holy.” However, I must admit that the countervailing patronage paradigm is there in the most recent translation that ranks those angels and saints: thrones and dominions and principalities and whatever else there are.

The other place in the text is after the consecration, when “We hope to enjoy forever the vision of your glory, together with Mary ever virgin, Joseph her most chaste spouse, St (Our Parish’s Patron Saint), and all the saints who have done your will throughout the ages.” Now, that’s the older translation too; the newer one prays “that we may merit to be co-heirs, together with (same list of saints) and all who have pleased you throughout the ages.” That emphasizes more of a present gap between us here on earth and the saints up in heaven close to God. (And of course there are variants; these are the versions I hear most often, but every eucharistic prayer presents this a little differently.)

The most disturbing thing in this chapter for me was the analysis of patronage: “patronage is a system of exchange founded on asymmetrical relations between persons of unequal status.” In this model, the saints are more like God’s flunkies than God’s friends; it sounds like just the kind of thing that James and John were always caught arguing about.

Discussion Questions

– Q4a: Which model of the saints were you raised with? Which is more congenial to you today?

– Q4b: What do you think of asceticism as training for martyrdom, and for the trials and tribulations of more ordinary life?’

– Q4c: Have you ever been confused about praying to the saints vs praying to God? Does the explanation offered by the church of Smyrna make sense to you?

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