With the feast of St Justin the Martyr we are taken right to the dynamic first years of the Church’s growth in the Roman Empire. Justin was born in Samaria around 114AD, and was martyred some time around 165AD, during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. What makes his life and witness truly outstanding is the fact that his writings – those which have survived – are among the earliest apologetic writings which have come down to us. In themselves that constitutes a statement worthy of note: from the days when they were written down and first disseminated the writings of Justin Martyr have been recognised as formative, foundational and indispensable. They therefore form a precious body of teaching which demonstrates clearly how these men and women of the Gospel took on the duty of their Christian life by fashioning a vocabulary which expounded their belief.
This invitation to witness to the Gospel by proclamation and explanation – the very ground of apologetics, after all – began with the Gospel’s proclamation by Christ. At no time do we find that it was unnecessary to do without accompanying explanation. It’s fascinating to see in these writings of Justin Martyr – the first and second apologies, and the Dialogue with Trypho – that Justin, almost certainly in concert with his fellow Christian believers, was searching for a way to articulate the Gospel message and Christian belief and practice using the language of his day, the philosophical sensibilities of his day, the way of arguing of his day. This is a clear and recognisable realisation that the Gospel must always find a way of making its proclamation understandable, and this burden lies fairly and squarely with the believers of each age: living side by side with our brothers and sisters who doubt, reject, mock and pillory Christian belief it lies with us to find a language – spoken and lived – which is nonetheless authentic and authoritative.
Of course, what also shines through Justin’s writings for us, looking back at the distance of twenty centuries, is the integrity of the development at this stage of the Church’s belief and practice: already with Justin we find a theology which is grounded in the witness of the apostolic proclamation, and the core of which will never change. Justin’s witness, in his proclamation, is therefore a witness for all times to the truth and transparency of Christian belief. And truth, the single, immutable truth concerning Jesus Christ, transcends the ages.
No better example of such thoroughgoing trustworthiness can be found than in Justin’s statement concerning the celebration of the Eucharist. Here we have, a century after the institution of the sacrament of the body and blood by Christ himself, witness to the faithful celebration by the early Christian community:
There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their consent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
And this food is called among us Εὺχαριστία (Eucharist), of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing (baptism, which Justin has already explained) that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of his word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of me, this is my Body”; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, he said, “This is my Blood”; and gave it to them alone.
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offer prayers and thanksgivings …. (The First Apology, 65-67)
Here was Justin giving frank testimony to those who wished to see the Christians condemned, and laying out, with considerable clarity, the practice of the Christians of that time at prayer. The apologies which have come down to us are marked by their lack of aggression, by their lucidity, by their clear desire to explain in acceptable and understandable terms what it was that Christians were, and what constituted their core beliefs and practices.
Can we avoid the question, challenge even, which is laid before us in the life and example of one like Justin Martyr? There is no hint that he is ashamed of what he believes and what he is. In extraordinary humility he passes on what he himself has received and learned as the basis of his Christian belief. And he presents it, to doubters and mockers, in this straightforward way.
We are always confronted in a person and history like Justin with the personal invitation which each of us must accept that we are all called upon to become apologists for our Christian faith in an era which is marked by no faith. Such a personal obligation arises from the nature of the Gospel itself – it asks that it be preached and announced – but also from baptism: we receive and must pass on.
– Part of our series, Celebration of the Saints –