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In his youth, St. Maximilian Kolbe, the great Franciscan saint and martyr of the 20th century, was asked by the Blessed Virgin Mary whether he would prefer the crown of purity or the crown of martyrdom - in his own words, he writes that "I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both."1
This raises the question in my mind, one I think should be thought upon by every serious Christian - if we proclaim Christ in our lives, are we also ready to proclaim Him in our deaths? In Syria and in Egypt, as I write, Christians are dying for their faith. Are we, in the West, ready to do the same? If ever we were told to renounce Christ or face death, would we do so? And further, if proclaiming Christ in our lives meant our deaths, would we still do it?
I think, in our culture in the West, it is a question that is not much thought of. Though we face all manner of subtle persecutions in secular North American culture, the worst we generally face in any given day is a few mockeries of our faith, or a general sense of derision towards it. But in other places in the world, those who profess Christ are threatened with death for doing so. The martyrdom of Christians has never ceased since the beginnings of the Church, nor do I think will it until the return of Christ. If we look to the great saints of the Church, they speak without fear of martyrdom for the sake of Christ. St. Therese of Lisieux, startlingly, said that "to be a martyr is what I long for most of all."2 But how would this ever play out in my own life? I am terrified of the thought as much as, I imagine, most others who consider it if even for a moment. Fear is a powerful force, if it is allowed through the door of the heart - and though it can be driven out by the sweetness and consolation of Christ, it must be rooted out thoroughly through love, for where love is, there fear cannot be (cf. 1 John 4:18).
Now, with St. Maximilian Kolbe, we find an exemplar in this regard (along with a thousand others). Here we have a Franciscan saint who willingly stood defiant in the face of danger and of evil, for the sake of Christ, knowing it meant his death for doing so.
For the sake of Christ, he endured every punishment doled out to him by the ruthless Nazi guards that populated Auschwitz. For the sake of Christ, he risked death hearing confessions and saying Mass. For the sake of Christ, he expended himself for the sake of others. Because St. Maximilian lived out the Gospel as a true follower and imitator of Christ, he did not even remotely hesitate to offer his life in place of the other prisoner who was randomly selected in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz to die by starvation due to another prisoner's having escaped - again, for the sake of Christ.
There was no hesitation. By his death for the sake of another, he was able to show to the world, even the members of the heartless Nazi regime, that blessed is the man who lays down his life for his friends in imitation of the Master.