Dying well: A Word for St. Bartholomew’s Day

What are you doing to celebrate St. Bartholomew’s Day?  I’m celebrating by asking God to give me courage to live and die well.

Have no plans for St. Bart’s Day?  Let me tell you a story.

Shortly after the Reformation hit France in 1555, French Reformed Churches were covering the country.  Some estimate that more than 2000 Reformed churches emerged and that half the French population had left Catholicism.  These French Calvinists were known as Huguenots.  As this Reformation advanced, the hostility that existed between the Catholics and Protestants led to an ongoing, bloody “war of religion” during the decade spanning 1562 to 1572.  But on August 18, 1572, some Parisians were hopeful that the bloodshed would soon stop.

Catherine de Medici

The grounds for their optimism was an ethically-dubious marriage of convenience.  On this day, Henry of Navarre (a Protestant) and Margaret of Valois (a Catholic) were married.  Thousands came.  Prominent Catholics and respected Huguenots, who for ten years had been in conflict, descended on France for many days of celebration together.

Unbeknownst to her family, Catherine de Medici, the mother of the bride, was doing more than planning a wedding.  She was plotting to assassinate Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a beloved French war hero and well-known Protestant.  On his early morning walk around the rue de Bethisy, a single shot was fired.  Coligny shifted abruptly, causing the bullet to narrowly miss his vital organs.  His left forearm was fractured and his index finger was lost.

Gaspard de Coligny

When her plan failed and subsequently came to light, the Queen Mother was angrily confronted by her embarrassed 22-year-old son:  “Mother, if you going to kill Coligny, why don’t you kill all the Huguenots in France, so that there will be no one left to hate me?”  Sadly, Catherine heard her son, marking today’s date as a dark day in church history.

During the early hours of August 24, 1572, Catherine ordered the gates of the city locked.  Major thoroughfares were blocked by chains making it impossible to leave the city.  During the night, the homes of Paris Huguenots were marked with white crosses and in the early morning hours, the bells of Saint Germain le Auxerrois, a church near the Louvre, began to ring.    This served as a signal to the armed guards to invade the marked homes, killing their occupants while messengers ran through the streets urging the citizens, “Kill! Kill!  The King commands it!”  Admiral Coligny was the first to die, murdered as he knelt in prayer.  His body was hung from his window.  The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre lasted for weeks.  Bodies, including those of women and children, littered streets of Paris and were thrown from bridges into the river that snaked through the city.  Whole families perished.  Accurate estimates are impossible but it is probable that 10,000 French Protestants lost their lives on this occasion.  1100 were pulledfrom the Seine River.

So, what principles might we lift from this grim chapter in church history?  Here are a few:

  • Death is certain.  (Hebrews 9:27)
  • Gospel people suffer.  Always have.  (Matthew 10:21; John 16:2; 2 Timothy 3:12)
  • No cause exists that is more persecution-worthy than the gospel.  (Acts 5:40-41)
  • God sees.  (Luke 11:50-51; Revelation 2:10; 6:10-11)
  • We are heirs to a bold legacy.  (Hebrews 11:33-40)
  • Martyrdom is real.  Martyrdom is now.  Learn more here.  (Matthew 16:24-25)
In places like Qatar and North Korea and Somalia and the Sudan and Nepal and Indonesia, brothers and sisters will end this day with Christ because they would not deny Him.  May God give them grace to stand in the day of testing.  A few weeks ago, my son, Caleb, returned from a region known for its hostility toward the gospel.  Dear friends are there, seeking to, in John Piper’s words, “spread a passion for the supremacy of Christ for the joy of all peoples.”  A highlight of Caleb’s trip was meeting a humble, unassuming married couple who had endured repeated episodes of persecution because they love and serve the Lord Jesus.  The husband told Caleb, “I am grateful for the persecution for it allows me an opportunity to love and forgive those who would harm me.”  Heroic.
This quiet couple carries the legacy of those in Hebrews 11 who, “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war. . . were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life . . . suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment . . . were stoned . . . were sawn in two . . . destitute, afflicted, mistreated . . . of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:33-38 ESV)
Everyone dies, but some deaths are more tragic than others.  A death brought on by the excesses of Western indulgence is a sad death.  Most American’s do not fear the executioner’s sword.  There is a higher probability that polyunsaturated fat will get them before a Muslim cleric or Columbian cartel.  And that’s a tragic death.

It is no tragedy to close your eyes under the heavy hand of some mortal oppressor only to open them to see, for the first time, the One Whose glory consumed you until your dying breath.  That death is not tragic. In Jeremiah Burroughs’ Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, he quotes the marytr’s life-infusing reminder, upon facing the sword:  “Though we have had a hard breakfast, we shall have a good dinner.”

So, Happy St. Bartholomew’s Day, everyone!  Be bold.  We were made for another age.

This morning, I was emboldened by Sovereign Grace’s treatment of this forgotten hymn by Henri Malan:

It is not death to die,
To leave this weary road,
And midst the brotherhood on high
To be at home with God.

It is not death to close
The eye long dimmed by tears,
And wake, in glorious repose,
To spend eternal years.

It is not death to fling
Aside this sinful dust
And rise, on strong exulting wing
To live among the just.

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