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Friends, today’s Gospel gives an account of Herod’s murder of John the Baptist. John is a proto-martyr, anticipating the martyrdom of many Christians.

Martyrdom has always been an important chapter of the Christian story, from believers in the early Church who refused to sacrifice to Rome’s pagan gods, to great saints of the Middle Ages such as Thomas Becket and Thomas More who refused to compromise their beliefs for the sake of the state, to modern martyrs killed in what St. John Paul II called odium caritatis, “hatred of charity,” such as Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.

In the early twenty-first century, martyrdom remains a stunningly common fact of Christian life. One high-end estimate for the number of Christian martyrs killed each year is one hundred thousand, while the low end is around eight thousand—ranging from one new martyr every five minutes to one every hour.

The example of the martyrs draws people to wonder what it is that would induce so many to make the ultimate sacrifice. The Church Father Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” and it’s a rare case of a theological maxim for which there’s actually empirical confirmation.