Jesus’s words seem not to make sense: “Not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:18). The comment seems to contradict not only common experience—we all go through many a hardship—but also Jesus’s own stern warnings about wars, earthquakes, and persecution: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death” (21:16). What does he mean, “Not a hair of your head will perish”?
Hardship, and persecution in particular, may cause us to question God’s faithfulness. Our world collapses; the darkness draws us in; the end seems upon us—how can we trust the words that Jesus speaks?
Both of the lectionary readings for November 23 (Luke 21:10–19 and Revelation 15:1–4) speak to our doubts and aim to reignite our confidence and trust. So does the example of Saint Clement of Rome, whom the church commemorates today.
Jesus’s paradoxical claims—“Some of you they will put to death” and “Not a hair of your head will perish”—may baffle us. But then the Book of Revelation takes us to heaven, where we see people beside a Sea of Crystal, harps in their hands. These folks are martyrs; though they’ve been put to death, Saint John talks about them as conquerors, people who have overcome the beast and its image (Rev. 15:2–3).
It is a paradox—martyrs and conquerors—but ultimately no contradiction, for it is in and through their martyrdom that they have conquered the beast.
The fight may weary us; in our fatigue, we begin to question the goodness and faithfulness of God. Both the words of Luke and our own experience make us lose heart, for in both we encounter realities—“some of you they will put to death”—that seem to clash with the kindness and mercy of Jesus, who has promised us “Not a hair of your head will perish.”
Saint Clement, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, retells the ancient Greek tale of the phoenix, a mythical bird that, after living five hundred years, dies but then rises from its ashes. Here is how Clement tells the story:
When [the phoenix] approaches dissolution and its death is imminent, it makes itself a nest out of frankincense and myrrh and the other spices; this it enters when the time is fulfilled, and dies. But out of the decaying flesh a sort of worm is born, which feeds on the juices of the dead animal until it grows wings; then, upon growing strong, it takes up that nest in which the bones of the former bird are, and these it carries all the way from Arabia to the Egyptian city called Heliopolis; and there, in daytime, in the sight of all, it lights upon the altar of the Sun and deposits them there, and then departs to its former home.
Clement tells this story around the year 96, shortly before his own death. He reminds us of the Christian application of the ancient myth: “The Creator of the universe,” he says, “will bring about a resurrection of those who have piously served Him in the assurance engendered by honest faith.”
Throughout his letter, therefore, Clement encourages us not to take matters into our own hands but to entrust ourselves to a faithful God: “Let our souls cling to Him who is faithful in His promises and just in His judgments.”
Clement persuades us Jesus can be trusted, in two ways. First, he makes clear that Jesus’s words are not just words. “Some of you they will put to death,” says Jesus. He might well have said, “Some of us they will put to death.” Jesus undergoes his martyr’s death knowing that, nonetheless, not a hair of his head will perish. He is the phoenix who died and rose again. Jesus can be trusted because he did what he said; he enacted his words; he died and lived again. Not a hair of his head has perished.
Second, Clement himself takes up the harp. Don’t we hear him, over many other voices, there by the Sea of Crystal? Clement too was among those who were put to death. He too conquered through his martyrdom. Tradition has it that he was tied to an anchor and tossed from a boat into the Black Sea, just off the coast of Crimea. Pope Clement put his trust in Jesus’s words, and so we hear him sing his beautiful part within the choir of martyrs.
Neither our hardships nor the words of Jesus contradict the truth: “Not a hair of your head will perish.” It won’t, for in our risen Lord, we are phoenixes, rising from our ashes.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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Image by Ted licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.