The Greek word "martyria" - which meant "witness" - appears throughout the books and letters that became the New Testament.
Believers witnessed both in word and deed. Then came persecution. By the time the drama of the early church reached the Book of Revelation of St. John, with its image of the Whore of Babylon "drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus," the word "martyr" had changed forever.
"I'm not even sure we can understand what 'martyr' used to mean," said Fred Norris of the Emmanuel School of Religion in Elizabethton, Tenn. He is the former president of the North American Patristics Society for scholars who study the early church fathers. "Sacrifice doesn't mean much in this culture. ... So we use 'martyr' in a way that's quite silly. We say, 'Oh, she's acting like a martyr,' and we don't even mean it as a compliment."
There was more being a martyr than dying a tragic death and the word certainly didn't imply that someone had a death wish. The key, said Norris, was that the believer refused, in the face of terror and torture, to deny the faith. Thus, a martyr's death was a public witness.
Today, the word "martyr" is highly relevant in Uganda, China, Iran, Indonesia, Sudan and elsewhere. And last week in Littleton, Colo., the story of 17-year-old Cassie Bernall inspired many young believers to embrace the true meaning of the word.
In the days since the massacre, her story has spread worldwide through news reports and the Internet. The details may vary, but no one challenges the heart of the story. Classmates, other Christians and four members of her own West Bowles Community Church youth group witnessed her death in the Columbine High School library.
As the killers in the black trench coats approached, Cassie clutched her Bible and dove under a table. After playing cruel jokes on other victims, one gunman asked Cassie, "Do you believe in God?" She paused. Some witnesses said the smoking gun already was aimed at her.
"Yes, I believe in God," she said. The gunman laughed and said, "Why?" Then he killed her. Other witnesses told Time that Cassie, who a few years earlier considered suicide and bathed in the occult, also said: "There is a God and you need to follow along God's path." Then the killer said, "There is no God," and pulled the trigger.
Cassie's story is especially poignant because of this face- to-face confrontation, her public affirmation of faith and its immediate consequences, said Norris. This resembles the legal trials of martyrs who faced Roman judges. In this case, the believer was tried and executed by a peer who represented, in some bizarre way, a youth culture steeped in violence and death.
At least one other student, 18-year-old Valeen Schnurr, faced this life-or-death question. She also answered "yes," and was shot. She suffered nine bullet and shrapnel wounds - but lived. Others escaped the killing zone with their own physical, emotional and spiritual wounds.
"The early church had a different word for someone who was wounded or tortured and refused to renounce the faith," noted Norris. "This people were called 'confessors' and their wounds served as a witness to their faith. This gave them a special authority and they also served as an inspiration to others."
Only the spiritually blind have missed the symbolism in Cassie's death, as Vice President Al Gore, evangelist Franklin Graham and many news reports have focused on her final words. Preaching from a rough outline scribbled on four note cards, her youth pastor told the 2,000-plus gathered at her funeral that she was a witness before her death, in her death and, now, in the lives she has touched. In a video taped days before her death, Cassie simply said her goal was to be "a good example to non- believers and also to Christians.''
"What the church has talked about for 2,000 years, what every church in this world has talked about on a daily basis, Cassie, you did it," said the Rev. Dave McPherson. In the end, he told the crowd: "The ball is in your court, now. What impact will her martyred life have on you?"