I must avow that one of the most powerful statements that I ever heard in my life is an assertion coming from the lips of an 86 year old man. His name was Polycarp. Speaking about him, Saint Ireneus states that “he was not only taught by the Apostles, and lived in familiar intercourse with many that had seen Christ, but also received his appointment in Asia from the apostles themselves as Bishop in the Church of Smyrna,” modern day Izmir in Turkey.
In the year 156, he was arrested and put on trial, accused of the capital crime of being a Christian. The Roman proconsul was reluctant to kill this gentle old man. He tried to dissuade Polycarp from following his conscience. His proposal was very straightforward, “curse Christ and live”. He offered him rewards for his disloyalty.
The saint did not budge. His answer is just awesome. “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I speak evil of my King who saved me?” Extraordinary! For many years, I had it framed in my small Carmelite room.
The proconsul had no choice. He condemned him to be burnt alive. Taken to the amphitheater, filled to capacity with a hostile raucous crowd, “he appeared in a transport of joy and confidence, and his countenance shone with a certain heavenly grace and pleasant cheerfulness”. It is just amazing how God can transform even the most hideous situations into joyfulness! God is awesome.
“When the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off all his outer clothes and loosened his under-garments. There and then he was surrounded by the material for the pyre. When they tried to fasten him also with nails, he said, ‘Leave me as I am. The one who gives me the strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails.’ So they did not fix him to the pyre with nails, but only fastened him instead.”
Just before the fire was lighted, he even had the audacity to thank God “that You have counted me worthy of this day and hour, that I might be in the number of the martyrs…” Jesus Christ changes the whole perspective of life. Martyrdom becomes a gift.
And then God started acting up! He must be so happy to see good triumph over evil! An eyewitness describing his death affirmed that “when a great flame burst out, those of us privileged to see it, witnessed a strange and wonderful thing. Like a ship’s sail swelling in the wind, the flame became as it were a dome encircling the martyr’s body. Surrounded by the fire, his body was like bread that is baked, or gold and silver white-hot in a furnace, not like flesh that has been burnt. So sweet a fragrance came to us that it was like that of burning incense or some other costly and sweet-smelling gum.”
“The example of the martyrs is most valuable” commented once Saint Augustine. “Eloquence may make intercession easy, reasoning may effectually persuade; but yet examples are stronger than words, and there is more teaching in practice than in precept.”
True martyrs are ordinary people like us. They are weak and frightened. But in front of a situation that is obviously unjust and beyond their endurance, they know what they should do. They have learnt a secret. They have learnt to rely on HIM and not on themselves.
This is interesting. The preface of martyrs, for example, that we recite in Mass every time we celebrate a feast of a martyr, does not praise their tenacity or determination. No, it says something else. Listen! “His death reveals Your power shining through our human weakness. You choose the weak and make them strong in bearing witness to You, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
God will never make us super beings. That would be too dangerous for our latent and not so latent pride! God always leaves us weak but He gives us an assurance that when needed, His infinite supply of boldness will always be available. We know that whatever happens, we are always in the hands of God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us so that we may have life to the full even in death.
Martyrdom thus becomes a statement about liberty. By our modern standards, it is atypical to want anything more than comfort, safety and security.
But martyrdom hinges on that gentle awareness that every real Christian carries within him. Polycarp knew something that many fail to make out. Jesus Christ was always faithful to him. He never let him down. He knew He will not let him down now. This gave him a freedom that is unbelievable. The desires, worries, pains and fears of this world no longer conditioned him.
This reassurance converted itself in an impregnable courage. Nothing deterred him. He went the distance. The word martyr properly means ‘a witness’. In the time of Polycarp to be a Christian was a crime punishable by death. In our days to be a real Christian is a crime punishable by ridicule!
But we know it. Victory is ours!
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.