The Weakness of God
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
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
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
hereby granted for any non-commercial
provided that the content is unaltered
its original state, if this copyright