Contemporary historians have problems with the accounts of early martyrs of the Roman church like Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, Sebastian, Lawrence, John and Paul– all honored in the Roman liturgy and commemorated in ancient churches throughout the city. We’re celebrating Sebastian, January 20, and Agnes, January 21, this week .
In an age that wants facts, real evidence, how much of what is written about these early saints is true, historians ask? One thing I find helpful when considering the early accounts of the Christian martyrs is to remember that Diocletian, the emperor who unleashed the last and greatest persecution of Christianity, wanted to completely obliterate Christianity throughout the Roman empire, so besides putting Christians to death, he tried to destroy all their written records, scriptures, prayerbooks, including accounts of heroes honored in their church. He wanted no record left at all. The emperor succeeded in destroying most of the records kept by the church of Rome.
Stories about the Roman saints were then reconstructed by Christians after the persecutions, and these accounts, instead of looking like court records–a form they often took before– appeared as embellished legends.
What core of truth in these stories should we remember? For one thing, let’s remember that a range of people believed so strongly in Jesus Christ that they died for their belief. Not only popes, like Fabian, deacons like Lawrence, but young girls like Agnes, women like Cecilia, soldiers like Sebastian witnessed to their faith by dying for it.
The historian Peter Brown, in one of his brilliant books on early Christianity, offers an important insight into the martyrs. He says that the Romans were not impressed so much by the bravery of these Christian martyrs–the Romans prided themselves for their ability to die bravely. Rather, they marveled at the vision of another world they revealed as they died. They believed they were entering another world, more glorious than this one, and Jesus Christ was their Lord and Savior, calling them on.
Are legends of martyrs like Agnes, who dies surrounded by heavenly visions and miraculous signs, meant to show a heavenly world already revealed now in this one? I think so.
Take a look at the video on Saint Sebastian, above.