The gospels of the Passion of Jesus are the book of life: See http://www.passionofchrist.us
Today’s the feast of St. Polycarp. Some years ago, I visited Izmir in Turkey where Polycarp, a revered Christian bishop, was martyred about the year 155. The city was then called Smyrna. Now predominantly Muslim, there’s a small church of St. Polycarp in the city and up the mountain is the ancient agora and the ruins of the stadium where Polycarp was burned to death by the Romans.
The account of his martyrdom, sent to other Christian churches by the Christians of Smyrna, is one of the most interesting documents of the early church. Polycarp was an old man. As a child he knew John the Apostle and was a friend of Ignatius of Antioch, another early bishop martyred for the faith. He was also a teacher of Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyon in Gaul.
The old bishop went to his death peacefully and heroically, the account indicates:
“When the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off all his clothes and loosened his under-garment. He made an effort also to remove his shoes, though he had been unaccustomed to this, for the faithful always vied with each other in their haste to touch his body. Even before his martyrdom he had received every mark of honour in tribute to his holiness of life.
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 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. Bound as he was, with hands behind his back, he stood like a mighty ram, chosen out for sacrifice from a great flock, a worthy victim made ready to be offered to God.
Looking up to heaven, he said: “Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself, God of angels, of powers, of all creation, of all the race of saints who live in your sight, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ, your anointed one, and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body, immortal through the power of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among the martyrs in your presence today as a rich and pleasing sacrifice. God of truth, stranger to falsehood, you have prepared this and revealed it to me and now you have fulfilled your promise.
“I praise you for all things, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal priest of heaven, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. Through him be glory to you, together with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.”
When he had said “Amen” and finished the prayer, the officials at the pyre lit it. But, when a great flame burst out, those of us privileged to see it witnessed a strange and wonderful thing. Indeed, we have been spared in order to tell the story to others. 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.”
One small incident occurred on our visit to Izmir I still remember. It happened during our visit to the Church of St. Polycarp, which is today the only Christian presence in a Muslim city. The custodian asked us to sign our names in the visitors’ book and as I did I noticed many signatures in Korean. When I asked about them, the custodian said the church is a favorite pilgrimage destination for Korean Catholics.
Somebody must have told Polycarp’s story in Korea and it must have impressed them there. A missionary priest or sister, perhaps? Heroes inspire us. Who know? But we need more Polycarps.
Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, had his capitol in Tiberias a short distance from Capernaum where much of Jesus’ ministry took place. He certainly knew what Jesus was doing and what people were saying about him. Some said he was Elijah, or a prophet. But what caught Herod’s attention especially was talk that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead.
Herod had arrested John and imprisoned him, probably in his fortress at Macherius near the Dead Sea. Then, influenced by his wife Herodias, who resented John’s criticism of their marriage– which violated Jewish law– Herod had John put to death.
The story told in great detail in Mark’s Gospel is an example of evil, oppressive power at its worst. Herodias’ daughter Salome dances at one of Herod’s bloated banquets and elicits his promise to do anything she asks for. “What shall I ask?” Salome asks her mother. “The head of John the Baptist,” is her answer.
Later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus identifies John the Baptist with Elijah. “I tell you that Elijah has come and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9, 13) Like Jesus, John suffers and is treated with contempt.
The story of John’s beheading by Herod prepares Mark’s readers for the story of the Passion of Jesus. Both stories were meant to help Mark’s first audience, Roman Christians, face the sudden, absurd persecution inflicted on them by the Emperor Nero in the mid 60s. Like Herod, Nero seemed supremely powerful. They could not see it yet, but evil would not have its way. The Son of Man would rise from the dead and be glorified. So would they.
That’s the lesson we should take from this story too. Evil doesn’t have its way.
Today’s scripture reading at Mass from the Book of Maccabees tells of the bravery of Eleazer, an old scribe put to death during the invasion of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes IV in the Second Century BC. All Eleazer had to do was eat some pork to signify he wasn’t “addicted” to his Jewish belief and he was home free. But he wouldn’t do it and so they put him to death.
Here’s how he explains why he wouldn’t give in:
“He told them to send him at once
to the abode of the dead, explaining:
“At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense;
many young people would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar
had gone over to an alien religion.
Should I thus pretend for the sake of a brief moment of life,
they would be led astray by me,
while I would bring shame and dishonor on my old age.
Even if, for the time being, I avoid the punishment of men,
I shall never, whether alive or dead,
escape the hands of the Almighty.
Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now,
I will prove myself worthy of my old age,
and I will leave to the young a noble example
of how to die willingly and generously
for the revered and holy laws.” (2 Mac. 6, 18-31
The Eleazers are still with us. One of the reasons the church will survive is the example of its elderly. I was with some of them last night.
The old churches of Rome are wonderful guides to its Christian past. As a student almost 50 years ago I went through them with books like Hertling and Kirschbaum’s The Roman Catacombs and Their Martrys, a book I still keep at hand along with newer ones.
The 5th century church of Saint Peter in Chains is a church I’ve always associated with the First Marytrs of the Church of Rome, a feast we celebrate today, right after the feast of the apostles, Peter and Paul.
It was built near the Roman Prefecture, where people were dragged in chains to be interrogated, tortured, and made to face Roman justice. The Romans were sticklers for procedure. You had to be tried in court. Many Christians–we are not sure how many–were brought to justice near this church. Those chains above may actually come from the nearby Roman jail.
I wrote about it here , and I have a video you can see here.
Vodpod videos no longer available.