In the year 155 A.D. in the sports stadium of Smyrna in Asia Minor, St Polycarp, the 86-year old Bishop of Smyrna, died as a martyr for Our Blessed Lord. St Polycarp had been taught the Christian Faith by no less a person than St John the Apostle himself. The Christians who were present at the time wrote an account of his holy courage.
Capture of Polycarp
Polycarp was captured in a house not far from the city. He arranged for his pursuers to be given food and drink and asked them to allow him an hour in prayer undisturbed before they left for the city. When he had finished praying, they put him on an ass to take him to the stadium. On the way, Herod and his father took him into their chariot and tried to persuade him to deny Our Lord, saying, “What harm is there in saying, ‘Lord Caesar’, and in sacrificing…and so gain safety?” When Polycarp refused to be persuaded, they threw him roughly out of the chariot.
Polycarp refuses to deny Christ
When he entered the stadium, filled with a noisy, heathen crowd, the proconsul tried to persuade Polycarp to deny Christ. Polycarp refused. The proconsul tried again: “Swear (by the fortune of Caesar), and I will set you at liberty. Reproach Christ”. But Polycarp stood firm and declared, “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior? Still the proconsul persisted: “Swear by the fortune of Caesar”. Polycarp’s response shows amazing, steadfast courage: “Since you are so intent that I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, and since you pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and you shall hear them”.
The proconsul increased the pressure on Polycarp: “I have wild beasts at hand; to these I will throw you unless you repent”. But Polycarp was more than a match for him and he replied, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt what is evil…” The proconsul then threatened Polycarp with death by burning and still Polycarp stood firm.
Polycarp dies for the Christian Faith
So a herald went to the middle of the stadium and proclaimed three times, “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian”. And the crowd shouted out in fury, “This is …the father of the Christians…he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods”. Then they piled wood around Polycarp. Before they set fire to the wood, Polycarp said a prayer to God which ended with these words: “I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son; with Him, to You and the Holy Spirit, be glory now and forever. Amen”. (1)
So by his long life, St Polycarp was able to teach many people how to live their lives as the Apostles had taught him to live his life. And by his death as a martyr Polycarp taught generations of persecuted Christians how to die. (2)
After Polycarp’s death, the Christians gathered his bones which they described as being “more precious than the richest jewels or gold”. They kept them in a place where they might “assemble with joy, to celebrate the birthday of the martyr”. (3) By ‘birthday’ they meant the day of his death, the beginning of his heavenly life. (4)
The example of St Polycarp
And so today, in the Common Worship Lectionary, we remember St Polycarp on February 23rd each year and the Collect (special prayer) for the Day includes these words:
“…grant that we also may be ready
to give an answer for the faith that is in us
and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (5)
So, if people try to make fun of us for going to church, we cannot do better than repeat the words of St Polycarp in that terrible stadium: “I am a Christian”. And we might add, also along the lines of St Polycarp, “If you want to know more about Christianity, why not come to church with me on Sunday?” And always remember that, however difficult things are, Jesus is with us and all the Saints are cheering us on.
Honouring the Saints
After Polycarp had died, there were no Christians left alive who had known any of the Apostles, and it was his martyrdom which saw the beginning of Saints’ Days and the celebration each year of an anniversary Eucharist at the martyr’s tomb. From the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom we can clearly see how these early Christians honoured the martyrs; and within a 100 years it was a normal thing for Christians to ask the martyrs to pray for them. So in the catacombs in Rome there are inscriptions such as these:
“Ye holy martyrs, be mindful of the (pilgrim?) Dionysius”
“Holy Sixtus, think (of me) in thy intercessions” (6)
It is indeed right that we should honour the Blessed Saints for they are honoured by God himself. As Jesus said, “Whoever serves me, the Father will honour” (NRSV, John 12:26), and we know that no one has served Our Lord better than the Saints have done.
Particularly we honour the Apostles because they were Our Lord’s closest friends. As he told them on the night before his Crucifixion, “I do not call you servants any longer, … but I have called you friends…” (NRSV, John 15:15).
But above all we honour Our Lady because God himself has honoured her above any other human being by choosing her to be the Mother of his Son. And as she is his Mother, Jesus too honours her above all others. You will remember that on the Cross she was his last earthly care.
Jesus had no human father. Joseph, his guardian and the husband of Our Lady, was now dead and she had no other children of her own, otherwise she would have made her home with them and not, as actually happened, with St John. Those whom the Gospel calls Our Lord’s ‘brothers’ were probably his cousins. The Jews used the word very loosely, as when Abraham said to his nephew, Lot, “…we are brothers” (Jerusalem Bible, Genesis 13:8). Since, therefore, Jesus was her only Son, on the Cross he gave her to his friend, St John, to look after. “Woman, here is your son”. Then, turning to look at St John, he said, “Here is your mother”. And “from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (NRSV, John 19:26,27). And in so doing Jesus has given her to us to be our Mother too, and we must love and honour her as he does.
We honour Mary, too, because of the courageous support and love she showed Jesus throughout his earthly life – from his birth in Bethlehem and his childhood, through his Public Ministry to his death on the Cross. Then her soul was pierced by unimaginable sorrow as old Simeon had foretold all those years before when Mary and Joseph took the child Jesus and presented him to God in the Temple.
Now, just as in public squares statues are put up in honour of great people, such as Lord Nelson’s statue in Trafalgar Square, so in many of our churches we have a statue in honour of Our Lady who has received from God a far greater honour than we could ever give her, the honour of being the Mother of his Son. A statue of Our Lady helps to make her more real to us, and by treating it with reverence we also show our reverence to her. One way we do this is by lighting a candle before her statue when we kneel down there to ask her prayers. And when we go out of church and leave a candle burning there, we can think of it as still doing her honour and as a reminder of the prayer we have offered. And of course we can do the same before statues of other Saints.
Rejoicing in the faithfulness of the Saints
It is important to remember that when we show honour to the Saints (venerate them) we do not worship them. This is because worship is something we offer to God alone. But we rejoice in their faithfulness to God and we pray that we may follow their example and be loyal to Jesus to the end of our lives.
1. We honour and reverence the Saints because of their holiness and courage and because God himself honours them. In particular we honour Our Lady because God has honoured her above any other human being by choosing her to be the Mother of his Son, and Our Lord has given her to us to be our Mother also.
2. We rejoice in the faithfulness of the Saints and pray that we may be loyal to Jesus to the end of our lives.
1. The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna (2nd century A.D.) cited in Aquilina, M. (2006) The Fathers of the Church. An introduction to the first Christian teachers, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.
2. Aquilina, M. (2006) ‘St Polycarp of Smyrna’, in The Fathers of the Church. An introduction to the first Christian teachers, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, p.67.
3. Butler, A. (edited by Kelly, B.) (1936) The lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and other Principal Saints, volume 1, London: Virtue & Company Limited.
4. Henderson, A. (1920) The lesson of the catacombs, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
5. ©The Archbishops’ Council (2000) Lesser Festivals February. Available from: http://www.cofe.anglican.org/worship/liturgy/commonworship/texts/collects/contemp/february.html (Accessed 21 August 2010) (Internet).
6. Henderson, A. (1920) The lesson of the catacombs, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.