Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

Martyrdom, Penance and the Meaning of Lent

Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs! Truly you are called and chosen for the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord! And anyone who exalts, honors and worships His Glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which are no less significant than the deeds of old. For these new manifestations of virtue bear witness to one and the same Spirit Who still operates, and to God the Father Almighty, to His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to Whom is splendor and immeasurable power for all the ages. Amen. [1]

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas

 

I think it is very fitting that yesterday, the second day of Lent, we celebrate the Feast Day of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. St. Perpetua was born in the late A.D. 2nd century to a rich family of Roman nobles from Carthage in North Africa. Perpetua came from a mixed family, with her mother being a Christian and her father a pagan. In the year A.D. 203, when Perpetua was still a young woman, she converted to the religion of her mother. Perpetua also converted to the Christian faith a slave owned by her family, Felicitas (better known in English as Felicity), as well as a group of others who knew her. Shortly thereafter, the Roman emperor Severus started a persecution of Christians, and it wasn’t long before the Christians in Perpetua’s community were subject to such persecution.

 

Perpetua was eventually arrested, and sentenced to death, refusing the entire time to reject her Christian faith. Her slave Felicity was arrested and sentenced to death with her. Felicity was pregnant, and gave birth in jail, but Felicity was sentenced to death shortly thereafter.

 

The acts of the martyrs – that is, texts that described the life and death of famous martyrs – were popular texts in the early Church. The story of the martyrdom of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity were of particular influence in the early Church. The story of their martyrdom was frequently read during liturgies. [2] Their was a particular devotion to them in the Church of Rome, and they were some of the saints commemorated in the Canon of the Mass (the main Eucharistic prayers of the Roman Rite). [3]

I think there are two messages to be seen by examining Lent through the lens of the story of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. As she was preparing to die, her father tried to negotiate with her to get her to reject her Christian faith, so that she could save her life. Perpetua pointed to a local jug of water and said, “See that pot lying there? Can you call it by any other name than what it is?” Her father then responded, “No.” She then responded, “Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am – a Christian.”

 

What this shows is that the Christian faith is no mere ideology. Anyone who understands the Christian faith will no that Christianity is not merely a set of ideas or a worldview. Human nature was warped by sin, and Jesus, by His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection, came to renew or restore that which had been lost or destroyed through sin. To be a Christian, to accept God’s plan of salvation is actualized in Jesus, is to fully realize what it means to be human: our eyes are opened to the reality of human sinfulness, but our eyes are also opened to the reality that this sin does not represent the way things ought to be. When our eyes are opened by faith, we become aware of what God’s plan for us is, and how the sin that corrupts us is no longer the final say. Man is restored, by grace, to all that he was created to be.

 

To be Christian is not just an ideology, it is not even a way of life; it is an identity. But, even then, it is not a political, cultural, or socio-economic identity, but is an identity that touches at the very foundation of what it means to be human. And this because to be restoration that takes place due to God’s grace is the restoration of the image of God within us. The image of God is what lies at the core of or defines personhood or humanity. This imago Dei, dirtied and damaged by sin, is restored by Christ. And THAT is what it means to be Christian. During this Lent, let us examine what sins we need to deal with, what obstacles take place in our relationship with God and thus our sanctification. As we do so, we begin to realize what it means to be man, what our true identities as sons and daughters of God are.

 

Yet, another thing to learn is that this process of overcoming sin is not easy. Sts. Perpetua and Felicity saw the truth of the Catholic faith, and adhered to it with all of their power. But, it cost them their lives. And this is to be expected. Most people won’t have to die in the name of their faith, but to be a Christian partly includes suffering. When Christ died upon the Cross, He didn’t promise that suffering would go away; rather, He took suffering upon Himself and used it as a means to bring about salvation. All of us will experience hardship at some point. And the more we strive to overcome sin, the more we will have to face suffering, since overcoming sin is literally a battle against sin, and our sinful desires won’t stop until they are either completely conquered or have completely conquered us. Evil cannot be negotiated with. Yet, whenever we suffer – whether it is physical suffering, or the pain of losing a loved one, or the existential and moral suffering involved in resisting sin – let us attach our suffering to the salvific suffering of Christ. And we will find that as we grow closer and closer to God, this suffering will eventually turn into joy.

 

Sources:

  1. The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, from The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, trans. Herbert Masurillo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).
  2. For more information on their life, see, “Sts. Perpetua and Felicity,” published on Catholic Online (accessed on: https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=48); “Saints Perpetua and Felicity,” published on Franciscan Media (accessed on: https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saints-perpetua-and-felicity/); and “Felicity,” on Saints Resources (accessed on: http://saintsresource.com/felicity). You can also check out the diary of St. Perpetua or the contemporaneous (or near-contemporaneous) biography of her.
  3. The mention of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity was universal in the Tridentine (pre-Vatican II) liturgy, a Latin-English translation of which can be accessed here: http://www.extraordinaryform.org/ExtraordinaryFormTextLandscape.pdf. In the Novus Ordo Missae (the post-Vatican II liturgy), there are few different versions of the Canon of the Mass. The one that most closely resembles the Tridentine mass can be accessed here: http://www.ibreviary.com/m2/messale.php?s=liturgia_eucaristica&id=72)

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