In the steps of Polycarp
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
PEOPLE in the early Church just could not get enough of stories of martyrs,
and so fresh ones had to be invented. What lay behind the need?
At a trivial level, one might give the answer that every society needs its
heroes, and the martyrs were certainly that.
That the challenge of paganism was met head on, and defeated, was due in no
small part to the courage of those prepared to die for their faith, rather than
worship the emperor or offer some other sign of loyalty to the status quo.
Yet there was also a downside. For there seems little doubt that martyrdoms
were valued in part because they were seen as a very literal following of the
example of Christ, the offering of the sacrifice of one’s life, just as he had
It was not only that the theology was wrong (our flawed offering cannot be
compared to Christ’s), but there was also the failure to appreciate that
imitating Christ does not require identical, but analogous behaviour — whatever
is best suited in one’s own particular situation, which may be quite different.
Two other factors also played their part, more directly relevant to our own
world, and each well illustrated by the two earliest detailed accounts of
martyrdom that we now possess: Polycarp and Perpetua.
The first feature of this vision of martyrdom is the conviction that
identification with Christ can transform our lives, including even those things
of which we are most afraid: suffering and death.
The martyrs gave the good news to the Church that it was not just Christ who
triumphed over suffering and death, but that we all could do likewise.
Polycarp deliberately goes to his death in a literal following of Christ’s
example — riding on an ass. When he gets there, he is tied to the stake “like a
noble ram”, like the sacrificial Lamb whom he is following, only to find that
the flames have no effect on him, such is his confidence in Christ.
Likewise, Perpetua’s story opens by remarking that “instances of ancient
faith” need fresh illustration in the immediate present, and thereafter we are
taken through the story of how Perpetua and her companion were able to face
without trembling what we all normally fear, such was their confidence in
Already in both accounts there is the tendency towards the miraculous that
would become such a prominent feature of later versions. Polycarp, we are told,
had to be dispatched with a dagger because the flames had no effect.
But to smile or laugh at this would be a big mistake. For what we have is a
pictorial way of emphasising a profound and perennial Christian truth: that all
that we most fear, in particular suffering and death itself, can indeed be
overcome in Christ.
There is also a second key element that these two martyrdoms share. Both
writers are convinced that martyrdom brings benefit not only to the person who
endures it, but also to the entire Christian community.
In the case of Perpetua, as she lies languishing in prison, she has a number
of visions. In one vision, she reconciles her priest and bishop, who had
quarrelled and departed this life unreconciled.
The challenge to us today is to appropriate what is best in those early
accounts, whether legendary or actual. Then we will find in Christ our fears
destroyed, and suffering and death not the final victors, but instead a
communion of living and dead in Christ; all being healed and restored through
the active power of that living Lord.
Extracted from Through the Eyes of the Saints
by David Brown (Continuum, £12.99
Bookshop £11.70); 0-8264-7640-6).