Our Lenten program continues this Thursday (March 10) with a discussion of what it means to speak of God as the “Holy Trinity.” We begin at 7:00 with Stations of the Cross and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. A light, vegetarian supper is provided. All are welcome.
Vibia Perpetua was a noblewoman who lived in Carthage (in what is today Tunisia, in north Africa). Felicitas was a slave belonging to Perpetua’s family. Both were Christian catechumens preparing for Baptism when they were publicly denounced as Christians in the year 203 AD. A rescript of Emperor Septimus Severus had made it illegal for Romans to convert to Christianity. Felicitas and Perpetua, along with three others – Revocatus, also a slave; Saturninus; and Secundulus – were arrested, along with another, named Saturus, who deliberately announced before the judge that he too was a Christian. Before they were taken to prison, all received the sacrament of Baptism. In prison, where the Christians continued to pray fervently together, Perpetua and Saturus both had ecstasies and visions of their deaths. In one Perpetua saw herself ascending a ladder, at the top of which was a green meadow, full of grazing sheep. And in another, she saw a deacon named Pomponius leading her to the arena, and saying to her “Do not fear, I am here with you, and I am laboring with you.” The jailor, a Roman soldier named Pudens, who had gotten to know and to admire the bravery of these Christians, allowed them to be visited by their friends and family. Indeed Perpetua and Saturus wrote recorded their experiences while in prison, and delivered these writings to their fellow Christians, while the accounts of the martyrdoms themselves were written down by their friends who were there (the writings of Perpetua and Saturus, as well as the eyewitness account of their sufferings, were put together, and have survived; they are today freely available in English on the internet). Perpetua’s father, who was a pagan, tried to convince her to deny Christ and sacrifice to the pagan gods, as did the judge at the trial, but Perpetua resolutely refused. Felicitas was pregnant when she was cast in prison, and there gave birth to a daughter, who was adopted by a Christian woman, the day before the execution of the martyrs. Secundulus died in prison, but the other five were, of course, found guilty, and were condemned to be torn by wild beasts at the festival in honor of the emperor Geta’s birthday. When the day came, Perpetua and Felicitas were brought out together, and stripped naked, and scourged. As they were being led away after the scourging, Perpetua covered herself, for modesty, with the scraps of her torn robes, and took time to arrange her hair, because disheveled hair was a sign of mourning for Roman women, and Perpetua viewed her impending martyrdom as the most glorious moment of her life, and wished to look the part. The two were then thrown into an arena with wild bulls, which tore them, but did not kill them. Meanwhile, the men, Saturninus, Revocatus, and Saturus, were scourged and thrown severally before a wild boar, a bear, and lastly a leopard. Saturus went last, and the wild boar, rather than killing the him, turned on its handler and gored him to death. The bear refused to approach Saturus; but the leopard savagely attacked him. As he was being torn by the leopard, he kept crying out “Saved and washed! Saved and washed!” The leopard was called off before it had killed Saturus, and looking up, he saw their Pudens, the jaior standing by. He asked Pudens for a ring, which Saturus took, washed it in blood from his wounds, and returned it to Pudens, saying “Farewell, and be mindful of my faith; and let not these things disturb you, but let them confirm you.” Saturus was taken to the place where Felicitas and Perpetua were lying, themselves torn apart by the bulls, all gravely injured. The crowds called out for them to be finished off, and all three of them stood and walked by themselves to the place where the gladiators waited for them. They exchanged the Peace, as at mass. Saturus was pierced through by a sword, and died. Then Felicitas. But Perpetua, after being stabbed between her ribs, was yet not killed. The young gladiator who had stabbed her began to be afraid, but Perpetua took his hand, and placed his sword at her own throat, and with a final stroke, killed God’s holy martyr. The Christians of Carthage collected their bodies, and placed them reverently in a shrine, where mass was offered, until in the fourth century, when the practice of the faith was made legal, a great basilica (now destroyed) was erected over their tombs. In the late 1800’s, an archaeologist discovered a Latin inscription in the Basilica, which reads “Here are the martyrs Saturus, Saturninus, Revocatus, Secundulus, Felicitas, Perpetua, who suffered on the Nones (7th day) of March”. Felicitas and Perpetua were so admired by ancient Christians, that their names were placed in the Roman Canon of the Mass, and so they are named during the mass to this day.
One of the “Cappadocian Fathers” – the others being Gregory’s brother St. Basil of Caesarea, and their friend St. Gregory Nazianzus – St. Gregory was born early in the 300’s in what is now Turkey. He came from a very devout family, illustratative of how holiness is infectious: one of his grandparents died a martyr, both of his parents are revered as saints (St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia), as well as at least three of his siblings (St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Macrina, and St. Peter of Sebaste). Gregory’s grandmother, St. Macrina the Elder, had studied with St. Gregory the Wonderworker, who was himself a student of the great Egyptian teacher Origen. Gregory of Nyssa studied philosophy early in life, and at the behest of his elder brother, St. Basil, bishop of Caesarea, Gregory was made the bishop of the nearby town of Nyssa. He was a prolific writer and teacher of spirituality. He was present at the ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381, where he was a fierce opponent of the Arian heretics (who said that Jesus was not divine). Many of Gregory’s writings have survived. Some of the most beautiful are his devotional works and commentaries wherein he develops the doctrine of Christian mysticism. Gregory died around the year 387.
These forty martyrs were members of the 12th Roman Legion (called Fulminata – “wielders of the thunderbolt”). The emperor Licinius began a persecution of Christians during his reign, and these 40 Roman soldiers openly professed their faith in Christ and were condemned to death by the local prefect in the town of Sebaste (on the south-east coast of modern Turkey) in the year 320. They were condemned to be stripped naked and left on a frozen pond during a bitterly cold night. A warm bath was prepared on the shore of the lake for any of the Christians who cared to renounce the faith. One soldier did renounce the faith and ran to the baths. But one of the guards set to watch the Christians saw a vision of heavenly light over the 39 remaining, and on seeing this the guard himself immediately confessed Christ, stripped off his robes, and joined the 39 on the lake; and so their number remained 40. When dawn came, the stiff bodies of the Christians (some of whom were still alive) were burned, and the ashes cast into a river. Other Christians gathered the remaining fragments of bones, and distributed the relics to many churches. Hence the memory of the 40 holy martyrs remained alive, and devotion to them became very popular in the ancient Church. Basil of Caesarea (Gregory of Nyssa’s brother), who was a near contemporary of the 40 Martyrs, preached a sermon on the anniversary of their deaths at his church in Caesarea, near Sebaste. This sermon survives, and what we know of the 40 martyrs comes from it.