The Fire of Martyrs
One hundred and fifty years after Nero’s fire, Rome raged on in devouring and wasting flames; and amidst the immolating fires of a corrupt culture, there arose a new and nurturing fire of faith and freedom. In a crumbling empire clutching at crumbling gods, malevolence was leveled at those who suddenly rose like pillars of strange, celestial fire against the Easterly heavens. A Spirit burned in tongues within men and women who were hated and hunted, and chariots of fire bore them away whenever hate struck them down to death, causing the love of Christ to leap from their wounds like sparks and ignite the world with life and light immortal.
The peaceful witness of these martyrs of the ancient Church was a wonder of warfare that the pagan world trembled before even as they lashed against it. Though imprisoned and terminated by every means and method conceived in the executioner’s handbook, the Christians of the early centuries after the birth of Christ were indomitable, winning unspeakable victory and a legacy that spread like wildfire. And though the details of many of these forerunners of the faith are scant and scattered, their stories stand through the murk of history like candles, straight and steady, piercing the obscurity, a sacred sign and signal.
Mistress and Slave-girl
The account of two of these faraway, fiery lovers of the Lord is recounted in a diary kept up to their glorious day of death and deliverance. Under the edict of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, imperial subjects were forbidden to become Christian, and, in the initial enforcements of this decree, five catechumens were discovered and imprisoned in Carthage. Their names were Revocatus, Secundulus, Saturninus, Felicity, and Perpetua. Perpetua was a young woman, the daughter of a pagan nobleman married and with a baby boy at her breast. Felicity was Perpetua’s slave-girl, herself with child.
Their arrest was to be a warning to other Carthaginian Christians, and though Perpetua’s father initially put more terrible pressure on his daughter than her captors to apostatize, the young lady stayed firm in her faith, while her loyal handmaiden, Felicity, remained steadfast by her side. Though the dank heat and abysmal darkness of their dungeon terrified them, they clung to one another as they clung to Christ, with Felicity helping Perpetua tend to her infant even in the filth of their cell. At the same time, Felicity agonized over the birth of her own baby, for the law forbade any expectant woman to be hurled to the ferocious animals of the arena, but Felicity burned with the desire to die with her companions.
As recorded in the diary these women and their fellow Christians kept without fail, documenting their trial together, the grace and strength of baptism kept their fears at bay and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit enflamed their hearts with courage. With this supernatural calm and confidence, the prison was as a palace to Perpetua and Felicity, and together they shared visions of the glory that awaited them once their earthly ordeal was complete, visions of them ascending a great ladder to green fields and grazing sheep. Felicity soon gave birth to a little girl in the dungeon and the baby was taken away to safety by her sister, while Perpetua’s mother retrieved her grandson after the final efforts of her husband to turn Perpetua from her faith failed. The hour was at hand for these sisters in Christ.
The Arena of Glory
When the bloodthirsty spectators in the arena of execution saw two young women ushered in to die, all were taken aback by the fiery spirit that blazed in their eyes. Here was not the fear, the wavering, the pleading, the pathetic struggles that they were used to, and which brought them their perverse entertainment. Here was a sight indeed, and a terrible sight it was to see this noblewoman and her servant standing side by side as equals in fate and faith, ready to die for a God whose devotion was greater than any of their gods could claim.
The women were stripped naked after they refused to drape themselves in the garments of pagan priestesses and make a mockery of themselves and their creed. Their tormentors threw nets over their bodies and then fled the amphitheater as a wild heifer was released against Felicity and Perpetua. The crowd roared for slaughter to overpower their shudder at such a spectacle of savagery and bravery.
After surviving an initial period with the beast, the women were taken aside, dressed in smocks, and thrust back in to face the mad cow, who, raging and bellowing, wounded Perpetua, goring her in the thigh. But with Felicity’s help, Perpetua rose to her feet, covering her bleeding leg modestly with her torn garment and resecuring her hair with a clasp that had become loose in her fall. They would die together with dignity and grace and never once would they appear to grieve in their glory. The mob could take no more. They screamed for an end.
Execution and Salvation
The gladiators approached Felicity and Perpetua with swords drawn, but their hearts sank at the sight of these queenly figures they were commanded to cut down. As Perpetua awed these killers, she caught sight of her brother in the crowd, his face twisted with grief, and she famously called out, “Stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not let our sufferings be a stumbling block to you.”
The frenzied onlookers cried out for blood, and these two women, enflamed with the love of Christ, embraced each other with a kiss of peace and prepared to meet their God. The cruel blades flashed with a different fire. Felicity fell. But Perpetua’s noble bearing had been too much for the gladiator who struck at her. His arm faltered and his blow failed. The dying woman reached out and, taking the sword in her quivering hand, she guided it to the place above her heart. The second blow did not fail.
As they had stood, suffered, and perished side by side, so Felicity and Perpetua, these sisters of fire, entered into the heavenly kingdom side by side, with the bright crowns of martyrdom encircling their heads as flaring halos, their souls alight and aflame with the love that shines in the Sun of Righteousness.
A New Age of Martyrs
One hundred and fifty years before the martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua, at the same time that Nero fiddled as Rome burned, St. Paul wrote the burning words, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And so it is to this day, and so do the witness of Felicity and Perpetua stand like bright beacons for our times, and that with fiery relevance. Even as Felicity was black and Perpetua was white, even as our society declines and decays under godlessness and succumbs to lies, even as the times reel with uncertainty and social disorder, we need to be one with Jesus Christ just as much as the martyrs of old did and were.
And that same Christ will save us even as He saved Felicity and Perpetua, and all their brothers and sisters in the fire of His love, giving them the strength to abide the end with every grace of peace and hope and perseverance. There is nothing more that we can desire than this, especially as profane pressures grow tenser, and the murmur of real religious persecution grows louder. A new age of martyrs may very well be upon us. And though it may not be a martyrdom of wild beasts and swords, there are degrees of both surrendering to the secular and standing fast in the faith.
Sts. Felicity and Perpetua, pray for us.
image: Stained-glass window of St Perpetua and St. Felicity (Notre-Dame of Vierzon, France) by Gaetan Poix / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)