Today the Church celebrates the feast day of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. These valiant young women were martyred in the year 203 by the Emperor Severus in Carthage. St. Perpetua was the daughter of a pagan father and a Christian mother. She chose the path of her mother and converted to Christianity shortly before her martyrdom. St. Perpetua was the mother of an infant and it is assumed that she was a widow since there is no historical record of her husband at the time of her death.
St. Felicity was a slave and 8 months pregnant when she was imprisoned for her Christian Faith. According to Catholic Online, a woman who was pregnant could not be executed until she had given birth to their child, since it would be the spilling of innocent blood. She went into labor a couple of days before her scheduled execution and gave birth to a baby girl who was adopted by a fellow Christian woman.
On the day of their execution, both women were stripped of their clothing and sent out into the arena to face a wild heifer. Afterwards the women were sent in with the gladiators where they died by the sword. Before she met a martyr’s death St. Perpetua sought to strengthen her brothers by telling them: “Stand fast in the faith, and love one another. Do not let our sufferings be a stumbling block to you.”
Lent is a time when we enter more deeply into learning how to die to self. We may not be called to shed our blood for Christ, but we are called to enter into this season of denial and discipline so that when we reach Holy Week we may be even more conformed to Christ and able to enter into the joy of Easter. This necessarily means that the next few weeks are a period of intentional suffering. We choose through our Lenten practices to suffer for Christ so that He can free us from our attachments and show us the path to our true home in heaven.
None of us likes to suffer. We go out of our way to avoid suffering. Most of us cannot imagine what it would take for us to be able to lay down our lives for Christ in the same manner as Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. It is not something Christ has asked of us and He alone provides the grace to endure martyrdom, but He is also the one who provides us with the grace and strength we need to endure and persevere throughout this Lenten season.
In order to experience a more fruitful Lent, it is essential that we enter into the season with an openness and willingness to suffer for Christ. Self-denial is to experience suffering on a small scale. It disciplines our bodies, minds, will, and helps to order our souls to God. Suffering is purifying that’s why a re-ordering takes place within our souls during Lent if we allow God to work within each one of us. Sts. Perpetua and Felicity willingly endured what Christ asked of them. We too are called to accept whatever sufferings — great and small — God may ask of us during Lent.
With our willingness to suffer through penitential practices also comes an understanding that endurance is required of us. In the grand scheme of our lives, six weeks is not a long time, but focused discipline in the spiritual life is a day-by-day process. It requires endurance and perseverance on our part. We must ask God for the grace and strength to persevere through our Lenten penances; especially when temptations become overwhelming at certain times throughout Lent. In those moments when our resolve may fail we can turn to the intercession of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity who know what it takes to endure what is asked of us on the path to holiness.
As we willingly suffer for Christ and persevere through this penitential season, we must stay grounded in our love of God. We are not meant to go through Lent burdened and unhappy. The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday from St. Matthew states:
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
We offer sacrifices during Lent to God because we love Him and we want to learn to love as He does. In order to do so, we must deny ourselves certain pleasures or root out vices. We cannot love as Christ loves and follow Him completely when we are weighed down by our sins. Penances allow Christ to open our eyes to areas where we may need work. He shows us these places within us because He loves us and desires our ultimate good, which is eternity with Him. Offering sacrifices in a spirit of love and devotion to Christ, will make it easier to walk the path to Holy Week.
This does not mean that suffering is not involved or that it won’t hurt when we want whatever it is we have given up. It simply means that we can go forward in hope knowing the triumphant joy that awaits us at the end. Let us be like Sts. Perpetua and Felicity and not allow the sufferings of this Lent to be a stumbling block. May it be a time of spiritual growth through the battles God requires of us so that we may be conformed ever more deeply in the likeness of the Most Holy Trinity.