Mary, Mother of our Redeemer Chapel
Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary
The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp
Pss. 17, 63
Just over a month ago, several of our classmates — along with 100,000 other Minnesotans and million of others worldwide — demonstrated in the streets as part of the Women’s March, a movement both unto its own and in response to the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. Surrounded by the rich diversity of humankind — people of all genders, all ethnicities, all political backgrounds, all sexual orientations, all levels of ability — I was struck by the sheer power witnessing. Hundreds of thousands of people — all kinds of people — showing up, moving their bodies, and crying out for justice. Not charity. Not equality. Justice. Witnessing for justice.
We don’t really like that word — witness — do we? It smacks of proselytizing. At worst, it conjures up images of forced conversions under colonialism, as was done — and is still being done — to our indigenous siblings right in our backyard. At best, on the other hand, the word “witness” calls to mind the missionaries of certain denominations pedaling around on their bicycles or knocking on our front doors– harmless and quaint, but ultimately inconvenient. In any case, I think we struggle to conceive of ourselves — you and me — as witnesses.
We’re happy to be missionaries — or rather, we’re happy to do mission work. We’re willing to go to North America or Asia or Africa on behalf of our congregation or denomination or order. We’re happy to help clean up after hurricanes or teach children living in poverty. We’re even more happy to simply write a check to Catholic Charities or Jesuit Relief Services and call it a day.
But ask us to witness — much less witness for Christ? — no way. We’re not like that. We don’t do those sorts of things.
Yet that is our calling as Christians, as followers of the martyred Christ. Called to witness for Christ — to make the bold claim: if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar can’t be. If Jesus is Lord, then the President of the United States can’t be. If Jesus is Lord, then injustice, then death, then disease, then the grave can’t be.
And there is dear, old Bishop Polycarp, doing just that. Witnessing that Jesus is, indeed, Lord.
That is, after all, what the archetype of the martyr does. She witnesses. She points to something bigger than herself and, when pressed to the extreme, offers herself up for that thing which is ultimate.
Polycarp’s death is recorded by his followers in graphic and fantastical detail. [Sit back, close your eyes, and picture the dearest, most tender old man bound and standing before the Roman governor, resplendent in his purple and his laurels.]
When the Roman magistrate asked the old bishop to renounce Christ — to proclaim the genius of Caesar, to send the Christians away — he responds so tenderly: for eighty six years — for my entire life — I have known Jesus and he has taken such good care of me. Why in the world would I reject him now?
Polycarp surely knew the consequences for his act of defiance.
“I’ll send you to the wild beasts,” says the magistrate. “To the lions and the bears who will rip you to shreds.”
“Do your worst,” says Polycarp.
“I’ll burn you alive,” says the magistrate. “You’ll roast so slowly that you feel more agony than you could ever possibly imagine.”
“Go for it,” says Polycarp.
“I’ll order you nailed to the stake so that you’d don’t try to escape,” says the magistrate.
“No need,” says Polycarp. “I won’t resist. You can do what you want to my body — send me to the animals, burn me at the stake, whatever — but you have no power over my spirit.”
And so the magistrate does just that. He orders the old bishop to be burned to the death.
But the magistrate’s flames don’t work — not only do they not kill the saint, they make a sweet fragrance — and so a soldier’s dagger fells the kindly old bishop.
The blood which falls from Polycarp’s wound is enough to quench the fire raging around him. “The blood of the martyrs,” writes Tertullian a couple of generations after Polycarp “ is the seeds of the Church.” From martyr’s blood springs community.
Polycarp’s people — the good Christians of Smyrna — gathered around their slain bishop — united together as Church — and collected from the rubble of the execution, fragments of the saint’s bones, the first instances of venerated relics in the Christian tradition. And they committed themselves to gathering annually on this date — on their bishop’s “birthday into heaven” — to commemorate his witness and the Resurrected Christ to whom he always pointed.
And so do we, all these centuries later. We gather together as Church — as a richly diverse people; as people of all genders and orientations and ethnicities and political backgrounds — and we remember saints like Polycarp, like Catherine of Alexandria, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer — saints who shed their blood witnessing the supremacy of Christ over all earthly rulers, over the injustices of their day, who shed their blood calling the Church back to itself, calling the Church to get out of bed with evil, calling the Church to be Church.
I suspect that most of us are not called to offer our own blood as “seeds of the Church” — anyway I pray that I’m not! — but then how are we called to witness — both as individuals and as a community? How are we called to be like Polycarp, like Catherine, like Bonhoeffer and offer ourselves up pointing to Christ crucified and risen?
We are called — each of us, all of us, together and separate — to proclaim with our whole lives — bodily, emotionally, politically, socially, sexually, academically, physically — that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Because…if Jesus is Lord, then nothing else can ever be. Amen.