The Word of God

February 23, 2021 – Optional Memorial of Saint Polycarp, bishop and martyr

For the readings of the Tuesday of the First Week of Lent, please go here.

Lectionary: 225

Reading I – Is 55:10-11

Thus says the LORD:
Just as from the heavens
    the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
    till they have watered the earth,
    making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
    and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
    that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
    but shall do my will,
    achieving the end for which I sent it.

Responsorial Psalm – 34:4-5, 6-7, 16-17, 18-19

R.    (18B)  From all their distress God rescues the just.
Glorify the LORD with me,
    let us together extol his name.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me
    and delivered me from all my fears. 
R.    From all their distress God rescues the just.
Look to him that you may be radiant with joy,
    and your faces may not blush with shame.
When the poor one called out, the LORD heard,
    and from all his distress he saved him.
R.    From all their distress God rescues the just.
The LORD has eyes for the just,
    and ears for their cry.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
    to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
R.    From all their distress God rescues the just.
When the just cry out, the LORD hears them,
    and from all their distress he rescues them.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
    and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
R.    From all their distress God rescues the just.

Verse before the Gospel – Mt 4:4B

One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.

Gospel – Mt 6:7-15

Jesus said to his disciples:
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans,
who think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This is how you are to pray:

    Our Father who art in heaven,
        hallowed be thy name,
        thy Kingdom come,
    thy will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven.
    Give us this day our daily bread;
    and forgive us our trespasses,
        as we forgive those who trespass against us;
    and lead us not into temptation,
        but deliver us from evil.

“If you forgive men their transgressions,
your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you do not forgive men,
neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”

Saint Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr
c. 69–c. 155

The dramatic death of a venerable bishop ends the sub-apostolic age

A Catholic bishop is brutally executed in Turkey. His assassin yells “Allahu Akbar,” stabs his victim repeatedly in the heart, and then cuts his head off. There are witnesses to the act. The few local priests and faithful fear for their lives. The Pope in Rome is shocked and prays for the deceased. Five thousand people attend the solemn funeral Mass. An event from long ago? No.

The murdered bishop was an Italian Franciscan named Luigi Padovese, the mourning Pope was Benedict XVI, and the year was 2010. Turkey is dangerous territory for a Catholic bishop, whether he is Bishop Padovese or today’s saint, Bishop Polycarp. For over a millennium, the Anatolian Peninsula was the cradle of Eastern Christianity. That era has long since come to a close. A few hundred miles and one thousand eight hundred years separate, or perhaps unite, Bishop Padovese with Bishop Polycarp. Whether shed by the sharp knife of a modern Muslim fanatic, or spilled by a sword swung by a pagan Roman soldier, the blood still ran red from the neck of a Christian leader, puddling in the dirt of a hostile land.

The news of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, spread far and wide in his own time, making him as famous in the early Church as he is now. He was martyred around 155 A.D., one of the few early martyrs whose death is verified by documentation so precise that it even proves that he was executed on the exact day of his present feast—February 23. Polycarp was 86 years old when a rash of persecution broke out against the local Church. He waited patiently at a farm outside of town for his executioners to come and knock on his door. He was then brought before a Roman magistrate and ordered to reject his atheism. Imagine that. What an interesting twist! The Christian is accused of atheism by the pagan “believer.” Such was the Roman perspective. Christians were atheists because they rejected the ancient civic religion which had been believed by everyone, everywhere, and always.

The Roman gods were more patriotic symbols than objects of belief. No one was martyred for believing in them. No one fought over their creeds, because there were no creeds. These gods did for Rome what flags, national hymns, and civic holidays do for a modern nation. They united it. They were universal symbols of national pride. Just as everyone stands for the national anthem, faces the flag, puts their hand over their heart, and sings the familiar words, so too did Roman citizens walk up the wide marble steps of their many-columned temples, make a petition, and then burn incense on the altar of their favorite god.

It required heroic courage for Polycarp, and thousands of other early Christians, to not drop some grains of incense into a flame burning before a pagan god. For the Romans, to not burn such incense was akin to spitting on a flag. But Polycarp simply refused to renounce the truth of what he had heard as a young man from the mouth of Saint John, that a carpenter named Jesus, who had lived a few weeks to the south of Smyrna, had risen from the dead after His decomposing body had been placed in a guarded tomb. And this had happened recently, in the time of Polycarp’s own grandparents!

Polycarp was proud to die for a faith he had adopted through hard-earned thought. His pedigree as a Christian leader was impeccable. He had learned the faith from one of the Lord’s very own Apostles. He had met the famous Bishop of Antioch, Saint Ignatius, when Ignatius passed through Smyrna on the way to his execution in Rome. One of Saint Ignatius’ famous seven letters is even addressed to Polycarp. Polycarp, Saint Irenaeus of Lyon tells us, even travelled to Rome to meet with the Pope over the question of the dating of Easter. Irenaeus had known and had learned from Polycarp when Irenaeus was a child in Asia Minor. Polycarp’s own letter to the Philippians was read in churches in Asia as if it were part of Scripture, at least until the fourth century.

It was this venerable, grey-haired man, the last living witness to the apostolic age, whose hands were bound behind him to a stake, and who stood “like a mighty ram” as thousands screamed for his blood. Bishop Polycarp nobly accepted what he had not actively sought. His body was burned after his death, and the faithful preserved his bones, the first instance of relics being so honored. A few years after Polycarp’s death, a man from Smyrna named Pionius was martyred for observing the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp. In just this fashion links are added, one after another, to the chain of faith which stretches through the centuries down to the present, where we now honor Saint Polycarp as if we were seated within earshot of the action in the stadium that fateful day.

Great martyr Saint Polycarp, make us steadfast witnesses to the truth in word and deed, just as you witnessed to the truth in your own life and death. Through your intercession, make our commitment to our religion of long duration, a life project, enduring until our life of faith concludes with a death of faith.

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