Feast Day: January 21st | Virgin and Martyr| Patronage: all Girls, Virgins, those seeking Purity and Chastity, Betrothed Couples, Gardeners, Victims of Sexual Abuse, City of Rome | Attributes: girl with long hair, pictured with a Lamb, holding the martyrs palm, sometimes with a sword at her feet.
I begin today about a century before Agnes was born. It is the year 200 A.D., and we are watching a Roman orator and philosopher speak to a rapt crowd in the city of Carthage (being almost 500 years after Rome defeated Carthage in the Punic wars, they were happy to listen to Tertullian give his speech in Latin. He also may have been born there to a Roman centurion.) He stood before them, though, shockingly appareled not in the regal and authoritative Roman toga, but simply wrapped in a pallium, a cloak or mantle worn by the goofy philosophers of Greece, and the shoddy and scorned sect of Christians.
This, one of his shortest speeches, begins hilariously “Men of Carthage, ever princes of Africa, ennobled by ancient memories, blest with modern felicities, I rejoice that times are so prosperous with you that you have leisure to spend and pleasure to find in criticizing dress… you too of old time wore your garments–your tunics–of another shape; and indeed they were in repute for the skill of the weft, and the harmony of the hue, and the due proportion of the size, in that they were neither prodigally long across the shins, nor immodestly scanty between the knees, nor niggardly to the arms, nor tight to the hands, but, without being shadowed by even a girdle arranged to divide the folds, they stood on men’s backs with quadrate symmetry…” [Tertullian, “De Pallio”, “On the Mantle”, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1.1]
He was veiling in humorous, elegant (if desperately difficult to translate) prose, a serious announcement: I am a Christian. To wear the Christian pallium placed him squarely under the ire of the governors who would only two years later send Ss. Perpetua and Felicity to the arena in that same city of Carthage. Those eminent martyrs we all recognize from their leading the procession of female saints in the Roman Canon. Felicity and Perpetua from Carthage (in Northern Africa); Agatha and Lucy from Sicily; Agnes and Cecilia from Rome, and Anastasia from Sirmium (now in Serbia). It is Agnes we befriend this week.
After discovering her to be a Christian, this 12-year-old girl endured the abuse of her persecutors, eventually being killed by sword-stroke to her neck. Fellow Christians lovingly collected her body, even soaking up the blood of one who had so faithfully poured it out in faith. Her own foster-sister, Emerentiana, would herself be martyred for the reverence she persevered in showing to the body of her foster-sister. Others were cured by their own veneration of the relics of the little saint.
Perhaps the best testimony to how beloved she was to the early Church comes a further century forward in Church history, when another orator steps before a crowd, now with a scene opposite that we saw in Carthage. Now, it is St. Ambrose who begins his speech, and it is about a Christian practice far more startling than a pallium: the life of consecrated virginity. Where would you begin if asked to describe and defend the Christian belief that some are called by Jesus to virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of God? St. Ambrose began with little St. Agnes:
Today is the birthday of a virgin; let us imitate her purity. It is the birthday of a martyr; let us offer ourselves in sacrifice. It is the birthday of Saint Agnes, who is said to have suffered martyrdom at the age of twelve. The cruelty that did not spare her youth shows all the more clearly the power of faith in finding one so young to bear it witness.
There was little or no room in that small body for a wound. Though she could scarcely receive the blow, she could rise superior to it. Girls of her age cannot bear even their parents’ frowns and, pricked by a needle, weep as for a serious wound. Yet she shows no fear of the blood-stained hands of her executioners. She stands undaunted by heavy, clanking chains. She offers her whole body to be put to the sword by fierce soldiers. She is too young to know of death, yet is ready to face it. Dragged against her will to the altars, she stretches out her hands to the Lord in the midst of the flames, making the triumphant sign of Christ the victor on the altars of sacrilege. She puts her neck and hands in iron chains, but no chain can hold fast her tiny limbs. [St. Ambrose, “Concerning Virginity”, Book 1, Chapter 2, Paragraphs 5 and 7]
– Fr. Dominic Rankin will return to St. Agnes, and St. Ambrose, and never-canonized Tertullian next week. Until then, perhaps St. Agnes can stand with St. Therésè of Lisieux as another “little” saint, reminding us that lowliness does not disqualify us from discipleship but rather is a prerequisite for membership in Christ’s Kingdom.