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.
Last week we got to know the beloved, and little, virgin and martyr of Rome, St. Agnes. Let us recall St. Ambrose’s reverential words preaching on her example of Christian virginity (and continue on further into his beautiful homily):
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. … 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.
A new kind of martyrdom! Too young to be punished, yet old enough for a martyr’s crown; unfitted for the contest, yet effortless in victory, she shows herself a master in valor despite the handicap of youth. As a bride she would not be hastening to join her husband with the same joy she shows as a virgin on her way to punishment, crowned not with flowers but with holiness of life, adorned not with braided hair but with Christ himself. In the midst of tears, she sheds no tears herself. The crowds marvel at her recklessness in throwing away her life untasted, as if she had already lived life to the full. All are amazed that one not yet of legal age can give her testimony to God. So she succeeds in convincing others of her testimony about God, though her testimony in human affairs could not yet be accepted. What is beyond the power of nature, they argue, must come from its creator.” [St. Ambrose, “Concerning Virginity”, Book 1, Chapter 2, Paragraph 5, 7, & 8]
St. Ambrose does not make the comparison explicit, but he constantly returns to St. Agnes’ willingly and joyfully going to her death for Christ recalls Jesus’ own patient and uncomplaining acceptance of all the assaults and tortures inflicted upon Him in His passion. Agnes follows the Agnus Dei, her name itself a feminine version of the Latin word for “lamb”. Her life, like the Lamb of God proclaimed by John the Baptist, emulates Jesus’ example in quietly forgiving while being taken to slaughter, uttering not a word in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7.
It was these very words that would puzzle, and then convert, the eunuch of Acts 8, who asked Phillip about whom they referred. Could it have been that this court official of Ethiopia was the first one to carry the Gospel back to Northern Africa where it would spread rapidly West across the continent? Did he begin the proclamation of Christ that would eventually capture the hearts of Tertullian, Perpetua, Felicity, Augustine and so many thousands of saints since?
With these sisters and brothers in the communion of saints, we find ourselves brought back to Tertullian. Not that these he and Agnes ever met, but in an odd twist of history, their lives intertwine. Years after Tertullian’s speech, the pallium became indicative not just of any Christian, but specifically a vestment worn by the great bishops of Christianity. In the East it is called the omophor, and in the West it is still called the pallium. In the Roman Catholic Church this vestment is one worn by the Holy Father as well as metropolitan archbishops (and a few others that he gives it to). It has been simplified to a strip of white woolen cloth marked by 6 (sometimes 5) crosses and is draped around the bishop’s shoulders on top of the chasuble.
The pallium, along with the bishop’s staff (crosier), symbolize for us the primacy of his role as a shepherd of Christ’s flock. He is a man entrusted with feeding and tending some part of the flock of the Good Shepherd (as was Simon Peter), protecting, healing, directing, and carrying his sheep to the safety of eternal life with the Lord. St. Agnes, the Church’s preeminent example of a faithful lamb of Christ flock, has long been thus connected with the pallium.
And thus was born a lovely 500 year old tradition that now takes place every year on the feast of St. Agnes. Two lambs, raised by Trappist monks outside of Rome, are given to the Sisters of the Holy Family in Nazareth who carefully wash and dry the little creatures. They are wrapped up with bows and white veils, surrounded by flowers, and carried carefully from St. Agnes’ church outside the city walls to the Vatican where the Holy Father blesses them. (Funny pictures of this can be found all over the internet!) The lambs will be placed in the care of another group of religious, the Benedictine nuns of St. Cecilia in Trastevere, until they are large enough to be sheared (this happens right after Easter), and that wool is carefully turned into yarn, and woven into the necessary pallia (plural of “pallium”) by the faithful sisters. These are taken back to St. Peter’s and kept near the tomb of St. Peter until the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (June 28th) when the Holy Father blesses these vestments and then bestows them upon the new bishops.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin continues to be amazed at the interweaving, even centuries down the line, of the lives of the saints. Every saints seems to have been inspired, edified, challenged, or encouraged by another saint. Little do we know how big of an impact our sanctity, even small, may have on the Church a thousand years from now!