Feast Day: August 10th | Patronage: Rome, Comedians, Archivists, Librarians, Students, Miners, Tanners, Chefs, Chefs, BBQists, Firefighters, the Poor | Iconography: Wearing Deacon’s Dalmatic, Surrounded by the Poor, Holding or Martyred by Gridiron
St. Ambrose tells us our saint story this week. He recounts the final days of the Deacon Lawrence in a work entitled “On the Duties of the Clergy” – modeled after a famous discourse of the Roman Orator, Cicero, “On Duties” – both of them expositions on morality, on what is honorable, virtuous, and right. Ambrose’s work is the first true synthesis of Christian morality, integrating what was good and true with secular moral systems (like stoicism) with Christian revelation and grace. He makes this plain in his opening lines, “Just as Cicero wrote for the instruction of his son … so I also write to teach you, ,my children. For I love you, who I have begotten in the Gospel”. These are words addressed to his young priests, but certainly not limited to them (Augustine would pass this work onto his flock, and it has been promoted ever since as an enduring summary of what the Christian life calls all of us to.
And let us not pass by St. Lawrence, who, seeing Sixtus his bishop led to martyrdom, began to weep, not at his sufferings but at the fact that he himself was to remain behind. With these words he began to address him: “Where, father, are you going without your son? Where, holy priest, are you hastening without your deacon? Never were you wont to offer sacrifice without an attendant. What are you displeased at in me, my father? Have you found me unworthy? Prove, then, whether you have chosen a fitting servant. To him to whom you have entrusted the consecration of the Saviour’s blood, to whom you have granted fellowship in partaking of the Sacraments, to him do you refuse a part in your death? Beware lest your good judgment be endangered, while your fortitude receives its praise. The rejection of a pupil is the loss of the teacher; or how is it that noble and illustrious men gain the victory in the contests of their scholars rather than in their own? Abraham offered his son, Peter sent Stephen on before him! Father, show forth your courage in your son. Offer me whom you have trained, that you, confident in your choice of me, may reach the crown in worthy company.”
Then Xystus said: “I leave you not, nor forsake you. Greater struggles yet await you. We as old men have to undergo an easier fight; a more glorious triumph over the tyrant awaits you, a young man. Soon shall you come. Cease weeping; after three days you shall follow me. This interval must come between the priest and his levite. It was not for you to conquer under the eye of your master, as though you needed a helper. Why do you seek to share in my death? I leave to you its full inheritance. Why do you need my presence? Let the weak disciples go before their master, let the brave follow him, that they may conquer without him. For they no longer need his guidance. So Elijah left Elisha. To you I entrust the full succession to my own courage.”
Such was their contention, and surely a worthy one, wherein priest and attendant strove as to who should be the first to suffer for the name of Christ. … But here there was nothing to call holy Lawrence to act thus but his love and devotion. However, after three days he was placed upon the gridiron by the tyrant whom he mocked, and was burnt. He said: “The flesh is roasted, turn it and eat.” So by the courage of his mind he overcame the power of fire. [St. Ambrose, De Officiis Ministrorum, Chapter 41, Paragraphs 214-216]
– Fr. Dominic has always found the story of St. Lawrence’s martyrdom to be humorously daunting: How can I have the courage to not only embrace martyrdom, but to fearlessly joke with whoever is torturing me: “turn me over, I’m done on this side…”?? Yet St. Ambrose does not propose Lawrence as an “over the top” example of martyrdom, but an exemplar of authentic Christian discipleship. This deacon was willing to obey his Pope, St. Sixtus II, even above his own desire for martyrdom. We will not be asked at our judgement “did you have the guts to be martyred?”, but “did you obey Christ and His Church?” I cannot choose to be martyred, but every day I have the choice to obey fully and joyfully, and only one of those things will determine whether I enter heaven or not. Do I risk asking God what His plans are for today? When someone walks up in need, do I try to evade the request, or see them as sent by God? Am I content with the vocation and mission given me, or do I look elsewhere for tasks, fulfillment, or success?