Feast Day: March 7th| Mother and Martyr | Patronage: Mothers, Expectant Mothers, Mothers who have lost Sons, Ranchers, Butchers, Carthage, Widows | Attributes: Women standing side by side; Holding Palm of Victory, Cross of Martyrdom; Praying and Singing, Embracing and Giving Kiss of Peace; Attacked by Wild Cow; Halo’s Intertwined; Perpetua holding Sword, holding Son, Dressed as Noblewoman.
Some young catechumens were arrested: Revocatus and Felicity, his fellow slave; Saturninus; and Secundulus. And among these was also Vibia Perpetua—a woman well born, liberally educated, and honorably married, who had a father, mother, and two brothers, one of whom was also a catechumen. She had an infant son still at the breast and was about twenty-two years of age. From this point there follows a complete account of her martyrdom, as she left it, written in her own hand and in accordance with her own understanding.
“While,” she said, “we were still with the prosecutors, my father, because of his love for me, wanted to change my mind and shake my resolve. ‘Father,’ I said, ‘do you see this vase lying here, for example, this small water pitcher or what- ever?’ ‘I see it,’ he said. And I said to him: ‘Can it be called by another name other than what it is?’ And he said: ‘No.’ ‘In the same way, I am unable to call myself other than what I am, a Christian.’” Then my father, angered by this name, threw
himself at me, in order to gouge out my eyes. But he only alarmed me and he left defeated, along with the arguments of the devil.
Then for a few days, freed from my father, I gave thanks to the Lord and was refreshed by my father’s absence. In the space of a few days we were baptized. The Spirit told me that nothing else should be sought from the water other than the endurance of the body.
After a few days we were taken into the prison. I was terrified because I had never before known such darkness. Oh cruel day! The crowding of the mob made the heat stifling; and there was the extortion of the soldiers. Last of all, I was consumed with worry for my infant in that dungeon. Then Tertius and Pomponius, the blessed deacons who ministered to us, arranged by a bribe that we should be released for a few hours to revive ourselves in a better part of the prison. Then all left the prison and sought some time for themselves. I nursed my baby, who was now weak from hunger. In my worry for him, I spoke to my mother concerning the baby and comforted my brother. I entrusted my son to them. I suffered grievously when I saw how they suffered for me. I endured such worry for many days, and I arranged for my baby to stay in prison with me. Immediately I grew stronger, and I was relieved of the anxiety and worry I had for my baby. Suddenly the prison became my palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else. [Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, II-III, Translation by Thomas J. Heffernan, 2012].
I want to dwell this week on that little water-pitcher that Perpetua recorded for us in her diary. The word she uses in Latin is urceolum, a small vase or pitcher, and in the Greek version it is σκεῦος, a vessel of any kind or household implement. The phrasing that Perpetua uses belies her familiarity with Platonic philosophy as well as the New Testament. Of course, this ordinary word, is used in an ordinary way for the “goods” of the house protected by the strong man (Mark 3:27) and later to describe the bowl containing the vinegar offered to Jesus on the Cross (John 19:29). However, it is uniquely associated with an individual in Our Lord’s words to Ananias when He sends him to heal Saul (until then a rabid killer of Christians), “Go, for he is a choseninstrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” [Acts 9:15-16]
Just as a water-pitcher cannot be called something other than what it is (“quam quod est”), so a Christian cannot claim any other identity above the one they have received in Jesus. Perpetua was a noblewoman, a daughter, and a mother, but above all these she was a little-Christ (“Christian”), a daughter of God the Father. Jesus had said that “You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name” [Luke 12:12] and so, even when to claim that identity was the only evidence needed to convict her, Perpetua did not hesitate to take Christ’s name as her own. Her own characteristics – her intelligence, nobility, even motherhood – were not of highest importance, but that she was a vessel carrying Christ. “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.” [2 Cor 4:7-8]
– Fr. Dominic Rankin cannot neglect to point out, following after St. Augustine, that these two saints, named “Perpetua” and “Felicity”, point us towards the “Perpetual Felicity” that they have already received from Christ. We will come to know Felicity next time.