On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Polycarp, an Apostolic Father of the Church. He was eighty-six years old when he was captured, arrested, and publicly executed by the Roman authorities on this day in AD 156. He was the Bishop of Smyrna and had been a disciple of St. John, the Apostle.
He died a martyr when he was stabbed after an attempt to burn him at the stake failed. This is true Christian martyrdom in the example of Our Lord, St. Stephen, and all the Apostles (except St. John)—death freely accepted rather than deny the Faith. Not martyrdom by way of killing a bunch of innocent bystanders with a suicide bomb wrapped around your waist. Not lashing out with a sword to see how many of the enemy you can take with you to the grave. Instead, a simple refusal to deny Our Lord when tempted to do so and an acceptance of the sentence as meted out by the authorities.
What follows is Polycarp’s famous refusal to revile Our Lord and the account of the prayer he prayed when the authorities attempted to burn him at the stake.
But when the magistrate pressed him hard and said, “Swear the oath, and I will release thee; revile the Christ,” Polycarp said, “Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He hath done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
And when the funeral pile was ready, Polycarp, laying aside all his garments, and loosing his girdle, sought also to take off his sandals, a thing he was not accustomed to do, inasmuch as every one of the faithful was always eager who should first touch his skin. For, on account of his holy life, he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned with every kind of good. Immediately then they surrounded him with those substances which had been prepared for the funeral pile. But when they were about also to fix him with nails, he said, “Leave me as I am; for He that giveth me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.”
They did not nail him then, but simply bound him. And he, placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram taken out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God, looked up to heaven, and said, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before thee, I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption imparted by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before Thee as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as Thou, the ever-truthful God, hast foreordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”
“Martyrdom of Polycarp” from Ceiling of the Church of St. Polycarp, Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey)
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