Agrippina And The Relative Value Of Family

Agrippina And The Relative Value Of Family June 23, 2024

John Stephen Dwyer: Agrippina / Wikimedia Commons

Many expected the Holy Martyr, Agrippina, coming from a rich family, to fulfill her normal place in society as a wife and mother. She did not want that kind of life for herself. She embraced a different path, that of celibacy. She resisted the expectations society had for her; she wanted greater autonomy for herself, and not have some husband rule over her, so she could dedicate her life to serving Christ the best she could. She, like many other virgin-martyrs, fought against those who turned social norms in regards family life into an idol which must be followed, an idol which not only enslaved women, but had many of them sacrificed if they were unwilling to bow down to it and accept the men their families told them to marry.

Agrippina, continuing her desire to serve as a witness to Christ, presented herself to the court of Emperor Valerian, so that she could publicly declare herself to be a Christian. Because of this, she was taken away, tortured, had her bones broken, and then was left to die from her wounds. If she had not been so vocal, if she had not shown herself resisting social norms, she might not have suffered and died, because, though Christians were being persecuted, many could and did live their lives relatively free from it if they kept to themselves. But she wanted to make a point as she resisted the idolatrous society she found herself in, showing us, likewise, how we should act when we find ourselves in a similar situation. She shows us how many Christian women could be, and were, strong witnesses of the faith, without need of being married, without the need of children to prove to themselves, or the world, their worth. The call to family life is a good one, but Christians know of other callings. To denigrate women for not following an idolatrous ideology because they find they have another calling in their life than getting married and having children represents an anti-Christian spirit which, sadly, seems to be embraced by many Christians today. She bore witness, like Paul, to the glory of God, with a zeal which could not be matched, hoping to show to all, including the emperor, the greatness of Christ and the superiority of Christ and Christ’s ways to temporal glory. Thus, it can be said, she lived out the words Paul used for himself, though in a way which was unique to her own particular situation:

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.  I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened.  For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified (Rom 10:1-4 RSV).

Through her words and actions, Agrippina served as a witness to Christ. While she was mistreated and abused, she was not put to shame. Her righteousness, her holiness, came from her faith and the grace which she received by it, a faith which she lived out, providing us, once again, an example of what Paul said to the Romans:

Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on the law shall live by it.  But the righteousness based on faith says, Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach);  because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.  The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (Rom. 10:5-10 RSV).

We, too, will not be put to shame if we, following the example of Agrippina,  creatively engaging the expectations of Christ. We must follow the Word of God, the Logos, in all things. We cannot merely listen to the Word and then merely exalt the Word through our own words while ignoring the implications of what Christ said. Christ told us that we should love our neighbor, do good to all, including those who wish us ill. He also said we should make him the center of our lives, and in doing so, relativize the value of family, with the understanding if our family wants us to do things which get in our way of following him, we ignore our family and follow him instead. We should support those who are called to a way of life which does not include having a family instead of shaming them and treating them with contempt, for those who treat such people with shame have already put family above Christ. And, if we relativize the family as Christ suggests, we will find many in the world, including those who claim to be Christian, trying to ridicule us, telling us we are selfish, because we reject the way they think things should be. But that just shows they have not paid attention, that their focus is on some legalistic expectation, one which ends up undermining human dignity, as all legalism ends up doing. Their ideology would undermine the glory of virgin martyrs, the glory which said Christ, and Christ’s way, the way of love, is superior to human customs and expectations, and ultimately, must call into question Christ himself, who was not married, and so had no biological children of his own.


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